The Insurrationalizers, a New Series About Trump Justifiers



When healthy democracies backslide into autocracy, the key players are not only the authoritarian leaders driving them there (the Putins and Erdogans) but also their political allies. Juan Linz called these allies “semi-loyal Democrats” — political actors within a democratic system who, faced with the choice of advancing their objectives or breaking with their allies to preserve the system, choose the former.

The central argument of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that these semi-loyal actors hold the balance of power in endangered democracies. When it comes to elected officials, business leaders, or other powerful figures, their calculations occur behind closed doors. But sometimes we have a chance to watch the rationalization take place in front of our eyes.

Conservative writers frequently make the case for authoritarianism over democracy in their public work. You can see them reasoning their way toward placing enormous powers in the hands of a plainly dangerous figure. The mental gymnastics are sitting there in plain sight, inviting analysis.

I’m starting a series of columns about these rationalizers. The key definition is that the subjects of this series are not explicitly authoritarian thinkers (think Michael Anton), nor are they Donald Trump cultists (like, say, Jeanine Pirro). Instead, I have in mind conservatives who understand perfectly well that Trump is dangerous and authoritarian but have come up with rationalizations to support him anyway.

The first subject in the series is Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer Barton Swaim.

There is a certain kind of pedantic argument one encounters, usually with college undergraduates. The method is to argue that we shouldn’t care about a value because that value can’t be defined precisely. Today, Barton Swaim argues in The Wall Street Journal that it’s silly for the Biden campaign to argue that the presidential election is about democracy, because what is “democracy,” anyway?

Swaim begins with a return to high-school civics. “A democracy, when I was taught civics in the 1980s, was distinguishable from a republic. In a strict democracy, every citizen is asked to vote on every important public question.” If that is what Swaim was taught in high school, his civics teacher was probably very bad. In ancient Greece, democracy meant “direct democracy,” in which citizens made governing decisions through plebiscite.

But direct democracy can only work in very small communities. In the context of a large nation-state, we use representative democracy. That means electing officials who are accountable to the public. If Swaim is familiar with this idea, he does not mention it in his column. So either he genuinely believes democracy can only describe direct plebiscites, where citizens gather to debate and vote on every policy matter like they did in ancient Athens, or he is pretending not to understand the concept so that he can ignore the obvious ways it pertains to the 2024 election.

Swaim proceeds to go through different meanings of the term “democracy” employed by different people at different times. Progressives meant one thing by “democracy,” communists another, and so on. He notes that many liberals cite democracy as an argument for making the American political system more democratic by eliminating counter-majoritarian institutions such as the Electoral College and the filibuster.

These debates are interesting. However, they are all beside the point, because the reason democracy is a central theme of the 2024 election is that Donald Trump hates democracy.

Trump, however, does not figure into Swaim’s analysis. Trump’s name appears once: “​​Democracy as an ideal roared back with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Suddenly it was being attacked.” So liberals started nattering on about democracy after Trump won the 2016 election, and became obsessed with it for some reason. After this brief appearance, Trump disappears from Swaim’s narrative.

Swaim does not mention the fact that Trump tried to stay in office despite losing his election. There is no reference to the postelection coup attempt or January 6. How can you write an entire column about people who think the 2024 election is about democracy without even mentioning the fact that one of the candidates in the election tried to end democracy?

The Swaim argument is that, because Democrats supposedly define democracy too broadly, nobody else has to care about it. “For Mr. Biden and his sympathetic listeners, democracy means things that are good and not things that are bad.” Therefore, he concludes, “Maybe the 2024 election is about democracy. If it is, it’s about nothing.” You don’t define democracy as precisely as Swaim would prefer, so he is just going to support the candidate who thinks presidents don’t have to follow laws and will try to overturn any election he loses.


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