The attack on the Capitol was the latest, and most significant, data point supporting the claim that Trump has practiced strongman politics, variously described as authoritarian, fascist, or tyrannical. The strongman thesis was supposed to capture something novel on the right: not its cruelty or racism, which had long been observed by scholars and journalists, but its potential to end democracy itself. For many liberals and leftists, Trump threatened the people’s power to determine their future. While this idea provoked much debate during the Trump years, January 6th seemed to settle it. Even the sharpest critics of the thesis were shaken from their skepticism.
If the fear behind the strongman thesis was the eclipse of democracy, we still have reason for concern—less because of a tyrant looming on the right than because of a paralysis of political agency across the board. The signal quality of Trump’s Presidency was not how unusual it was but how emblematic it was. In all likelihood, the first two years of the Biden Administration will see little transformative legislation and a lot of executive orders. (The stimulus bill may augur fundamental changes down the road, but its most redistributive provisions are temporary and will face major challenges upon their expiration.) [The Biden Administration will] look, in other words, like Trump’s Presidency and all but the first two years of Obama’s. It will mark twelve years of an era in which the call of the voters is answered by the palsy of our institutions (emphasis added).
This is the situation we now find ourselves in. One party, representing the popular majority, remains on the outskirts of power, thanks to the Constitution. The other party, representing the minority, cannot wield power when it has it but finds its position protected nonetheless by the very same Constitution.
We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.
If we want democracy and self-government, we must be willing to get involved ourselves.