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Poli Sci 101: The course Trumpers didn’t take 

Despite their many flaws, the Founders of our republic were working to build a future with fewer tyrants and more freedom, rather than one full of tyrants in which everyone is afraid.

President Donald Trump speaking during a rally prior to the rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
President Donald Trump speaking during a rally prior to the rioting at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Malignant cynicism about government was the coin of the realm under Donald Trump. It took only a few incendiary speeches – one by Trump himself – to trigger a confident mob that, in undertaking an insurrection in our nation’s capital, expected no real comeuppance.

The mob was not entirely wrong. Sure, the most violent brutes will be held accountable. But as long as Trumpism survives, its leaders will shroud themselves in the First Amendment to portray the future as our worst nightmare and the past as perfection. This is the opposite of what true patriots set out to do in 1787. Despite their many flaws, the Founders of our republic were working to build a future with fewer tyrants and more freedom, rather than one full of tyrants in which everyone is afraid. That is Political Science 101, the course Trumpers didn’t take.

Trump’s devotion to the past is powerful stuff. Conservative media has been working this theme for years. Trump amped up the fear of immigrants, women (especially powerful ones), minorities, liberals, and even the disabled to a level that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh could not have imagined. The message is simple: Enjoy the horror show, but make sure you pay the orange-haired guy your fare for scaring the bejeebers out of you (credit cards accepted).

A unity that never was

Ezra Klein presents a clearer view of the past in “Why We’re Polarized.” He explains how the right’s fawning over the past disguises a unity that never was. Problems like racism, homophobia and spousal abuse were hidden, not confronted. Rather than recognizing our divides, creating imperfect albeit functional policies, we stuck our heads in the sand. Klein writes: “The alternative to polarization often isn’t consensus but suppression. We don’t argue over the problems we don’t discuss. But we don’t solve them either.”

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In other words, the white power of the past was perfectly happy with unity – E Pluribus Unum – so long as they weren’t inconvenienced.

Several of Minnesota’s GOP are on board. At the St. Paul “Storm the Capitol” rally on Jan. 6, an overwhelmingly white crowd gathered to protest the Biden/Harris victory. Not with facts, but with a wide range of accusations led by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, Rep. Eric Lucero, and Rep. Mary Franson. It was a boorish partisan attack on Secretary of State Steve Simon, state judges, and Gov. Tim Walz.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen shifted the partisan blame fest into a historical melodrama in one sentence. He shouted, “This is a cultural war on what direction our country is going to go!” If the rhetoric wasn’t hot enough, event organizer Alley Waterbury, screamed, “I’ll be one of the first casualties, I don’t care!”

That is what Klein was talking about. It’s not just that Trumpers are drawn to an imaginary past, it’s that they also see the future as a battleground. Like the blustering Sampson in Romeo and Juliet, Trumpers may just as well be saying, “I will show myself a tyrant: When I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.”

Hyperbolic anger should not be confused with truth. Timothy Snyder warns us in “On Tyranny” that “democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. … You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” Facts matter when it comes to protecting democracy from tyrants.

Protecting from tyranny

James Madison was an expert on tyranny.

He created a taxonomy on it. Therein, the most blatant form of tyranny comes from an abusive government. In Madison’s day, having a tyrant in the presidency was a real fear. The Founders had already felt the abuse of King George III and they didn’t want a repeat performance at home. They discouraged future tyrants through constitutional doctrines, such as separation of powers, checks and balances, representative elections, and the rule of law. Madison and the real patriots did not have delusions about the violence of their own history, so they put their lives on the line to make life harder for tyrants and to create a better future.

photo of article author
Darrell Downs
I can only imagine Madison’s disgust watching the Capitol rioters wearing Patrick Henry costumes while hoisting confederate flags and demanding “freedom” like extras in “Braveheart” because the most authoritarian tyrant in modern history lost the election.

Thankfully, our basic institutions remain intact and they still stand against tyranny. The courts checked Trump’s and Rudy Giuliani’s baseless efforts to overturn the election; Congress issued its second impeachment of Trump; and new leadership was installed on Wednesday. Our institutions are far from perfect, however. Black Lives Matter arose from actual abuse by law enforcement officers and inequities in criminal sentencing while too many lawmakers looked the other way. George Floyd’s killing by police (and all those before and since) revealed a deeper crack in our institutions than any insurrection by wannabe patriots.

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Tyranny outside government

Madison’s second form of tyranny is that by an elite outside of government. Rich by privilege, property, position, or race, some people enjoy more wealth and deference than they deserve. This divide between the rich and the poor keeps growing, matched only by racial gaps in educational success, health care, and policing. Minnesota has nothing to be proud of here. Income inequality in Minnesota has increased over the past decade, with Black Minnesotans suffering the worst. This too is a tyranny that thrives on old privilege, that feels threatened by a fairer future.

The last form of Madison’s tyranny was that of a mob. We saw plenty of that on Jan. 6. According to Madison, such a mob may “clog the administration, it may convulse society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the constitution.”

There will be many calls for a return to unity in the days and months ahead. We would be well-advised to ask ourselves if the push for unity is intended to merely turn back the clock, or whether we can unify with Madison against all forms of tyranny.

Darrell Downs, Ph.D., is a professor in political science at Winona State University. He is a past president of the WSU Faculty Association.


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