Against all warnings over how doing so could threaten to tear the United States apart, New York City Democratic District Attorney Alvin Bragg has moved forward with his ill-advised indictment of former President Donald Trump, who is running for president again in 2024.
Trump has responded to the indictment in a written statement on Truth Social, writing on March 30, “Never before in our Nation’s history has this been done. The Democrats have cheated countless times over the decades, including spying on my campaign, but weaponizing our justice system to punish a political opponent, who just so happens to be a President of the United states and by far the leading Republican candidate for President, has never happened before. Ever.”
Trump added that he thought the indictment would help him politically, predicting, “this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden.”
The indictment comes after weeks of speculation that was prompted by Trump himself in a March 18 Truth Social post in which he stated, “THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”
This prompted a March 20 joint letter from Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and House Administration Chair Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) to Bragg, to which Bragg’s general counsel Leslie Dubeck responded that “Donald Trump [had] created a false expectation that he would be arrested…”
Turns out Trump was right. The indictment was coming. It was not a “false expectation” at all. Next will be the arraignment and what Trump’s opponents have sought the most, the mugshot. And then the farce of a trial.
Assuming the nation gets that far.
The truth this, this is a perilous development in our political system, something we have long resisted with notable exceptions like the Civil War, the war in which the most Americans of any war we ever fought perished, 655,000, the last time an extreme polarization of factions in the U.S. spilled over into civil conflict. Are we risking that now?
The mentality to round up one’s political opponents for crimes, real or imagined, is nothing new. But it is also highly dangerous, to the Constitution and to the civil society that makes it possible.
In an attempt to take a broader look at the history of political violence in modern times from the French Revolution and its descendant Russian Revolution, and also the subsequent rise of revolutionary fascism in Italy and Germany, I was recently looking up the origins of the “left” and “right” political lexicon itself and was surprised to learn that it originated with none other than the National Assembly during the French Revolution.
At that point still a constitutional monarchy, those who supported giving the king the power to veto legislation sat on the right, and those opposed sat on the left. Professor Michael Kazin of Georgetown University quoted in a 2019 Time Magazine article noted that in fact the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” would not become used in English language books until the 1920s.
For me this was a revelation, and utterly fascinating, since for my entire life “left” and “right” have always been common parlance in political discourse. But it’s true. If you read through the colonial, revolutionary, federalist, Civil War and early 20th century, you won’t find any “left” or “right” in American politics. The Framers never wrote about it and neither did the political parties all through the 1800s.
To say the “left” and “right” have almost nothing to do with America’s constitutional, federal system would therefore be an understatement. It’s more akin to an alien invasion.
Of course, I am not confusing the “left” and “right” political spectrum, which I had always found to be academically useful, with America’s two-party system, which long predates the left-right lexicon’s apparent adoption here in the 20th Century.
In fact, parties were an anticipated feature of the republic in 1787. Madison wrote about factions in the Federalist No. 10, saying they were a natural outcome of liberty. The Constitution was designed to weaken what Madison called the “violence of faction”, writing: “the numerous advantages promised by a wellconstructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.”
Madison added that the danger factions pose is ever-present, noting, “The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true.”
Madison also warned that attempts to extinguish faction would also extinguish liberty: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
Instead, the process calls for respecting the peaceful transfer of power, and for a degree of self restraint. Madison wrote, “the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented…”
But if self restraint fails, the danger is palpable and must be addressed: “the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together…”
Here, Madison ruled out direct democracy, writing, “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and instead supposed that a constitutional federal republic, composed of states, a bicameral legislature and a president elected via the Electoral College, as envisioned in the Constitution, would be a suitable safeguard against the violence of faction.
But most of Madison’s predictions about pure democracy were shown to be true just a few short years later in the French Revolution of 1789. Whereas the American founding and Revolution were inspired by the philosophy of John Locke, who believed in natural rights, that property owners should govern society and that government should safeguard those natural rights, and the founders themselves only ever voted to go to war in legislature, the French Revolution, on the other hand, was inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rosseau, who sought to overturn the inequalities of outcome from the monarchical systems, found a personal power if not right—he thought rights were conferred by the “general will” of the state—to revolution.
The idea that individual members of society could take matters into their own hands, to wage personal revolution, potentially dragging us back into the state of nature at any given moment, is one that would have repercussions for centuries. In France it would lead to the royalty and aristocrats and any dissidents against the new government being forced into guillotines. Later, as the French Revolution was imported across Europe and then led to the rise of Napoleon, it very quickly devolved into an ill-founded recipe for tyrannies of all sorts, of the majority, of the few and of the one. Whatever served the “general will”.
In Europe, by the 1900s, the political “left” was increasingly becoming associated with socialists and communists, and by the Great Depression, the political “right” was dominated by the fascists and Nazis.
The post-World War I depression and then the Great Depression in the 20th Century enabled totalitarian communism and fascism to gain a considerable foothold over the perceived failures of the liberal democracies and capitalism.
Are we entering into another such time now with today’s current bank crisis of confidence so soon after the last financial crisis of 2008 and 2009? Are liberalism and capitalism once again endangered by extreme ideologies that seek to supplant it?
More startingly, do Americans see themselves as individuals, or as groups of “left” and “right”? Sadly, I am coming to believe that importing this vernacular in the early 1920s has had unintended consequences on American politics since by that time, the terms were being increasingly used by revolutionary communists, socialists and fascists, to the point where I am coming to conclude the ideological camps that “left” and “right” endorse are themselves have become and in fact are a continued source of modern extremism, leading to national peril I fear we will not be able to avoid.
Such that there are unintended consequences here when we imported it and began using this vernacular, given its history being rooted in what turned out to be quite a bloody revolution in France and beyond. I find that in the 20th Century, one of the casualties includes classical liberalism.
The wars that followed also led to the advent of nuclear weapons and authoritarian means of controlling access to those weapons being adopted, including decades of rigging foreign elections, military interventions, domestic surveillance and censorship from the Red Scare and beyond. Tyranny and nuclear terror have followed in the wake of this madness, and the risk remains humanity’s ultimate destruction should these ideological extremes ever reach those who control such weapons in any country.
As I’ve observed American politics for the past 20 years or so, I’ve noted particularly the youth of today who are political appear far more concerned about who is “left” or “right” when they are analyzing public policies, if they care about public policies at all, than they are with upholding the Constitution and individual rights, supporting or opposing legislation, executive orders and/or regulations, or with reading any Enlightenment thinkers whether John Locke, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and many others, which over the years were pivotal in shaping how Americans view liberty and freedom.
The other casualty of seeing each other in “left” and “right” political camps appears to be any semblance of the civil society. All that is necessary for the civil society is to respect what de Alexis Tocqueville called the “reciprocal influence” we have upon one another, but also, to control the danger of what Madison called the “violence of faction” that threatens popular governments at every turn.
When, instead, we view each other as political enemies, in this context, censorship becomes not something to abhor, but something to embrace in order to extinguish the opposition. Political violence similarly becomes attractive as the camps are encouraged to seek out one’s political enemies, often meeting in the streets, as we have witnessed in numerous American cities in recent years. This is dangerous.
We are getting to a point where supposedly serious political thinkers cannot tell the difference between George Orwell, who criticized totalitarian communism, and Josef Stalin, whom he was criticizing, simply because Orwell happened to be a socialist, even though he wrote some of the most important works on individual freedom and freedom of speech in the 20th Century and probably in human history.
Meanwhile, Republicans are mistakenly and cruelly labeled “Nazis” just for supporting Trump or simply wanting to preserve creative freedom in their own works free over what they perceive to be politically driven left-leaning corporate controls.
Many of the political rants we see today might make Joseph McCarthy blush. In comparison, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a legitimate problem of Soviet infiltration and nuclear proliferation, whereas today the divisions I observe almost daily by both sides are more so seeded in a desire to simply silence and extinguish one’s political opponents.
These developments are even more fearsome in the hands of government officials, where we witness the counterterrorism, government surveillance and censorship policies that have been increasing the past two decades are used to extinguish faction but whose collateral damage appears to include liberty and free speech.
I fear we are repeating the mistakes of not just the Red Scare but also of COINTELPRO and other abuses that ultimately led to the formation by Sen. Frank Church of the permanent select committee on intelligence, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was meant to rein these abuse in and absurdly how FISA has ever since been used to do the opposite, especially in the war on terrorism and again in 2016 against the Trump campaign.
These abuses in turn can fuel a desire to work against these polices by regular Americans, but not through debate or proposing and supporting legislation or regulations to rein it in, but with political mobs who feel compelled to take matters into their own hands, whether to stop police brutality or the so-called “deep state”. Just find your enemies and stop them.
Academically, I had always found these terms are useful, but I am coming to believe one of the unintended consequences of importing the “left” and the “right” into American politics a century ago appears to have been to strengthen the power of factions in our system that the Constitution was meant to weaken, making the eventual tyranny of the majority Madison warned against more likely. The political poles are poison.
Just look at how the French Revolution (which was eventually imported by Russia, Italy, Germany, etc.) played out: the “left” ended up putting the royalty into guillotines and “right” ended up anointing Napoleon. Both the communists and fascists were fascinated by the Jacobins and what they achieved through political violence, and both ideologies were anti-liberal. They were obsessed with the “left” and the “right”.
I believe these lexicons can be particularly destructive outside of academia, especially among younger Americans, although I can imagine that in academia they could ultimately become harmful, too.
Either way, Americans are being mobilized to vote, an important feature of our own constitutional system, but they may not understand many of the institutions they often depend on—and importantly that liberty depends upon.
For that reason, I have always encouraged participation in our civil society systems including elections, but also in respecting the peaceful transfer of power, which I felt was thwarted in many respects both in 2020 and 2016—during the ill-fated Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot but also the unwise attempts to remove Trump before he had even taken office in 2017, with false allegations that he had been some sort of Russian agent, leading to government surveillance, criminal investigations and special counsels, only to have Trump cleared of any conspiracy with Russia to hack the DNC and put the emails onto Wikileaks.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report stated, “In particular, the Office did not find evidence likely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Campaign officials such as Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page acted as agents of the Russian government — or at its direction, control or request — during the relevant time period.”
Manafort was brought up on unrelated tax and bank fraud charges and Papadopoulos on a process crime related to his questioning. As for former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, per the Mueller report, “Cohen had never traveled to Prague…” And so, he very well could not have been there meeting with Russian intelligence officials, as had been alleged by the Clinton-paid dossier author, former British spy Christopher Steele. Page was not charged with anything. It was all fake.
And yet it was widely reported and widely believed by millions of Americans, who in the process came to see their political opponents as foreign agents. But neither side is really immune to this. These are failings not of “left” or “right,” but of human nature.
Especially among younger Americans, I am witnessing an increasing trend towards believing that the political system itself is the obstacle to obtaining real political “change,” both on the “left” and the “right,” which to me is a flashing red warning sign on our consoles that must urgently be addressed.
In fact, it’s never too late to see things have gone too far and to turn back from the brink, to use that “reciprocal influence” we all have to control the “violence of faction”. On Jan. 6, 2021, when he saw that his own supporters had broke into the U.S. Capitol, on Twitter, Trump wrote, “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!” Afterward, the riot dispersed. Leadership can make a difference.
And yet, factions have always been a troublesome feature of the American republic. The French Revolution and its aftermath was one of the biggest problems President George Washington had to deal with.
With the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793, in abdicating the treaty with France, America’s top ally, Washington kept the U.S. out of the French Revolutionary Wars. At the time it was deeply unpopular, as France was still highly popular among the American people. But Washington stood his ground.
And then John Jay’s 1794 Treaty with France he made a trade agreement with America’s top adversary, Great Britain, and also settling the question of British troops in North America and the protecting Loyalists who were persecuted after the American Revolution. Washington wrote to Charles Carroll in 1796 that he did it for “Twenty years peace…[to] enable us…to bid defiance to any power on earth.”
Washington was trying to get America’s feet on the ground as a young nation, and to keep us out of the revolutionary wars of Europe. But eventually, the U.S. would succumb to its own factions in 1860. The danger is always present.
It might be worth taking a closer look at the violent “left” and “right” factions that dominated the first half of the 20th Century, because they appear to be gaining traction again today particularly among younger Americans, who appear to be increasingly susceptible to believing their neighbors are political enemies who need to be removed or defeated in some way that usually doesn’t include elections, and who are often viewing videos of political and police violence on a daily basis, thereby imperiling the very foundations of our civil society as politics is being portrayed as some sort of blood sport.
It could be that our own way of observing politics along these poles could be exacerbating it, since by accepting the inclusion of the “left’ and the “right,” we also accept the inclusion of their extremes. We have imported the French Revolution.
Today, we need calming voices on all sides, who can help navigate and bring us back from the brink, including everyday Americans who I often find myself urging participation as they navigate what are often very complex and confusing public policy issues that oftentimes do not have easy solutions and could take years if not decades to fully address and therefore will require patience. But do they have patience?
De Tocqueville once wrote, “if we despair of imparting to all citizens those ideas and sentiments which first prepare them for freedom and then allow them to enjoy it, there will be no independence left for anybody…but only an equal tyranny for all.” Our discourse and our ability to educate one another is all that keeps the civil society intact, and teaches to our children the necessary conditions for freedom.
We’ve already had one civil war in this country, and through this push to take out political enemies, we are absolutely risking another one. We have a civil society, and it is worth preserving, but it can also be lost.
I fear Americans are pitting themselves against one another, and the indictment of Trump is just the latest episode in a theater of criminalizing our politics, a catalyst for a worsening of tensions in a situation that was already very tense. For the uninitiated, viewing everyone as enemies could become an intoxicating recipe for national calamity. We must see the danger before it is too late and we are consumed by it.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government Foundation.
Cross-posted with The Daily Torch
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