From Oliver Cromwell to Donald Trump: Here’s how to stop a slide into despotism | Tom Brier

CLYDE, OHIO - AUGUST 06: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver a speech to workers at a Whirlpool manufacturing facility on August 06, 2020 in Clyde, Ohio. Whirlpool is the last remaining major appliance company headquartered in the United States. With more than 3,000 employees, the Clyde facility is one of the world's largest home washing machine plants, producing more than 20,000 machines a day. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(*This op-Ed was updated at 10:32 a.m. on 9/2/20)

By Tom Brier

The United States Constitution was “written by fifty-five men—and one ghost,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave R. Palmer observed in his 1994 book, “1794: America, Its Army, and the Birth of the Nation.”

Tom Brier (Capital-Star file)

The ghost was that of Oliver Cromwell, the liberator turned despot, who conquered the English monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century before devising a government that, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, combined “cruelty with ultimate inefficiency” to form a tyranny worse than any that had ever existed under the English Kings. 

For five months in the spring and summer of 1787, Cromwell’s shadow lurked inside an austere assembly room in Philadelphia as fifty-five of America’s most reputable statesmen gathered together to draft what would become the most celebrated document in human history.

Indeed, for many of the Founders — and for Alexander Hamilton in particular — the ultimate concern during the Constitutional Convention was that, without adequate safeguards, an ill-educated populace of “malcontents” could be duped “by a Cromwell” and thereby plunge the nation into “despotism.” 

To avoid such a scenario, our forebears adopted two primary solutions. The first was political. To prevent a single person or political body from obtaining complete control over government, as Cromwell had done, the Founders divided political power into three distinct branches—a “separation of powers,” as it were—with the hope that each branch could serve as a check on the others.

As James Madison put it, “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” 

The second defense against tyranny was educational. The Founders believed that for democracy to succeed, its citizens must be taught the proper habits of thinking about citizenship and the common good. If public opinion is enlightened, their thinking went, then it would be far more difficult for the masses to fall victim to a Cromwellian candidate. As George Washington wrote in his first address to Congress, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

By coming together in theaters of learning, Washington wrote to Hamilton, citizens would learn not only “the science of government,” but they would “discover that there was not…cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against the other part.” 

Imagine, for a minute, that you were asked to devise a constitution and construct a government from scratch, just as the Founders were.

How would you view human nature? How much trust would you place in your fellow citizens to elect candidates committed to the common good? How likely would you view the threat of Cromwellian tyranny, and what would you do to prevent it from occurring? What values would you prioritize, and how would you teach them to the masses? What type of society would you seek to create? 

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These are the questions we should be asking ourselves as we head into this year’s election.

President Donald Trump, in many ways, is our generation’s Oliver Cromwell. He ascended to the presidency by soliciting and receiving assistance from a hostile foreign power.

He has destroyed our democratic institutions, distorted our political discourse, and corrupted our electorate. Under his administration, reason has given way to force, and persuasion has been supplanted by propaganda. Death tolls are mounting, inequality is deepening, and legality has taken on the sinister meaning of law and order

Just as the Founders were forced to grapple with the social, political, and historical factors that culminated in Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power, so too must we confront the causes and symptoms of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency.

In my judgment, three issues stand out above the rest. 

First, we must eliminate the role of money in politics. To borrow from FDR, “we now know that government by organized money is as dangerous as government by organized mob.”

The lack of restrictions on campaign spending allowed Donald Trump—who, according to his personal lawyer, ran his business “much like a mobster would”—to spend $60 million of his own money on his 2016 campaign. Whereas Cromwell overtook the government by force, Trump simply purchased it. 

Elections today are won not on ideological merit or political acumen, but on fundraising prowess. Recent studies show that more than 90 percent of House candidates who spend the most in their election bids, win.

This perverse dynamic is incompatible with the language of the Constitution, which does not regard government as a business or otherwise equate free speech with financial means. Any meaningful discussion about fixing democracy, in my view, must begin with passing sweeping campaign finance legislation. 

Second, we must confront the ruinous effects that surveillance capitalism is having on our society. As defined by author Shoshana Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is not simply a technology, but a logic—one “that imbues technology and commands it into action.”

Through an increasingly ubiquitous network of digital devices, corporations and the politicians beholden to them are able to use raw human data—our hopes, fears, personalities, and emotions—to shape behavior to their various ends.

This expropriation of the human experience undermines the individual autonomy necessary for self-governance and fosters what Hannah Arendt identified as the ingredients of totalitarianism: insignificance, expediency, political isolation, and loneliness. Such ideologies, Arendt wrote, engender “a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon.” 

Trump has benefited immensely from surveillance capitalism. To be sure, the success of his 2016 election was due in no small part to his partnership with Cambridge Analytica, the UK consulting firm that used personality-based, “micro-behavioral targeting” to predict and influence voting behavior.

As president, Trump has used his immense reach on social media to sow deep discord and division, creating an omnipresent “us vs. them” reality uncoupled from the truth. To unwind this dystopian dynamic, we must put an end to surveillance capitalism and reclaim authorship over our own lives. 

Third, we must accept the inconvenient truth that Donald Trump’s candidacy was and continues to be fueled primarily by racism. In 2016, the strongest correlate for whether a certain area voted for Trump was the number of searches for the word *N-word on Google.

Like the segregationist George Wallace, the root of the Trump magic is a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly how to motivate the inert minds of a passive, isolated populace—and then doing exactly that, by reducing all of the world’s complexities into solutions that are real simple and assigning blame to “aliens” and “thugs.”

This race-baiting strategy, in fact, is playing out as we speak. Just this week, now former White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway stated during an interview that the “chaos” and “violence” following the police shooting of Jacob Blake is good for Trump’s reelection. 

In the words of George Orwell, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

Living in the era of Donald Trump is disorienting, unnerving, and tedious. To solve our predicament and halt our descent into entropy, we must reorient ourselves in the spirit of the Founders and use the Trumpian shadow of tyranny as a guidepost for reform. Only then can we begin to rebuild our democracy.

Opinion contributor Tom Brier, of Dauphin County, is an attorney and a former Democratic candidate for central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.