Keeping the Republic is hard work | Editorial Columnists | – The Daily Advance

Posted By on May 8, 2021

James McHenry was a Maryland delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He had been at the home of prominent socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel, which had become a prominent intellectual salon, especially during the heady days of the Convention.

The most popular guest of Mrs. Powels was Benjamin Franklin. One evening, according to McHenrys notes, A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.

This quote -- a republic if you can keep it -- enjoyed major hit status last January during the impeachment proceedings. Mrs. Powell was never given credit for asking the setup question. And usually, the quote was located, wrongly, on the steps outside the Convention on its last day.

And never did we hear the rest of the story. Upon hearing Franklins witty mark about the hard work of keeping the republic, the salonnire Mrs. Powell asked the next logical question:

And why not keep it?

Franklin responds: Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.

The dish to which he was referring was sheer naked power. When George Washington was elected the first president, Franklin wrote that The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.

Thats not all. He continues: The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.

Here is where I part company with Franklin. We dont have to worry much about a monarchy. But we always have to worry about the strong man, about authoritarianism.

I wish people, in general, would be more concerned about authoritarianism than socialism or state communism (and no, these two things are not at all the same). Much as I despise the latter, the particular horror of Stalin was not so much his communism but his despotic and totalitarian reign of terror.

Authoritarianism has done more damage in history than any other ideology. Folks can complain about liberalism (or conservatism) all they want, but nothing has done more bloodletting in history than autocrats like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Il Duce, Franco, and Pinochet (to name a few).

These authoritarian autocrats, interestingly, show up on the extremes of both left and right wings. All of them (Stalin in particular) adored Henry Fords model of assembly-line industrialization. All of them sacrificed goodness and kindness for the sake of wealth and domination. All of them -- right or left, communist or capitalist -- were adept in the dark arts of totalitarianism.

Nowadays, in some quarters, it is fashionable to complain about the soft totalitarianism of cancel culture, political correctness, entitlements, etc. This is laughable when soft totalitarianism is compared to the real totalitarianism of 20th-century strong men.

And all of these guys (authoritarianism is definitely a male phenomenon, which is not a compliment) were aided and abetted and welcomed with open arms by enthusiastic fanboys. Stalin (and his predecessor Lenin) was cheered by intellectual atheists. Hitler (along with Mussolini and Franco) was heralded by religious conservatives, who naively believed his promises of restoring traditional values. Mao and Pol Pot were deified by millions of abused and impoverished workers.

Without exception, the strong men of history betrayed their first fans. Stalin regularly rounded up and executed the most Marxist and atheist intelligentsia (e.g., Leon Trotsky). Hitler sent Evangelicals (and Roman Catholics and Orthodox and many others) off to concentration camps and the gallows (Im thinking especially of Dietrich Bonhoeffer here). Franco and Pinochet disappeared hundreds of thousands.

And Mao slaughtered his own poor farmers and factory workers. By the millions.

The Republic fashioned by the Constitutional Convention, as is true of all democracies, will always gravitate towards authoritarianism and despotism. Its just the nature of power, in a fallen world, to arrogate more power to itself: Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.

That is why we must always do the hard work of keeping the Republic. This requires a constant watch on the Executive. He must always be held accountable to the law like everyone else. He must not be permitted to flout decency and civility. He cannot be allowed the exploitation of single hot-button issues to manipulate entire constituencies. He must not be permitted to surround himself with a cadre of brownshirts who fall all over themselves to show simpering loyalty and subservience.

A President (or past or future President) cannot be permitted to construct his own narrative. Joseph Goebbels, Hitlers Minister of Propaganda (his real title!) was infamous for popularizing the technique of the Big Lie: if a strong man and his gang repeat a lie long enough, a critical mass of the population will soon come to believe it. Whats more, the Big Lie seems to get more effective the more outrageous it is -- especially if some people could make a lot of money off of it (which they did then and still do).

When German citizens heard whispers about the gas chambers at Auschwitz on one hand, and the loud Nazi denials on the other, newspaper editors and civic leaders and reasonable people said, Well, there are two sides to every story.

No, theres not. Truth and denial are not sides.

The horrifying truth of the Holocaust was conveniently disposed of under the rubric of suspecting liberal bias -- in Hitlers case, he was always scapegoating the usual liberal suspects, who were, of course, Jews and communists.

And there was another rubric at work: the almost religious devotion to the strong man. Loyalty to him was utmost, even if it meant swallowing the Big Lie.

Keeping the Republic is hard work. It isnt the easy and simplistic (and disastrous) tactic of single-issue voting -- Strong Men just adore single-issue voters. The best way to resist a wannabe autocrat is the grownup work of speaking truth to power and disbelieving his propaganda.

We must denounce, over and over again, the whole idea of party loyalty. Of all the poisons of the modern age, party loyalty to the point of repeating a Big Lie is most toxic to democracy.

We should demand courage -- not party loyalty -- of our Representatives and Senators, whether Republican or Democratic. If they are too afraid to stand up to a Strong Man or challenge his Big Lie, then they need to find another occupation that doesnt require that much honor.

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Keeping the Republic is hard work | Editorial Columnists | - The Daily Advance

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