How Many Traitors Does it Take to Destroy a Democracy?

Lessons from the January 6th hearings in the run-up to next week’s election.
trump military
President Trump addresses service members and their families stationed on the Korean Peninsula during an event for the troops at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, June 30, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa via

Ulysses S. Grant once said, “There are but two parties now: traitors and patriots.” It’s been a long time since that statement defined America, but we allowed something to happen that is always a precursor to a society’s fracture. We permitted an individual with no moral fiber to assume the position of ultimate leadership.

We teach our children to obey rules and to strive for excellence; not so much in material ways as in character traits like service before self. We sing songs, write novels, and produce movies honoring heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that others could live free. We create moral tales about the victory of light over darkness, where an everyman, a Han Solo, rises from ordinary circumstances to accomplish extraordinary things; fictional role models we hope produce the real leaders of tomorrow. We set high standards for entry into our service academies where merit and allegiance to ethical codes lead to advancement. In the civilian world we have always reacted to scandal and illegality with disapproval, punishment, dismissal of corrupt employees or defeat of dishonest politicians.

We turned that all on its head with the election of the 45th president. Senator Jeff Flake, in his retirement speech, warned us that if we accept what is clearly abnormal as a new normal we are complicit. He was referring to the president’s pathological lying. It started small and grew exponentially. Barack Obama was always a U.S. citizen. There were never thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheering the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Putin’s extensive cyber warfare was far from a hoax. What Senator Flake understood was that a Christian nation didn’t decide to throw 6million people into ovens overnight. There was a slow erosion of values over time, what we call “mission creep” in the military, when the final outcome can have little resemblance to the original intent.

What America allowed as our new normal was a Commander in Chief, fined $2 million for a fraudulent charity, and $25 million for a fraudulent university, commanding admirals and generals whose careers would end if they stole so much as a pack of cigarettes from a convenience store. 

But he was just warming up. 

We would be forced to witness the leader of the free world engaging in business deals with an enemy state, obstructing the investigation of law enforcement officials, and pardoning those convicted of crimes against the United States. What Flake knew, what Nazi Germany learned, is that once you allow charisma to override competence, lies to replace truth, you’re initiating national suicide. 

When a perpetrator realizes that their lies are accepted they are emboldened. Over a short period of time a free press became “fake news,” and then “the enemy of the people.” The 45th president denigrated our allies, while dictators were courted as potential partners. Our greatest enemy Putin was called a genius after committing mass murder and forcing millions from their homes. It’s called gaslighting and the perpetrator just keeps pushing the limits of acceptability until someone or something stops them. This offender started with saying that he could shoot someone in Times Square and not lose a single voter, later he would help a Saudi Prince cover-up a murder, lobby for re-instatement of Russia into the G-8 all while still under cyber attack by that same country. He told us that he “fell in love” with one of the greatest human rights monsters on the planet, a dictator cited by the United Nations for crimes against humanity. If you can get the public to accept that, you can get them to forget that an American college student was returned to his parents brain dead by the president’s new love interest.

Finally, like the rise of a German corporal, who wrote his own art of the deal into the annals of human history, he plotted and executed a coup of our government and convinced millions of his followers that it was his opponent who was a fraud, who stole an election. Once that threshold is crossed you have gone from political party to cult of personality. How many traitors does it take to destroy a democracy? Only one – but they need a lot of help. 

Because of the popularity of far-right media, websites and personalities – all aided by social media – it is unrealistic to expect GOP “the base” to embrace the truth over the “Big Lie.” It must come from GOP leadership. If they cannot live up to their oath to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, then, as Benjamin Franklin warned, we just might lose our grip on this incredible republic.

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Steve Nolan

Steve Nolan spent 30 years in the military and 25 years as a mental health professional. He has published in numerous journals and his poetry was featured on National Public Radio, Morning Edition, upon his return from Afghanistan in 2007. He is the author of “Go Deep,” “Base Camp,” and “American Carnage, An Officer’s Duty to Warn.” His work reflects his commitment to social justice.