Two historians claim tyrannophobia has overtaken the U.S.

Historians in the News
tags: Trump, tyrannophobia



Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale University. David Priestland is a professor of modern history at Oxford University.

Since Donald Trump’s election, the United States has been gripped by tyrannophobia. Conspiracies against democracy are everywhere; truth is under siege; totalitarianism is making a comeback; “resistance” is the last refuge of citizens.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.

The initial fearful reaction to Mr. Trump’s election was understandable. He cut a new figure in recent politics. His indefensible slurs against his fellow citizens and offensive plans for the weak were a shock. His frequent breaches of political norms seemed to pose an imminent hazard for democracy. They may have been too chaotic to be truly sinister, but the danger seemed clear and present.

A little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained. Starting with the Trump administration’s original version of the travel ban, the president’s most outrageous policies have been successfully obstructed, leaving largely those that any Republican president would have implemented through executive order. The menace the commander in chief poses to the world, as his impulsive warning to North Korea suggested, may be another matter. But there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.

There is certainly evidence of Russian interference in the election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee is serious. But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal. Paranoia alone explains why fear that the republic is in imminent danger has been the dominant response. ...




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