Yesterday, on January 6th, one of the darkest days in this country’s history as a democratic nation, the US Capitol was overrun by a pro-Trump mob that had been incited to invade the premises by the defeated president at a rally earlier in the day. His seditious intention was for his supporters to disrupt the confirmation of the 2020 Electoral College vote—which traditionally is an undramatic, pro forma step in the orderly transition of power after a presidential election—in which the the fait accompli of Joe Biden’s victory was to be confirmed. Trump’s plan succeeded; the mayhem shut down the confirmation.
As militant Trump supporters roamed the halls, rooms and balconies of the Capitol and seethed on the building’s steps, shouting and brandishing flags, congressmen and reporters sheltered in place and hid under desks. The Capitol police could not contain the insurrection; the National Guard was called in. The last time the building was invaded in this manner was in 1814, during the War of 1812; and that was by foreign combatants. But this unprecedented, homegrown anti-democratic attack was entirely predictable.
What happened yesterday is the logical result of a dynamic I call “the magnet and the megaphone,” which I described in a speech* a month ago to a nervous audience of international businesspeople who were dismayed by Trumpism and worried about the security of the Biden transition. I told them they were right to be worried; and warned them to expect disruption on January 6th.
Historically, the Electoral College vote confirmation is ceremonial. No previous one-term president has seriously attempted to block the inauguration of his successor; not John Adams, in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson defeated him (after a contentious Georgia runoff); not George H.W. Bush in 1993. But this year, I told them to expect a stunt by Trumpist members of the defeated party: an attempt to overturn the Electoral tally. “That wouldn’t seriously have any effect, would it?” one audience member asked. Don’t be so sure, I told them.
These last four years, anyone who has bet on rational voices winning out has lost. The power of irrational voices was stronger. The reason, I explained, has to do with an ongoing dynamic, led by communications technology, which I call “the magnet and the megaphone.” This dynamic has deformed not only American but international politics for more than a decade now, and its influence is only growing. How it plays out in the lead-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as this country’s 46th president on January 20th will have huge global consequences. That much, my audience knew. As everyone knows, the watchword that was chanted in Chicago in 1968, at another time of American civic unrest, has never lost its currency: The whole world is watching. Sixty-two years ago, they watched on their televisions. Now they can watch, and read all about it, from screens in the palms of their hands.
In the last year, people beyond our shores have watched the US presidential race and its aftermath with the fervor and dedication usually reserved for addictive dystopian TV like Black Mirror. It makes sense that Americans would pay attention to our own political fray; but in 2020, the rest of the world focused on our horse race, too. They understood that they also had a stake in it. This was brought home to me on November 4th, when a friend sent me a video from Australia that had gone viral, by a comedian named Sammy J, who narrated the US presidential race as if he were a sports commentator at the Kentucky Derby. He gave a name to each contender: First up was “Fox News, starting at Gate One, out on the far right,” he said. “Look for him to stay in the background and control the field from there.” Next up was the reigning champion, “The Donald… a tremendous horse,” he said. “Nobody knows more about being a horse than the Donald.” In Gate 3 was “Sleepy Joe,” the “oldest horse to ever compete in this race.” He was “destined for the glue factory,” he said, but now was the “clear frontrunner.” Running alongside were the horses “Covid” and “A Global Recession,” who, he said, had both been “a strong threat all year.” The old mare Democracy stood in gate 11, and would be ridden heavily, he said, by the “controversial obese jockey, Electoral College.”
As I listened to his patter, I thought how truly amazing it was—not only that a person in another country, on another continent, on the other side of the globe, would be so well-informed about the intricacies of the American presidential contest; but that he could be certain that his country’s listeners would get the jokes, too. He knew that Australians would know that in the United States, it was the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the winner. (I have no idea how Australian elections are decided.) And he knew that they would care intensely who emerged the winner in our race because the actions of the US head of state would affect the stability and security of the citizens of Australia, and of Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, as well as the citizens of the United States itself.
Since 2016, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but won the presidency—thanks to the Electoral College—the rest of the world has felt, like us, the destabilizing effect of having an unconventional, unpredictable leader in the White House: a president who overturned established traditions of American behavior in domestic policy, foreign policy, trade, alliances, and overall global outlook. This effect has been all the more destabilizing for them because they witnessed the disruption—and read all about it—as it was happening; from their smartphones, computers and televisions.
A hundred years ago, when a disruptive leader came to power in an influential country, upending normal patterns of international relations, commerce and domestic life, people outside that country had to wait for days, weeks, and sometimes years to learn about the sources and fallout of that distant upheaval. But now, any screen, in any hand, brings the tumult home—wherever home is—as it’s unfolding. Global politics have become personal. And an American president who disregards the decorum of his office and the repercussions of his actions causes alarm far beyond his own nation’s borders.
In November, when the major American news networks reported the news of Biden’s victory, spontaneous joyful crowds—reminiscent of VE Day throngs in 1945—erupted in this country’s streets from coast to coast, and were broadcast around the world. Many foreign watchers shared in our exultation. They hoped that America’s 46th president would repair the relationships that have been eroded over these last four years, restore the norms of American government that have been associated with the White House since the Second World War, and steady the teetering global order. They hoped that Biden would rebuild trust in the American ideals that the rest of the world cherishes as much as we do. They took heart in the joy of the Americans celebrating on the streets. Yesterday, they shuddered, as do most Americans, at the sight of a lawless mob overrunning the Capitol.
But there are those today who rejoice in this conflict. Chief among them is the defeated president, Donald Trump, himself, who used the occasion of this coup not to call off his dogs, but to tweet his resentment of the outgoing vice president, Mike Pence, for not throwing out the Electoral College votes on the Senate floor and demanding a do-over of the election—a power that Pence does not possess, and which would represent an unprecedented assault on the Constitution and on the foundations of American democracy. And many of Trump’s supporters share his exhilaration. He is a magnet to them. A magnet compels bodies who are susceptible to its pull. The megaphone of social media has given Trump the capability of widening the reach of his magnetic force—both while he was president, and evidently still now, after he has been voted out of office. The question we all face today is whether that magnet’s power can be stopped, in an age when the megaphone prolongs and amplifies its effects. And if so; how?
Every now and then, in a democracy, and of course, in autocracies, a leader emerges whose charisma has an overwhelming, magnetic effect. I call them magnets, because they have such a strong ability to attract adherents. Some of them inspire such fierce attachment from so many quarters that they gain exceptional power. Their will becomes performative and policy-changing. A magnet doesn’t have to be bad; some can exert a positive effect on the nation they compel—think of Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Charles DeGaulle, or Indira Gandhi—but a magnet can also exert a mixed effect; and, sometimes, a destructive effect.
This last group of magnets are known as “strongmen”; and lately, they have been multiplying and gathering strength on every continent apart from Antarctica. When a destructive American magnet appears on the world stage, the effects are felt universally. Last year, the Columbia Journalism Review tracked the gravitational pull of President Trump’s hostile attitude to the press in illiberal countries around the world—part of what CJR called a “worldwide backlash against globalism.” Yesterday, Trump’s hooligans in DC smashed Associated Press equipment with cudgels. It’s obvious why dictators would be attracted to illiberal actions from the White House; but why would ordinary citizens succumb to a strongman’s signal? What’s in it for them? And why would an ordinary American want to storm the Capitol, in an attempt to overturn a legitimate election in the world’s oldest continuous democracy?
Anne Applebaum provides an answer in a book she published this summer, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. In it, she explores the reasons why—as this country’s Founding Fathers recognized—“any political system built on logic and rationality was always at risk from an outburst of the irrational.” She spoke with an Australian political scientist named Karen Stenner, who has identified the “authoritarian predisposition”—similar to Hannah Arendt’s “authoritarian personality,” but more indulgently described. According to Stenner, Applebaum explained, some people are inherently “bothered by complexity,” which primes them to admire authoritarian ideas. “A sudden onslaught of diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences—therefore makes them angry.” Blunt political language “makes them feel safer and more secure.” A leader who shares and champions their attitudes draws them like a magnet.
By this theory, in America, when members of groups who resent diversity and complexity converge on government buildings, loudly voicing their anger, they are activated and mobilized by the magnet. Those who are unaffected by the pull of that particular magnet find the attachment of its adherents bewildering and frightening. But once that magnet is on, exerting its attractive beam, it’s hard to disable it; its adherents are not easily dislodged. And for the last 15-odd years, the social media megaphone has extended the reach of such magnets, magnifying the number of adherents they can draw.
Even before the age of the megaphone, magnets could exhibit remarkable staying power. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte—a “mixed” magnet, who rose to power as a heroic general and man of the people, and enacted remarkable and lasting political, legal and social reforms—among them the Napoleonic Code. As his influence and following grew, Napoleon became power-hungry and land-hungry. He crowned himself emperor of France, waged endless wars, and came to be dreaded across Europe as a scourge.Every now and then, in a democracy, and of course, in autocracies, a leader emerges whose charisma has an overwhelming, magnetic effect.
In April of 1814, after his troops had suffered a series of defeats and Paris had been taken by a coalition of European armies, he abdicated the throne and was exiled to Elba, an island in the Tyrrhenian sea, about 30 miles east of Corsica, a little west of the Italian coast. Napoleon had not wanted to abdicate, though the French senate had voted to depose him. He insisted that his armies would defend him. His marshals insisted that they would not. Napoleon abdicated. He went to Elba. But Elba wasn’t far enough away to stop him from exerting his pull. Napoleon returned to Paris in the spring of 1815, and a few months later waged the battle of Waterloo, where he was routed. After Waterloo, he was exiled again, but this time to a place where his magnet no longer functioned: the desolate volcanic crag of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles west of the southern coast of Africa.
Even so, Napoleon’s influence among his admirers persisted—in Europe and beyond, and even in America. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson deplored the reverence some Americans continued to display for the exiled Napoleon, post-Waterloo. He wrote: “I have grieved to see even good republicans so infatuated as to this man, as to consider his downfall as calamitous to the cause of liberty.” He added, “To whine after this exorcised demon is a disgrace to republicans, and must have arisen either from want of reflection, or the indulgence of passion against principle.”
Still, however fiercely American devotées clung to their hero, Napoleon remained on his crag; Europe was spared. In 1815, there was no way for Napoleon to broadcast his charisma to his fervent base. There was no social media megaphone; (for that matter, there were as yet no telephones); and of course, there was no air travel. Until 2016, there was not even a commercial flight to St. Helena. Ask yourself: would Napoleon’s magnet have remained dimmed, two centuries ago, if he’d had Trump’s megaphone? What if he’d been able to make self-serving videos like Roger Stone? Or to address his followers on Zoom? And what if he’d had Twitter?
In 1831, ten years after Napoleon’s death, a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months traveling across America, which later produced his seminal study Democracy in America. In it, he wrote optimistically of how the American president differed from a constitutional monarch in France (like his own king, Louis Philippe). The president’s “demeanor remains simple, unaffected, and modest,” he suggested. The president has “almost royal prerogative which he has no occasion to use,” because, unlike a king, who is “inviolable,” the American president is “answerable for his actions.” Still, he observed that both the American president and the French king were subject to public opinion. In America at the time, he wrote, there were more outlets for public opinion—newspapers—than in France; but he did not think that this aided democracy, because, “The only way to neutralize the effect of newspapers is to multiply their numbers.” In America, there were too many news outlets, he suggested, which diluted the impact of their messages. He noted, “The power of thought is often actually increased by the small number of those expressing it.” And he warned, “The word of a strong-minded man which alone reaches to the passions of a mute assembly has more power than the confused cries of a thousand orators; and so long as there is just one public place where one speaks freely, it is as if one had spoken publicly in each village.”
In other words, you might say, Tocqueville anticipated Twitter. He anticipated that if there were a megaphone with a reach so broad, so pervasive, so direct, that it could speak to millions, that one man—one magnet—could use that megaphone to broadcast his thoughts more effectively than thousands of journalists. Twitter is such a megaphone. President Trump has 88.7 million followers on that platform, to whom he can relay his “strong-minded words.” President-elect Biden has 22.6 million followers, but does not exert the same magnetism. But as yesterday’s populist insurrection in the Capitol shows, even in defeat, Trump still has his hand on the handle of the megaphone. Like Napoleon at Fontainebleau, he has lost his right to rule, but does not want to surrender his power. In his case, the megaphone has permitted him to keep his magnet going full force.
Wednesday night at 6:01 pm, as a curfew fell on Washington, Trump tweeted a message of support and validation to his marauding followers, while they still swarmed at the Capitol and in downtown Washington. In his Tweet he repeated lies that victory had been “stripped” from him. Last year, recognizing the dangerous power that their megaphone gives this magnet, Twitter initiated a policy of posting disclaimers, in sky-blue letters, on Trump’s Tweeted lies—especially those that might interfere with the democratic process. Last night, the disclaimer read: This claim of election fraud is disputed, and this Tweet can’t be replied to, retweeted, or liked due to a risk of violence.” Such admonishments had done nothing to slow Trump’s typing finger in November and December, and his malevolent, self-serving Tweets continued to reach tens of millions of his followers. The magnet still had the megaphone.
But within an hour of that presidential tweet, Twitter took an extraordinary step. For the first time, they acted in a way that acknowledged the need for the megaphone to douse its own power, in order to break the magnet’s destructive hold. They removed that Trump Tweet and two others, and locked his account for twelve hours
It’s a start. The dynamic of the magnet and the megaphone will not go away. But two weeks away from the inauguration of a new president who respects the norms of American governance, there is new hope that this country, through the shock of this last demonstration of the pernicious synergy of this dynamic, has belatedly realized the need to monitor and regulate the megaphones that amplify magnets that distort the conduct of people and governments here and everywhere. This realization demands the attention not only of magnets and their megaphones, but of alert, conscientious and proactive men and women, who understand the urgency not only of watching this dynamic, but of taking action; and acting in time to correct course before the race is done.
*A keynote speech delivered on Dec. 3 (on Zoom) to the December assembly of a consortium of international lawyers, consultants, (etc.) affiliated with IAG Global.