Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Republican (and LDS) Fascination with Authoritarianism


I’ve been wondering lately about the obvious fascination both Republicans and Latter-day Saints have with authoritarian figures and whether this has anything to do with the dominance of the GOP among Mormons.

Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have had a love-hate relationship with government. They hate the government but love to be in charge of it. Why? I’m not quite sure, but P. J. O’Rourke’s satirical remark has more truth to it than we would like: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” Since our government is a democratic republic in form (and in theory), if you hate government, then you must in some way hate the democratic aspects of government, which are often a source of frustration and inefficiency. But if you do not like democracy, then you must prefer some other form of governance. (I’ll resist the temptation here to get sidetracked with Mike Lee’s recent unfortunate tweet.)

Republicans have also been very much a probusiness party. This can be seen in their policies regarding taxation, regulation, unions, health care, use of public lands, and money in politics. And this may provide a clue to answering my query. Almost all businessesfrom small sole proprietorships such as the corner dry cleaner to massive multinational corporations like Apple or ExxonMobil—are authoritarian organizations. Capitalist businesses may resemble monarchies, oligarchies, plutocracies, dictatorships, aristocracies, fiefdoms, or theocracies, but almost never can they be described as democratic republics. Those would be worker-owned enterprises in which the employees are able to choose their leaders, and they are rare. Republicans seem to prefer the more common authoritarian capitalist business model, and prefer it to our democratic constitutional republic, so it makes sense that they would lean authoritarian.

This may also explain why Republicans have often vocally yearned for a president who is also a businessman. How often have we heard the refrain “We need to run government more like a business”? But remember that most businessmen come from sharply authoritarian backgrounds. They are therefore not comfortable with the constraints of a largely democratic system of government. Donald Trump, as the New York Times’s reporting on his tax returns shows, is better at playing a successful businessman on TV than actually succeeding at business. But Donald Trump’s organization is perhaps the most authoritarian type of business possible. He is accountable to no one, not even a token board of directors. And he has no experience at all serving in a democratic republic. It is obvious that he has tried to run the government like he does his businessas an unbridled autocrat who ignores any rule or law that inconveniences him.

The question then is, why are so many Republicans attracted to this sort of governance? What is it in the strongman image that conservatives find so magnetic? Why does a supine GOP Senate bow and scrape before the dictatorial Trump and protect him from the logical consequences of his own unconstitutional and undemocratic actions? Why is Mitt Romney the only Republican Senator with a conscience or a sense of loyalty to truth, decency, and country? I expected little of the GOP after what I saw during the Obama administration, but I certainly expected more than this.

But what about Latter-day Saints? This is a complex picture. Trump’s popularity among Mormons is significantly lower than Romney’s was or Bush’s, but Trump will still carry the state of Utah in the coming election, easily. How is it that so many Latter-day Saints can totally ignore D&C 98:910? “When the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.” I don’t care how you slice it, but Donald Trump simply cannot be described as honest, good, or wise. On the other side, Joe Biden, regardless of his faults is considered by almost everyone, including many Republicans he served with in the Senate, as a good and decent man, a man of compassion and faith and principle.

But that will not dissuade a majority of Latter-day Saint voters from casting their lot for the demagogue they have hitched their wagon to. I wonder whether it is the Mormon preference for authoritarian leadership that is partly to blame. Not only is our religion embedded in a top-heavy authoritarian ecclesiastical organization, but whenever we have had the opportunity to create our own temporal government, we have embraced brazen authoritarian models, not the constitutional democratic republic one might expect.

We claim to revere the U.S. Constitution, even spouting scripture that declares it was established by God (see D&C 101:77, 80). But whenever we have had the opportunity, we have totally ignored it, except for a single amendment that guarantees religious liberty. The Constitution, however, is nothing more or less than a document that enshrines the division of power among three separate branches of government. And why this division? To avoid the very type of authoritarianism that Mormons have repeatedly created and that they are now embracing in the body of one Donald J. Trump.

Think about Nauvoo. Not only was Joseph Smith the prophet and president of the Church, but he was also the mayor, the head of the city council, the top brass in the Nauvoo Legion, and, for a time, even postmaster. This concentration of power is one major reason why the Saints’ neighbors were afraid of them. And did our forebears learn anything when they were driven west to the arid Salt Lake Valley? Little. They did produce a legislature, but it was stocked with lawmakers handpicked by Brigham Young, and the territory of Deseret was really nothing more than Brigham’s desert kingdom. Even after Alfred Cumming was installed as token governor in 1858, everyone knew who really ruled the territory.

So, we might as well admit that democracy is simply not in our LDS genes. For a few decades after the Church abandoned plural marriage, communitarian economics, and theocracy, Latter-day Saints tried to assimilate into American society. We became true-blue, flag-waving patriots. But there’s something about democracy that just didn’t stick. Joseph Smith once claimed that the Church was a “theo-democracy,” but in practice that ideal was never realized. As the Church grew under Joseph, so did his control over it. With Brigham, it reached new heights of authoritarianism. We have diluted the law of common consent to the point that it has become nothing more than a perfunctory raise of the hand to ratify everything our leaders propose. We don’t take the scripture in D&C 26:2 literally anymore.

So, perhaps we come by our antidemocratic tilt honestly. We love our big authoritarian businesses, and we apparently love an increasingly authoritarian secular government with no effective checks and balances.