A Writer Who Philosophically Supported the American Revolution

Thomas Paine, a writer who philosophically supported the American Revolution, said of representative democracy that “what Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude. The one was the wonder of the ancient world; the other is becoming the admiration of the present.” American democracy’s initial intent was to be a new Athens. The U.S. Capitol is part of the neoclassical historical buildings in Washington, D.C. that model themselves on ancient Greece and Rome. But we must not forget that after Athenian democracy passed its glory, it declined and fell due to agitating politicians and mob rule.

The German word demagog* describes that kind of agitating politician, inciting the people’s fear and rage with exuberant speeches and converting that passion into power. Now everyone knows whom we’re speaking of. The scandal brought about by this agitation was unheard of in American politics. This was the storming and occupation of the Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters, which led to five deaths. The president himself instigated the march on the Capitol, and afterward he called them “patriots.” That he quickly pivoted to criticizing the incident is likely because he realized how severe the situation was. Bipartisan criticism erupted over the assault on the “temple” of American democracy, and demands to remove the president spread. Resignations of cabinet secretaries and high officials came one after another, and an isolated Trump pledged a smooth transition to the Joe Biden administration, which the media reported as his first acknowledgment of his election defeat.

Quickly changing positions is par for the course for a demagogue, and it’s hard to feel calm even when we hear the usual words of healing and reconciliation. Decline or revival? Such is the crossroads of the new Athens, which has welcomed the era of demagogy.

*Translator’s note: This is the equivalent of the English word “demagogue,” which is Greek in origin.

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