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The daily responsibility of democracy

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Much of America’s politics has descended into ignorant, juvenile stunts that distract us from the existential danger facing democracy. Citizens must take up the burden of being the adults in the room.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Don’t Argue With Uncle Ned

One of the more rewarding parts of a newsletter like The Daily is that it allows writers to have an ongoing conversation with readers, and to return to themes and discussions over time. This is also a nice way of saying that now and then, I’m going to pull up something I wrote a while ago, because I think people near to keep hearing it. (As I said yesterday when examining the word fascist, I am something of a pedant, and the professor in me is always still lurking around here.)

So before we break for the weekend and start preparing for our Thanksgiving celebrations, I want to revisit an argument I made nearly two years ago—something I think might help make the holiday a bit less stressful around the dinner table. It is a simple recommendation, but one that will be hard for many of us to follow: In a time of clownish, adolescent, and highly dangerous politics, those of us defending American democracy must be the adults in the room. We must be measured, determined, and even a bit stoic.

Let us recall what prodemocracy citizens are up against. Donald Trump and many of his supporters in Republican politics are, in effect, a reality show, an ongoing comedy-drama full of Main Characters and plot twists and silly caricatures of heels and heroes.

Think of Kari Lake, with her soft-focus, super-earnest TV presence. Watch Oklahoma Senator Markwayne Mullin hitch up his pants and offer to duke it out with a Teamster, in a dopey scene that Hollywood would have left on the cutting-room floor. Tune in to Newsmax and chuckle as Representative Tim Burchett complains that Representative Kevin McCarthy gave him an elbow in the kidneys. Smirk along with the anchors as they suggest that Representative Nancy Mace, if McCarthy funds her challengers, might reveal some dirt—wink wink, nudge nudge—on the former speaker.

Trump himself is a man both menacing and ludicrous, one of the most improbable figures ever to be at the center of a cult of personality. His whining, his weird mannerisms, his obsession with personal cosmetics—all make him an easy target for jokes and nicknames.

But none of this should drag us into acting like children ourselves. Trump and his supporters might be inane in many ways, but they are deadly serious about their intentions to take power and destroy democracy. Their cavorting and capering is part of who they are, but it is also bait, a temptation to distraction and an invitation to sink to their level.

As I wrote in 2021:

It’s time to ditch all the coy, immature, and too-precious language … No more GQP, no more Qevin McCarthy, no more Rethuglicans and Repuglicans. No more Drumpf. No more Orange Menace. And no more of The Former Guy, which I know is popular among even many of my friends and colleagues in the media.

In the ensuing years, I’ve suggested often on social media that people also forgo calling the current Florida governor “DeSatan,” “DeathSantis,” and other grade-school epithets. I get it: It’s fun and sometimes funny. But as I warned, it also signals a needless lack of seriousness about the threat to democracy:

When we use silly and childish expressions, we communicate to others that we are silly and childish, while encouraging ourselves to trivialize important matters …

Juvenile nicknames too easily blur the distinction between prodemocracy voters and the people they’re trying to defeat. If you’ve ever had to endure friends or family who parrot Fox-popular terms like Demonrats and Killary and other such nonsense, think for a moment how they instantly communicated to you that you never had to take them seriously again.

Now ask yourself if you want to be viewed the same way.

This advice does not mean being quiet or avoiding conflict or engaging in false compromise for the sake of peace during dinner. Rather, it is advice to be steadfast and calm. When Uncle Ned (he regularly appears in my hypothetical family dinners) goes on about Obummer or the Biden Crime Family, nothing is gained by railing back about Cheeto Jesus or Mango Mussolini. Such language just convinces others that your arguments are no less childish than theirs.

Instead, be direct and uncompromising: “You’re wrong. I think you know that you’re wrong, and I think, in your heart, you know you’re making a terrible mistake.” That’s the best you can do in a family setting. Among friends, the approach might be different: “You know that these conspiracy theories are not true. And Donald Trump is a fascist. You’re not. But that’s what you’re supporting.”

Whether to continue that friendship probably depends on what happens next. Unlike some of my gentler friends and colleagues, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ending friendships over deep political divides, but as much as possible, be kind, be patient, be polite—but be unyielding in what you know is right.

When I was in high school, I read Meditations, by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. I’ve read it many times since, in the hope that I will fully grasp all of it before I depart the planet. But I’ve kept a few quotes nearby for years, including his admonition that other people, even if they are “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly,” are no different from any of us and, like you and me, possess “a share of the divine.”

He also warned us, however, not to become like those who might hate us: “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.”

This is tough advice, and I fail at it regularly. But the key is that you can’t change other people; you can control only what you do, and what you do will influence other people more than silly nicknames, mug-shaming, and gossiping. Saving democracy sometimes requires flags and marches and dramatic gestures. For most of us, however, democracy is preserved one day, and one conversation, at a time.


Today’s News

  1. United Nations deliveries of food and supplies to Gaza ceased because of a communications blackout due to Israel’s refusal to allow fuel into the region.
  2. The House Ethics chairman filed a resolution to expel Representative George Santos from Congress.
  3. The Department of Education is investigating alleged incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at several K–12 schools and institutions of higher education.


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Evening Read

Illustration by Matt Williams

The Men Who Started the War

By Drew Gilpin Faust

Harpers Ferry seemed almost a part of the neighborhood when I was growing up. Granted, it was across the state line, in West Virginia, and slightly more than a half-hour drive away from our Virginia farm. But it took us almost that long to get to the nearest supermarket. And I felt connected by more than roads. The placid, slow-moving Shenandoah River, which flowed past our bottom pasture, becomes raging white water by the time it joins the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, 35 miles downstream.

Nature itself seems to have designed Harpers Ferry to be a violent place. Cliffs border the confluence of the two rivers, and the raw power generated by their angry convergence made the site ideal for the national armory established there around 1800. It manufactured some 600,000 firearms before Union troops burned it down in 1861 to keep it out of Confederate hands. Five battles took place at Harpers Ferry, and the town changed hands 12 times.

But none of this is what Harpers Ferry is primarily remembered for.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Illustration by Ben Hickey for The Atlantic

Read. In her debut novel, Wrong Way, Joanne McNeil explores what the gig economy does to a human.

Watch. Saltburn, a new country-house thriller from the director Emerald Fennell, tackles the dark side of Millennial desire (in theaters now).

Play our daily crossword.


I’ve been writing about heavy stuff all week, so I think it’s time for a recommendation for something more entertaining. All of this talk about fascism reminded me of a movie that I really enjoyed and forgot to rave about when I saw it: Jojo Rabbit, a 2019 film directed by Taika Waititi, about a lonely young boy living with his mother in World War II Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler—played by Waititi, a New Zealander of Maori and Jewish descent—is his imaginary friend. And it gets weirder from there.

The movie veers from hilarious to painful to deeply touching. Waititi’s Hitler is both silly and terrifying. (You can see why this movie occurred to me today.) It’s not for everyone; many critics liked it—and it won Waititi an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—but some really hated it for what they saw as a trivialization of Nazism. I think that’s a charge that misses the point of the movie, but it’s definitely a strange picture. And I won’t spoil the surprise, but if you make it to the end, you’ll find one of the best uses of music in a movie I’ve ever seen.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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