“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” —Richard III, Act I, sc. 1
In March 1954, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson spoke to a crowd of supporters about the poison that had infected much of the American public by a demagogic United States Senator.
“We are witnessing the bitter harvest from the seeds of slander, defamation, and disunion, planted in the soil of our democracy,” Stevenson said. “For public officials to try deliberately to replace reason with passion; to substitute hatred for honest difference; to fulfill campaign promises by practicing deception; and to hide discord among Republicans by sowing the dragon’s teeth of dissension among Americans.”
There was no question as to whom Stevenson was talking about. The junior senator from Wisconsin, Republican Joseph R. McCarthy, had exploited the public’s fear of Communism, and his tactics are as familiar today as they were then: spread distrust, fear, and lies despite no supportable evidence.
“Extremism produces extremism. Lies beget lies,” Stevenson said, forcefully.
Despite no supportive evidence, a third of the country fervently believes that Joe Biden is not the rightfully elected leader of the country. They have become so indoctrinated by a Mt. Everest of false conspiracies, and lies, that they have turned against many of the institutions that were created to protect them. Even after the deaths of 1 million Americans to a deadly virus, “About 42 percent reported that they ‘don’t trust the COVID vaccine.”
And much like the COVID pandemic, these zealots infect others who are willing to believe conspiracies like Q-Anon and “White Replacement” theory that foster extremism and violence. Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old White man who shot 10 Black citizens in Buffalo, New York, is believed to have posted an online manifesto about “White Replacement.”
“Before the internet, ‘you might be isolated in your town’ but unable to spread your beliefs widely, limiting your ability to do harm, said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the matter. “Now you can immediately plug in,” USA Today Tech reported.
Why are so many willing to stick to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University sociology professor who focuses on extremism and radicalization, says “When people feel out of control, they’re attracted to things that offer them an action path. It’s easier to believe in some nefarious orchestration than to believe that there is an invisible virus in the air that could harm their family.”
American democracy is being eaten away by the same disease of fear and mistrust as it did during the McCarthy era. And like McCarthy, the most corrupt act of all comes from those who carry the greatest responsibility and the greatest voice, who validate beliefs that move a vocal base of believers from fear to anger, anger to hate, and hate to violence.
Misinformation, lies, and false conspiracies have become the gateway drug to extremism and domestic terrorism.
Political scientist Ian Bremmer writes in TIME magazine, “loss of faith in government authorities is the defining story of our era. The US, the only nation that can project military power into every region of the world, has become its most politically dysfunctional major power.”
Deformed in body, mind and soul, Richard III is a corrupt, manipulative and vile Duke who will stop at nothing to become king.
While Richard Nixon manipulated the levers of government in the shadows to preserve his power, Donald Trump does so openly, with glee. Just look at the pictures of him in front of a roaring crowd of supporters as he tells them the lies they so willingly believe. And the new crop of election deniers –the Trump acolytes recently elected in primaries–feed the same “bitter harvest from the seeds of slander, defamation, and disunion” to their crowds.
What will happen when the next presidential election is too close to call two years from now?
“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy,” President Kennedy said, “impairs the security of all.”
Richard’s first line in Shakespeare’s play suggests that all is well in the kingdom as they shed the “winter of discontent” and embrace a “glorious summer sun.” But as the play progresses, Richard’s villainous soul is only interested in inflicting greater suffering on all.
And that villainous pattern continues in many of today’s leaders who have willing traded their souls to stay in power.
I fear it will take America a long and bitter winter of extremism to move from the darkness of autocracy to the sunlight of democracy.