Truth, tribes and tyranny

The fissures continue to appear, the dominant topical one cracking the thin crust of Hawaii’s Big Island.

In the human context and the matter of whether we can keep our republic, the breaches forecast trouble, upheaval and, perhaps, cataclysm. The voices we’ve heard over the past several weeks should not be ignored.

For Hoosiers, it was Purdue President Mitch Daniels who sounded alarms during his annual commencement address.

“The freedoms we take for granted, the ‘blessings of liberty’ of which our Constitution speaks, are the gross exception in history,” Daniels said in West Lafayette. “Almost all of history has belonged to the tyrants, the warlords, the autocrats, the totalitarians. And tribes always gravitate toward tyrants.”

His remarks come two months after Chinese President Xi Jinping changed his country’s constitution leaving him in power indefinitely.

On March 4, speaking at his Mar-a-Lago estate, President Donald Trump praised Xi, saying, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”

Daniels’ address was not specifically aimed at Trump, but coming on the heels of Xi’s power grab and Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, the implication was impossible to ignore.

Those who were in attendance say that the import of Daniels’ poignant observation held wide sway with a rapt audience. It had a Churchillian resonance with 1930s gravitas.

Some 1,500 miles to the south, another Republican, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, overtly had President Trump in mind, citing “an endless barrage of lies” and a trend toward “alternate realities” that he insists pose a dire threat to U.S. democracy.

The greatest threat to American democracy, he said, is “our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party and in pursuit of power.”

“This is bigger than any one person. It’s bigger than any one party,” Bloomberg said after his speech. “How did we go from a president who could not tell a lie to politicians who cannot tell the truth?”

And as this column was written, we learned from the president’s financial disclosure that he lied about the payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, while President Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told graduates at the Virginia Military Institute, “If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”

These warnings and observations are not liberal bellowing, but come from moderate to conservative voices, titans of corporate America who have tapped into our common experience.

The contrast to ponder is that of Gov. Holcomb, or Speaker Bosma, or Mayor Tim Neese of Elkhart or Mayor Jim Lienhoop of Columbus lied incessantly about items big and small, they would likely be thrown out of office.

Further warnings came from Axios CEO Jim VandeHei, who writes that President Trump has completely taken over the Republican Party.

“Reversing one of the basic assumptions of politics, Trump has shown you can radically change a political party’s core beliefs and brand overnight,” VandeHei explains. “Only six years ago, the GOP’s Romney-Ryan ticket was preaching the evils of Russia, the virtue of free trade, the sin of deficits. With no debate and little resistance, Trump has flipped an entire party’s core beliefs.”

“Trump was a liberal Democrat and he hijacked conservatism,” VandeHei continued. “The hunger for something different is unmistakable, partly because a big chunk of voters has had it with conventional politics and politicians. No reason another exotic Republican — or third party, or even a surprise Democrat — couldn’t do the same.”

Truth in flight, newsrooms in atrophy and institutions crumbling will create the dilemmas confronting our state today, with the opioid epidemic the most obvious. Polarization and a lack of substantiated facts will make solutions harder.

“Over these last few years this new self-segregation has taken on a much more worrisome dimension,” Daniels explained to his graduates. “It’s no longer just a matter of Americans not knowing and understanding each other. We’ve seen these clusters deepen, and harden, until separation has led to anger, misunderstanding turned into hostility. At the individual level, it’s a formula for bitterness and negativity. For a self-governing people, it’s poison.”

Daniels challenged the graduates: “The grandest challenge for your leadership years may well be to reverse and surmount this threat. Life in a tribe is easy, in all the wrong ways. You don’t have to think. Whatever the tribe thinks is right, whatever the other side thinks is wrong. There’s no real responsibility; just follow what the tribe, and whoever speaks for it, says to do.”

Journalists especially ought not have tribes. To this Eagle Scout who swore a fidelity oath and spent a decade working for a newspaper named The Truth (the one publishing in Elkhart, not Moscow), the widespread insensitivity and lack of outrage with which our nation’s top officials glibly operate bring to mind a shaken foundation and prospects of danger at the edge of town.

This is no way to keep our republic.

Brian A. Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.