Last Tuesday, election day for the mid-terms in the US, found famed American historian and presidential envoy Deborah Lipstadt thousands of kilometres from home. Instead, she was addressing a seminar at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.
Lipstadt, who achieved celluloid fame via her portrayal by Rachel Weisz in the 2016 movie Denial, based on her 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, is a pre-eminent expert on hate speech, holocaust denialism and combines formidable scholarship with earthy humour. In 2022 she was appointed as US special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism by President Joe Biden.
Since her talk in Cape Town coincided with voting day in her home country, I asked Lipstadt for a forecast on the likely “Red Wave” of Republican wins predicted as the outcome; and, the impact which success for election-deniers and supporters of the 2021 January 6 assault on the US capitol would have on the tattered fabric of American democracy.
Lipstadt, very wisely given the eventual and unpredicted results, declined to forecast the outcome, but on denialists led by former president Donald Trump, who repeatedly and wrongly claimed Trump had won the 2020 presidential election, she was more forthright. On Trump and his brand of “America First” (a throwback to the 1930’s isolationist wing of US politics) and “Make America Great Again” legions, she offered this pithy comment:
“Denial comes about because it is inconvenient history which the denialists want to change.”
It was of course in the Irving lawsuit against Lipstadt for defamation, which the holocaust pro-Nazi historian lost in the UK courts, that the judge found Irving had systematically distorted the historical record of the WWII. His denial or minimalisation of the Nazi holocaust against European Jews was central to the case.
But as Lipstadt reminded her seminar audience last Tuesday: “It may start with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews … all genocides begin with words, not all words ipso facto cause genocide, but from Rwanda to Turkey it all begins with words.”
Wise words indeed.
Reflect on the two seminal events of last week. First, the US election results where the imagined Red Wave morphed into a near victory for Team Blue (which held on to control of the Senate, ran the Republicans nearly even in the House of Representatives, and won a brace of difficult governorship and secretary of state races). Second, the Russian forces retreated across the Dnipro River in Ukraine and abandoned the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital it has captured in eight months of pitiless war and a city which Vladimir Putin vowed would stay Russian “forever”. Like the Nazi Reich it did not last.
Joe Biden — this week with his 80th birthday on November 15 — the oldest occupant of the White House attracted some ridicule with a speech just before election day when he warned: “We can’t take democracy for granted any longer.” He specifically cited the preponderance of candidates for office who denied the results of the last presidential election, noting the election deniers were led by Trump who had cultivated a lie and metastasised it into a web of conspiracies and even violence, called on America to rediscover its better instincts. “We have to confront those lies with the truth, the very future of our nation depends on it,” said Biden.
Despite his own mediocre performance ratings and a deep dissatisfaction with the country’s economy, many voters heeded this appeal.
Perhaps no state better than Arizona renders an emphatic verdict on how Americans reject extremism in elections, and refreshed the view that, warts and all, citizens there continue to respect the contours of its democracy and constitutional arrangements. Which commences with accepting democratic outcomes.
This southwestern state, home of the Grand Canyon and the fabled old West, has produced flinty and independent-minded candidates for the highest office in the land, notably Republicans Barry Goldwater in 1964 and John McCain in 2008.
Of course, both lost, Goldwater by a landslide and McCain by a hefty margin to Barack Obama. But both won in their home state. Perhaps most noteworthy in the storied career of war hero McCain was his concession to Barack Obama of which he later wrote (in his autobiography The Restless Wave) “I felt that my opponents’ election said something important about the country which my election obviously wouldn’t have.” His opponent was, of course, the first African American president Barack Obama.
In public McCain said in words of profound eloquence etched with the pain of personal defeat for the highest office: “America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of a century ago. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the US. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”
McCain, who died in 2018, did not live to see the slate of candidates his Grand Old Party offered to the voters of his state of Arizona. But his family repudiated them and supported their Democrat opponents.
Top of the list for governor was local TV celebrity Kari Lake who described Biden as “the illegitimate president”, perpetuating Trump’s election fraud lies and stated that Biden “lost the election and shouldn’t be in the White House”.
Lake in turn was beaten for the governorship by lowkey Democrat Katie Hobbs by a narrow margin. Her loss, which she has yet to acknowledge, completed a trifecta of defeats in the normally reliable Republican state (which voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election since 1964, except on two occasions) alongside her running mates for the Senate and secretary of state. All three were enthusiastic election deniers and achieved their party nominations against more mainstream candidates, due almost entirely to the endorsement of Donald Trump.
Trump is likely to announce on Tuesday night that he will run again for the presidency in 2024, despite the defeats his choices inflicted on his party in a year which they were predicted for sweeping wins. But last week’s result suggests the durability of US democracy and its repudiation of extremism and perhaps the limits of the politics of outrage and grievance.
In Ukraine, Putin’s succession of bloody noses there also suggests a recovery for the much-battered liberal world order against which he set his face and marched his forces in repudiation. Of course, it is early days in a likely long war. But the pretensions of his claims and the puncturing of the myth of his military and strategic prowess were not the likely outcomes when, in February, he rolled his tanks and armour over the post-Second World War settlement and upended the pillars of public international law.
It was John McCain who saw Putin for what he is. When former president George W Bush claimed their first meeting that he got a “sense of Vlad’s soul”, McCain rejoined: “I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.”
In 1951, writer EM Forster published a set of essays titled Two Cheers for Democracy, a celebration of his “quiet liberalism”. Forster was of the view that two cheers were enough because of democracy’s twin strengths: it admits variety and permits criticism.
In Putin’s Russia neither of these democratic health checks is allowed, let alone tolerated. Trump’s corner of America is a place also of high intolerance where fealty to the chief is the highest order.
The defeat of each last week suggests there is much to cheer for yet.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA