Mark Antonio Menaldo is Department Head and Associate Professor of Liberal Studies at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
The riot at the Capitol, on January 6, 2021, caught me, like many, by surprise. At first, the day’s protests seemed like a Felliniesque finale to Trump’s surreal presidency and farcical “Stop the Steal” push. There was an absurdity captured in the viral images of clownish men in costumes worn together with tactical gear, taking selfies or live streaming. But the garish display ended in tragedy (5 people died) as the mob stormed the Capitol and ran amok on the Senate floor and throughout the building. As more information came to light a darker picture emerged, a mob ready to (potentially) take hostages and kill members of Congress had assembled that day, with the tacit approval of the President.
In his work, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845) the Argentine thinker, educator, and President, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, observed that the human condition is an eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism, and that the defense of liberalism against barbarism is, and always will be, of great urgency. In Latin America, the expression, ¡Qué barbaridad! (what a barbarity) is still commonly used to express outrage, ridiculousness, and amazement. Yet it retains its etymological meaning from the Latin and Ancient Greek word barbarian, and is also used to describe what is uncultured and cruel. ¡Qué barbaridad! perfectly sums up the feeling of shock, disgust, and shame that many people felt as they watched ordinary folks turn into beasts at the capital. While reflecting on the riot, it occurred to me that the true American dream is that its traditions and political practices do their best to suppress what is ugly, unruly, and truly barbaric about human nature, the disorder and violence at its core.
My perspective is at once as a teacher of political philosophy and as an American who has lived in the United States for 24 years but does not fully belong to it. I was born in Venezuela to an American mother and Guatemalan father, and grew up in Mexico City during the 1980s-90s. As the center of the country’s political and economic life, this mega-city exposed its residents, in quick succession, to one tumultuous and path changing event after another. The catastrophic 1985 earthquake, the 1982 and 1994 economic crises and peso devaluations, the demise of the PRI’s (Institutional Revolutionary Party) 71-year grip on power, President Carlos Salinas’s liberalization of the economy and subsequent fall from grace, the political assassinations of a presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, and PRI party leader, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu (my classmate’s father), the 1994 Zapatista revolt, and the country’s democratic transition and its travails in 2000, were all part of a ritualized chaos that Mexican citizens endured. Today, Mexico suffers from the ills of a Narco-state and organized crime that has led to 150,000 deaths since 2006. The inability to effectively police cartels have allowed these groups to commit barbarous acts of public violence that has led to the normalization of a death cult in Mexico. If there was ever a place where the carnage should end, it is Mexico and countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America where the experience of violence and disorder have led to an age of insecurity, lawlessness, and deterioration of norms.
When I left Mexico to study in the United States in 1997, I remember feeling an ineffable relief, a decompression of existential danger. While I was privileged among the majority of Mexicans, we all carried a lingering anxiety of being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, being stopped and shaken down by cops for a mordida (bribe). Moreover, everyday life was an incessant haggling for almost everything, from merchandise to even one’s driver’s license, not to mention a navigation of byzantine bureaucracies. The underlying presumption we held was to be prepared to be lied to and cheated by others, or worse, at every turn.
The United States, by contrast, was straightforward, both in the sense of everyday transactions and rule abidingness. Americans observed traffic rules and did not cut in line. Bus drivers did not race each other down city streets, people refrained from whistling curses at each other from cars, dog packs did not roam the streets. Americans were accustomed to peace, prosperity, and remarkable political stability. Since my fellow Americans did not have to navigate a semi-anarchic world, they had the luxury to be earnest in their dealings and concern themselves, mainly, with their parochial worlds. Overall, it seemed to me that Americans lived mostly, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, for their principal enjoyment, their personal pleasures.
Tocqueville also argued that Americans preferred gentle administration and that they had traded off public service and a robust sense of freedom for contentment and tranquility. Democratic people, observed Tocqueville, aim for “the satisfaction of their needs…they gratify a multitude of small desires and do not give themselves over to any great disordered passion; [t]hey fall into softness rather than debauchery.” Contentment and tranquility, however, did not prove sufficient for many in the mob. People from upscale suburbs, owners of small businesses, the son of an elected judge, a real-estate broker, assorted legislators, and a decorated Olympian all descended on Washington D.C. to protest and then riot to try to stop the American election process. These privileged rioters mixed with more dangerous and violent extremists. One man, who threatened to shoot Nancy Pelosi in the head, had brought firearms, and 1000 rounds of ammunition, including armor-piercing bullets. Some of these people came in groups and were more prepared and organized; they moved in disciplined lines among the mass of rioters.
What explains this violence? Or more precisely, what explains such violence in America, among people who might routinely be found at Church or at work, watching the Super bowl and hosting barbeques? There are many good and nuanced explanations circulating describing how far-right, extremists groups including neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and militia members became emboldened by the Trump presidency. Tim Snyder’s excellent piece, “American Abyss,” explains that we are in the post-truth pre-fascist stage in American history, while social scientists are pointing to the role that social media, spread of disinformation, and easy access to these mediums played in the riot. But there is something missing, I believe, in the explanations of the riot on the Capitol and that is the wild and shapeless nature of the violence, of the character of the rioters, and of President Trump himself. Americans, who count among the luckiest people in human history, joined Donald Trump and descended into barbarism.
The sober Tocqueville, who feared a soft despotism, likely would not have predicted the riot, perhaps even deeming it inconceivable. Yet Sarmiento, entrenched in a different human experience and political context, might have argued that American democracy and liberal society will never defeat the vilest passions of barbarism in the human soul, anger and vengeance, hatred of authority, and hatred of reason. In his work, Facundo, Sarmiento aims his criticism at the tyranny of Manuel Rosas, a political boss who had become the ruler of all of Argentina. The work is a magisterial epic and the biography of one caudillo in particular, Facundo Quiroga, who epitomized the rebellious spirit of the gaucho (the nomadic horseman) whose main desire is to live beyond restraint. He enjoys the pleasures of cruelty and lusts for violence. His anarchic desire for freedom leads him to impose his will on others.
Donald Trump is an American Facundo and Rosas. A coarse brawler living among the more urbane insiders in Manhattan and Washington D.C. He embodies the sheer materialism and competitiveness that drive out the more gentle habits of heart in a democracy: common decency, humility, and belief in a higher authority. Trump is pleased by violence, one has to look no farther than his sordid rallies and twitter feed. He generated such enthusiasm among his supporters by effectively barbarizing them for four years. On January 6, he turned them loose on Congress to commit acts of terror, specifically against Republicans. Rioters were heard chanting, “hang Mike Pence.” Acting as a mob, these people were willing to risk life and limb to topple the limits set by the authority. At that moment, they were able to act without restraints by imitating the barbaric soul of Donald Trump, a man who they knew to indulge in material acquisition, sexual abuse (certainly verbal, if not physical), and punishing enemies through fear and power.
American democracy demands submission to reason by observing civic pieties and cultivating habits small and large: waiting in line at the post office, respecting our neighbors, engaging in local public debates, and forming and joining associations. Rubbing elbows is the grease of democracy’s wheels, not tagging and trolling virtual profiles on social media apps. The mob of rioters should startle us not solely because it signaled the country’s divisiveness or people’s distrust in government and each other, but because it demonstrated an unrestrained will, the core of nature triumphing over reason, the tenuous hold civilization has over barbarism.
At his heart, Sarmiento was an educator. An admirer of the United States education system, he was also an autodidact, like his hero, Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography had a profound influence on his life. Having only received a primary education, Sarmiento made it his lifelong goal to “educate the sovereign, [the people].” A progressive of his time, Sarmiento dedicated his efforts to education regardless of class, ethnicity, and gender. Yet, if one is to mention Sarmiento’s ideas today among liberally educated, well-meaning elites, he is unlikely to get much of a hearing. The notions and language that create the dichotomy between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ are deemed by modern intellectuals as not only worn-out but unpalatable. Mostly, these intellectuals would look upon a Sarmiento as a man of his time, a prisoner of thoughts that are nothing but the mere prejudices of his age, a reflection of a broader cultural spectrum.
This dominant way of thinking of people as “social phenomena,” products of their cultural position, biases, and ideology, extends beyond the past into the present. According to Bandy Lee, a forensic psychologist, the reality of Trump and his supporters is a problem of “shared psychosis.” And what does she prescribe as the way forward? The dismantling of systems of thought control. According to this argument, my students, many of whom voted for Trump, ought to be treated as traumatized patients who “avoid seeing the truth.” Lee tells us that facts and logic are of no use with Trump’s followers. Where then does that leave us as educators? Do we treat our students as rational individuals or traumatized cult followers?
As we transition to a new era under our democratically-elected leader, President Biden has, so to speak, asked us to fall in love with the truth again. But how, exactly, do we do this? Is it not the dogma of my world, the university, that no capital T truth exists? That in a universe of value-neutral social and historical forces individuals matter little? When we do not prepare our students with a deep understanding of humanism, the interplay of human nature, time and place, then we fail to teach them that social and historical forces not only shape people but can also be molded by rational and irrational individuals. When the next Trump arrives on the scene, I want my students to have not only the ability to recognize and name the traits that describe such an individual, which are wicked, bad, and evil, but to also stand up to such a person. This is what Churchill and Roosevelt did with Hitler. What Romney, McCain, and Biden did with Trump. It is how civilization has persisted.
When the last of our character-educated leaders pass on, those who oppose tyrants with courage and conviction, who will replace them? We are in the era of anti-heroes and irresponsible rhetoricians that attract followings. Young people are being lured by these princes of contradiction, modern day sophists such as Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens. Perhaps, this is the new age of barbarism, a social media universe that operates by perfidy, degradation, bullying, reckless debate, and premature judgment. Where the amplification of one’s voice is victory, there is no room for common sense, ordinary decency, and measure. What can we offer to feed the souls of the next generation of sorely needed democratic heroes?
As a teacher, there is only one way I can think to combat this barbarity; for this, I may be thought arrogant or hopelessly anachronistic. We must implore and model to our students how to live more deeply. Like Sarmiento, and Plutarch, educators must temper students’ dangerous passions by offering them, as George Orwell advises, concrete illustrations rather than abstractions, biographies rather than theories. Through fostering concern and care for concrete things, a respect for what great books, television, art, music, and nature can teach us about the human condition, we can help students, caught up in a dizzying world, slow down. Perhaps we can help them understand that a loud voice, a million likes, or a viral post, is not the same as understanding or talent. By and large, we all need tutelage and discipline. We all must be willing to accept someone else’s higher standards as our own. I discovered this Socratic truth for myself at 18, reading Plato for the first time, and I feel it more profoundly today than I ever have. Our children, and those to come, deserve an education that will help them appreciate the precariousness of peace, prosperity, and political stability and keep barbarism at bay. This is my civilizing project.