The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, John Avlon, visited The Daily Show Tuesday night and host Trevor Noah began by asking him just what made George Washington’s farewell address so important that he decided to write an entire book about it. “There are few books that have been written around this time that connect completely with an idea of what’s happening in America,” Noah told him.
“This was the most famous civic scripture in American history for our first 150 years,” Avlon said, noting that Washington was “voluntarily leaving power, something we take for granted but was a revolutionary act then.” Washington “decided to write about the forces he felt could destroy our democratic republic.” Those forces included “hyperpartisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars.”
“We’re playing with fire here, folks, and George Washington called it,” Avlon added. Washington feared, he explained, that political parties would “push a narrow, self-interested agenda that would block the national interest” and “create a deadlocked and dysfunctional democracy” that would leave citizens “so frustrated by the inefficiency and ineffectiveness that it could open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions.”
“Well, that has happened,” Noah said. “So is there anything that people can look to in the speech that gives us some sort of indication of how to combat this? Is there any way of going back? If George Washington time-traveled to America now, America in 2017, do you think he would be able to survive America’s current political climate?”
After saying Washington would be pretty “freaked out” by what he found, Avlon said, “I think he really tried to resist the rise of political parties, but he was a man in psychic pain as he wrote this, because he saw his two most talented surrogate sons, Alexander Hamilton, who he wrote the farewell address with, and Jefferson scheming to create political parties. He was trying to resist it.”
“He realized that the growth of parties was perhaps inevitable, but we needed to hold them in check and we have utterly failed to do that,” he continued. “And I think the core wisdom Washington had, which is something we could remember, is that our independence as a nation is inseparable from our interdependence as a people.”
It’s easy to forget that, he said, because “there’s always some folks selling snake oil, trying to say, ‘I’m a better American, I’m a better representative of the Founding Fathers because I want to divide us into us against them, but that’s always been the demagogue’s calling card. Washington called those folks pretend patriots because they’d try to rise to power on division, rather than trying to unite us. And that’s just one of the fundamental fault lines in American politics we need to confront, clear-eyed.”
“I never thought I’d say this, but you just made me want to go back to the time of George Washington,” Noah said in response.
Neither man needed to mention President Donald Trump’s name to make the target of their stark warning abundantly clear.