Is Trump Slowly Killing Democracy?

Last week we learned that months ago President Trump ordered his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn said he would quit rather than carry out the order, and Trump backed down. Since then there has been a lot of discussion about the president's pattern of obstructing the Russia investigation and his persistent lying and interference. There seems to be a consensus that over the course of the last few months Trump has shown an alarming propensity to abuse his power, but it's still unclear whether there is a clear case that he broke the law. If it can be proven that he has abused his power or broken the law, the one remedy everyone can agree upon -- as with any president -- is impeachment.

Because the Republican majority in Congress is acting as Trump's accomplices rather than a co-equal branch of government with oversight responsibility and an obligation to defend the Constitution, however, impeachment is highly unlikely. The GOP caucus in both houses is barely keeping up the pretense of investigating Russian interference in the election, and one group of powerful members is trying to create an alternative scandal, accusing top officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice of conspiring to help Hillary Clinton's campaign and destroy the Trump administration. According to The Washington Post, Trump himself has been pushing this operation, telling Chief of Staff John Kelly and supposedly recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions to aid in the effort.

Today those of us who consider ourselves civil libertarians find ourselves in the unusual position of defending law enforcement institutions about which we have deep skepticism, due to their secretiveness and the tremendous power they hold over average Americans. But in this case they're the ones under assault by a rogue group of equally powerful lawmakers and the president of the United States. These elected officials are deeply authoritarian by instinct, ideology and temperament. They are clearly using their authority to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms and practices, not uphold them.

This president and his henchmen could create an authoritarian regime within the rough boundaries of the Constitution and the imprimatur of democratic legitimacy. It would hardly be unprecedented. It's the way it happens in the modern world. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a new book, "How Democracies Die," which surveys how democratic nations can slide into authoritarianism when they lose their willingness to live by two specific norms: mutual toleration and forbearance.

The first is the belief that the opposition is operating in good faith and with a common love of country. The other is the forbearance not to push the boundaries of power, something that all the players in our system have more of than the law can possibly constrain on its own. The authors describe how other democracies like Chile became authoritarian when these basic principles were stripped away.

In their view, America is in danger of going down that road, having weakened its system going back to the 1980s, when the back-benchers of the Republican Party, led by Newt Gingrich, began to attack democratic norms that had been in place since the end of the Civil War -- the last time American democracy went sideways.

They describe the current polarization of the two parties as part of a societal and cultural split, rather than an ideological division.

In this article in The New York Times, Levitsky and Ziblatt note that 50 years ago, only 5 percent of Americans said they'd be unhappy if their child married someone of the opposite political party. Today, 33 percent of Democrats and a whopping 49 percent of Republicans say they would be displeased with that eventuality. An equal number of Republicans say they are afraid of Democrats, while 55 percent of Democrats feel that way about Republicans. It's fairly obvious that this is about race, secularism and modernity. Both parties used to be predominantly white and now we have one that is almost entirely white and Christian, while the other is a diverse and largely secular mixture of religions, races and ethnicities.

The authors point out the nub of the problem:

White Christians are not just any group: They are a once-dominant majority in decline. When a dominant group’s social status is threatened, racial and cultural differences can be perceived as existential and irreconcilable. The resulting polarization preceded (indeed, made possible) the Trump presidency, and it is likely to persist after it.

Conservative politicians like Gingrich, Dick Cheney and more recently Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, started to abandon democratic norms a long time ago, starting with the slash-and-burn politics of the '90s and through the Bush and Obama years. They eventually evolved into something more closely resembling an organized gang dedicated to protecting their turf by any means necessary than a recognizable American political party. Today, Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, says:

Of course the president ought to be able to expect loyalty. He is the chosen president of the United States by the American people, and he is the chief executive. If they’re not loyal to him, who the hell are they supposed to be loyal to?

Every American used to know that the answer to that was "the Constitution and the rule of law."

Trump knows nothing of norms and wouldn't understand the concepts of toleration and  forbearance. He is a primitive creature trying to survive, and he will use whatever means at his disposal unless someone can convince him that it's more dangerous to use it than not to. Even then, he sees himself as a risk-taker and could very well decide that it's worth gambling everything to stay in the game. There's every reason to believe that his party will back him up.

So far, Trump's administration has been a chaotic mess, and for the most part, the institutions are holding, even if they are starting to fray at the seams. But authoritarianism can happen by accident as much as design. As Jeet Heer writes in this piece in the New Republic, precisely because Trump "is a weak president who doesn’t know how to achieve his agenda, he’s given to strident rhetoric attacking the legitimacy of his political foes and the institutions that stand in his way."

Every such attack undermines the stability of our democratic system, giving succor to those who are anxious to use the opening for their own gain and emboldening those who applauded the dark American world Trump promised back on the campaign trail. It's entirely possible that we are sliding backwards into a new authoritarian system one tweet at a time without even knowing it.

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