If you read nothing else, read David Frum’s conclusion at the bottom of this article.
The past few weeks I’ve read numerous articles elaborating on the decline of democracies, elucidating the institutional, press, and public failures that permit the incremental descent into autocracy. As I read these articles, I told myself that acquiring this knowledge was good in and of itself. I didn’t think it necessarily helped me understand what was happening to America right now; however shocking and shameful the past few weeks have been.
Today, though, after reading that the Senate Finance Committee suspended committee rules to vote on the nominees who will lead the departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services without Democrats present, and then that Trump told the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to “go nuclear” if Democrats block his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court, I was filled with dread.
Essentially what this communicates to other GOP politicians and to the country is that President Trump and Senate GOP members are willing to dismantle the scaffolding of our democracy to accomplish their goals. It sets a precedent for goal-oriented anarchy. And do not be mistaken, as I was. The gradual process of eroding law, tradition, and principle can happen well within the bounds of legality. In fact, we can slip so slowly down that slope so as to not notice how far down we’ve gone.
David Frum’s March cover story in The Atlantic, “How to Build an Autocracy” is simultaneously a grim hypothetical and a cautionary tale on how autocratic regimes come to distort, contort and then constrict the checks and balances of a democracy.
“No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’ they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.”
For those of us who grew up with WWII receding into the past with each passing day, the possibility and the probability of such an authoritarian rule appears distant. We, the young electorate, are not equipped with the experience to recognize power grabs and governmental conformity through force when they happen. And the GOP, newly empowered to carry out its policy dreams, is not wont to reject its majority advantage, despite President Trump’s overreach. Indeed, congressional GOP members are more likely to turn their faces and claim ignorance.
“Do you have any concerns about Steve Bannon being in the White House?,” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Ryan in November. “I don’t know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns,” answered the speaker. “I trust Donald’s judgment.”
Frum warns that conformity is the mechanism through which the checks and balances that sustain our democracy whither into debility.
The Senate has historically checked presidential power through its own policy ambitions. However, as party politics predominated and reshaped the political landscape, the political ambitions of both branches, at any given time, tended to align. “Ambition will counteract ambition,” says Frum, “only until ambition discovers that conformity serves its goals better. At that time, Congress, the body expected to check presidential power, may become the president’s most potent enabler.” The public cannot rely on Congress to carry out its will unchecked. The robust GOP support around Jess Session, nominee for Attorney General, attests to this fact.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index rates 167 countries on a scale of 0 to 10 on 60 indicators that categorize countries as an Authoritarian or Hybrid Regime, or as a Flawed or Full Democracy. The indicators are subsumed under five ur-categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.
This year, the United States fell from its longstanding position as a Full Democracy to Flawed, now among countries like Greece, France, and Japan. The report clarifies that this fall is not due to Trump’s ascension but rather is explained by “a continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials.” Across Europe, roughly 70 countries experienced a similar decline explained by the same trend. (For some context, Norway ranks at a “near-perfect 9.93 out of 10, while North Korea remains rooted at the bottom of the table.”)
President Trump can unknowingly push us further down that scale. His surrogates and strategists—Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller key among them—will surely accelerate the process. Through the weakening of checks and balances, the conformity of Congress, the rot of cronyism, the ignition of fear and civil discord, and the powers of the presidency. That’s just at the procedural level.
At the distributive level, he has the power of the pardon, a protection from conflicts of interest, an ability to shuffle loyalists into coveted spots in the White House, into the various departments and into the judiciary. “Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation… Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy.”
And the civil unrest that all provokes may serve their ultimate goals.
“Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime,” notes Frum. The marches, the protests, the boycotts all confirm the picture of “American carnage” that President Trump painted in his inaugural speech. His supporters will believe their fears confirmed and security measures justified, further reifying the image of America as a forsaken, godless land in need of salvation. Trump our deliverance.
As I see it, Frum’s mission in this article was not to incite panic. I believe it was to galvanize the final check and balance in any democracy, aptly captured in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index as “political participation.”
The wealthy have long participated in our democracy with their money, that great mover of hearts, minds, and nations. But the public also wields great power. Numbers. The sheer amount of people who turned out to protest, who phoned Senators in opposition to the refugee ban, are a formidable force.
To be sure, their numbers are the separation between this world and the apocalyptic specter President Trump has conjured in the public imagination. And even the one Frum raised in his article.
What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.
Public opinion, public scrutiny, and public pressure still matter greatly in the U.S. political system. In January, an unexpected surge of voter outrage thwarted plans to neutralize the independent House ethics office. That kind of defense will need to be replicated many times. Elsewhere in this issue, Jonathan Rauch describes some of the networks of defense that Americans are creating.
Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state. Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.
Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them.
We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.” – David Frum