image of digital billboard promoting an online petition supporting impeaching

Trump’s Impeachment May Decide Whether America’s Democracy Survives

 

by Tony Wyman


 

The Trump Impeachment – a barometer of the resiliency of democracy

 

The first critical test of whether a democracy is destined to live and flourish or wither and die is how its political leaders respond to the threat of an authoritarian taking control of the country.

Do they unify together to oppose the would-be dictator, forgetting party rivalries for the good of the people, standing in solidarity behind the constitution in defense of democracy?  Or do they abandon the rule of law, jettison the nation’s founding principles, and, out of either fear or political expediency, ally with the dictator, casting aside their duty to the people to make room for his emergence into the political mainstream?

The country bungled that test in 2016 when the GOP failed to prevent a dogmatic, imperious demagogue from becoming the nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and the American people elected him their leader.

The price of failing that test is that America now faces the impeachment of Donald Trump, a man whose attacks on the political norms that have governed this country for more than 243 years risk the very democracy he was elected to lead.

That comment might strike some as hyperbolic, especially those who support the president, but the reality is our republic hasn’t been on political ground this shaky in decades. 

America’s confidence in self-governance has declined to the point where only 10% say they are “very satisfied” with how democracy is working in America and 43% of Republicans told Pew Research the country would be better off if the president had fewer checks and balances placed upon him by Congress and the courts.

Pew Research poll
Of Republicans, 43% believe the president could be more effective if he didn’t have as many checks and balances on his power than he currently does under the Constitution.

Add to these numbers the fact that a major political party, the Republicans, are refusing to hold the president accountable for eroding the political norms and traditions that shape the way politics is conducted in this country and you start to understand the danger America faces from within.

No one captured this better than Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the authoritatively written book, How Democracies Die.

“Blatant dictatorship – in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule – has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means,” they wrote in 2018.

Today, instead of dying a bloody death, democracies die quietly, sometimes almost unnoticed, like the democracies that once existed in Turkey before the rise of the tyrant Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines before Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016, and Russia, before, as the Washington Post put it, Vladimir Putin became the “world’s favorite dictator.”

It was leaders coming to power by the will of the people, expressed at the ballot box, who upended freedom and attacked democratic institutions and the free press in those countries, as well as others like Venezuela, Poland, Georgia, Nicaragua, Hungry, Peru, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.

Today’s authoritarians no longer come to power by attacking the presidential palace and killing their predecessor.  They don’t fill the streets with armed troops who take command of vital government facilities and trade fire with loyal government soldiers.  They no longer rewrite their nation’s constitutions or scrap them, altogether.

Instead, things stay largely the same.  People still vote, the legislatures still meet and pass bills, the military stays in its barracks and the veneer of democracy still exists.  For many people, the death of a democracy happens in the shadows, going unnoticed.  Until it is too late to do anything about it.

“Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells,” wrote Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt. “Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

Backsliding into Tyranny

This is precisely what is happening in America today.  While the foundations of democracy are substantially stronger in this country than they were in Turkey, the Philippines and Russia, they are still not invulnerable.  Our cultural and historic affinity for freedom and democracy has been challenged several times before by men with authoritarian leanings similar to those of Donald Trump.

Charles Lindbergh in a rally
Revered as a hero for completing a flight across the Atlantic, aviator Charles Lindbergh was also a Nazi sympathizer who worked against American involvement in World War II on the side of the Allies

Extremist demagogues like Charles Lindbergh, the legendary pilot. He was a Nazi sympathizer and leader of the America First Committee, an anti-semitic and pro-fascist group with 800,000 members that campaigned to keep the United States from joining the Allies against the Axis during World War II

Had his efforts succeeded, Mr. Lindbergh likely would have run against FDR in 1940, a hypothesis explored by novelist Philip Roth in his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America.” 

Industrialist hero Henry Ford, who launched a half-hearted campaign for president in 1924, was an avowed anti-semite who blamed the Jews for an “…outbreak of thieving and robbery all over the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the navy…”

He published 91 articles in his hometown paper, The Dearborn Independent, claiming there was a vast Jewish conspiracy spreading throughout America, and bound them in four books, printing and distributing a half-million copies to friends, car dealerships and the paper’s subscribers.

Politician Huey Long, nicknamed “The Kingfish,” was poised to challenge FDR after splitting with his fellow Democrat in 1933.  Senator Long was, effectively, America’s first tyrant, setting up a dictatorship for himself in his home state of Louisiana

About the assassination of Mr. Long, The Nation, America’s oldest political magazine, wrote, “Huey Long was America’s first dictator. His was a little dictatorship in domain, but it was grim and vengeful in spirit, and it was a sensational challenge to democracy.”

Unlike Mr. Trump, each of the men mentioned above failed to reach the highest office in the land.  Political forces aligned against them to keep their ambitions in check and the American people were spared the damage to the country that would have resulted from the presidencies of Mr. Lindbergh, Mr. Ford and Mr. Long.

The Second Test of a Democracy

We, however, were not so fortunate.  And now we are presented with the second test a democracy faces when it elects a demagogue to power: will the institutions of democracy withstand the autocrat’s challenge to the rule of law and the power of the constitution or will they bend to his will and be co-opted by him?

Without the support of both political parties – principled Republicans willing to put their political futures at risk for the sake of their nation and Democrats capable of reaching across the aisle to inspire their colleagues to put America first when it genuinely matters – as well as the active support of private citizens organized into effective political pressure groups, institutions alone don’t have the spine needed to stand firm against an elected authoritarian.

Unless citizens and their elected representatives stand in defense of political norms, they will be swept away by the autocrat in power and his web of supporters and become tools he uses to advance his agenda and promote his authority.

“Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be,” wrote professors Levitsky and Ziblatt.  “Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.”

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents.

The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”

So, are we likely to pass this second test?

Is Trump an Authoritarian?

To answer that question, we first need to know if Mr. Trump is, indeed, an authoritarian president or just one with numerous odd, alarming and, often, embarrassing personal shortcomings.  In their book, Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblatt address this question. 

They list four critical characteristics or “behavioral warning signs” of an authoritarian to look for in assessing whether the leader of a country is a danger to the nation’s freedoms and political norms.

  1. The rejection, in words or action, of the democratic rules of the game.
  2. The denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. The toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. The willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media

Regrettably, Mr. Trump possesses each of these characteristics.  His repeated attempts to bypass Congress, his use of the word “fake” to describe anyone who challenges him, his threats of a civil war if he is impeached, and his attempts to unfairly silence critics are proof of this.

“How serious is the threat now?” ask the professors. Many observers take comfort in our constitution, which was designed precisely to thwart and contain demagogues like Trump. Our Madisonian system of checks and balances has endured for more than two centuries. It survived the civil war, the great depression, the Cold War and Watergate. Surely, then, it will be able to survive Trump.

We are less certain. Historically, our system of checks and balances has worked pretty well – but not, or not entirely, because of the constitutional system designed by the founders. Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms.”

Two norms, in particular, are critical, according to the professors: “mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that
politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.”

These norms supported American democracy for generations.  In the past, during days when Republicans and Democrats would fight it out on the floors of the House and Senate before going out together to share a drink at local bars in D.C., no one questioned the legitimacy of the other side to serve, no one questioned the patriotism of his or her colleague from the other side of the aisle.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama
A popular and discredited conspiracy theory promoted by political opponents of President Barack Obama was the 44th president wasn’t born in the United States. Donald Trump, his successor, was the most prominent promoter of what was known as the “birther conspiracy theory.”

In today’s toxic political environment, one made much worse by extremists, unrestrained by either political party, spreading partisan propaganda across social media, that is no longer the case. 

The weakening of these norms began in the 1980s with the Democratic campaign to discredit the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork and the scorched earth politics waged by Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater. 

By the time Barack Obama became president, the concept of forbearance had all but disappeared from the political landscape.

While Mr. Trump has certainly inflamed partisanship in American politics, taking it to a level of toxicity never seen before in this country, he didn’t invent it.   

But the fact that he has dramatically escalated the corrosive tone of American politics and accelerated the decline of democratic norms to a point where our very system of self-rule is in question, is more than enough reason for Congress to hold him accountable for his actions.

And if the men and women we’ve elected to represent us in Washington don’t correct the mistake the American people made in November 2016, it will be up to voters in 2020 to save our democracy.  The warning signs that our nation is in peril are abundant, clear and staring us in our faces.     

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