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Chipping Away at Democracy

Trump has been chipping away at the foundations of our democracy during his campaign and his first three months in the White House. We seem to be taking it in stride, so perhaps a small recap might help.


Trump has been having a hard time with federal judges, particularly in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. First his infamous travel ban has been blocked, twice. His response was to declare that our judges are putting the country at risk and are playing politics. Responding to the travel ban he said: “I think it’s sad, I think it’s a sad day. I think our security is at risk today. And it will be at risk until such time that we are entitled and get what we are entitled to as citizens of this country. We want security.” While it is unusual for a president to comment on court rulings relating to policy, Trump’s purpose seems to be to undermine the integrity of the judiciary in the public’s mind, to separate citizens from their judges, and to blame the judges for any future terrorist attacks in the United States.

Things get more disturbing when looking at Trump’s response to the blocking of his executive order on Sanctuary Cites. After declaring that the judge’s ruling would be a gift to gangs and criminals and threaten the security of citizens, he attacked the judge for not being an elected official, those creating a competition of legitimacy between the judiciary and the presidency. He said: “This case is yet one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.”

Personal attacks on judges is nothing new, of course. We remember that Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing the fraud case against Trump University in San Diego, calling him “a ‘hater’ who was being unfair to him because the judge is ‘Hispanic,’ because he is ‘Mexican’ and because Trump is building a wall.” To the issue of security and legitimacy, we add race.

Instead of dealing with the law and the courts in a constructive way (perhaps writing legal executive orders, for example), he suggested instead breaking up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the judges are difficult, just reorder the judiciary to reduce its power.

Trump’s attack on the judiciary is both personal and political. The purpose of his assault is to create mistrust of and distance from the law. He seeks to separate citizens from the law while nurturing the voters’ trust in himself.

The United States is a nation of laws. While that principle is an ideal, it is still shocking to hear a president say: “As the leader of the free world, I should be able to do what I choose. The court shouldn't be able to get involved.” To suggest that the law should have no authority over the president’s policies and actions is remarkable in a democracy. To suggest that a president should be able to do whatever he or she wants is to say that the president is above the law.

First Amendment

Trump has shown little respect for the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

His attacks have focused on undermining the legitimacy of the free press and arguing for changes to the libel laws to make it easier for people to sue the press. He has called the press the enemy of the people, that it puts the country in danger, that it is a source of fake news, that it is out of control and dishonest, that it is failing, and that it is not “my or your priorities.”

Once again it seems his purpose is to undermine the integrity of the media, to generate distrust, and to create a chasm between a free press and the citizenry. He and his White House gang have consistently and persistently challenged the media’s interpretation of events. He has challenged the basic understanding of our shared reality. Trump has labelled all communication from the media, with the exception of Fox News and Brietbart News, as fake, unreliable, and dishonest, claiming that only he can be trusted to tell the truth. Once again he is attempting to shift our loyalties from foundational institutions of our democracy to himself – from institution to person.

Electoral System

Throughout the campaign Trump challenged the integrity of the electoral process. He repeatedly claimed the election was rigged and that his followers might not accept the results if he were to lose (one of his many illusions to possible violence if things did not go his way). He claimed that electoral fraud was a huge problem in the country even though study after study has demonstrated that there is virtually no systematic fraud in American elections.

He claimed that millions of non-citizens were voting even though states report that only between 0.0003 and 0.0001 percent of votes were cast by non-citizens. He declared that Clinton’s almost three million vote majority in the popular vote were illegal votes, again with no evidence. And during the campaign he refused to say whether or not he would accept the result of the election if he lost.

Trump worked to undermine the integrity of and the trust in our election process.

Constitutional Checks and Balances

Finally, Trump has questions the very heart of our constitutional democracy: the checks and balances between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. In an interview with Fox News he said: “You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House — but the rules of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through — it's really a bad thing for the country, in my opinion. They're archaic rules. And maybe at some point we're going to have to take those rules on, because, for the good of the nation, things are going to have to be different.” And: “You can't go through a process like this. It's not fair. It forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, you're really forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.” 

Once again, remarkable statements from the president of the United States. He did take make an oath to protect the Constitution, did he not?

The separation of the branches of government and the ability of each branch to check the others is part of our constitutional bedrock. Obviously, it can be frustrating. It can slow the working of governing. And when one political party decides to thwart the mechanism of governing, it can lead to gridlock. However, it is essential that the federal courts can declare legislation by the legislature and/or the executive as unconstitutional. Without that check, it is easy to image a congressional dictatorship or a president who really is above the law and can do whatever he or she desires. It’s important that Congress can override a presidential veto to prevent presidential overreach. And so on.

Shadows of Autocracy

The attacks on the judiciary, the First Amendment, the electoral system, and the constitutional checks and balances, all fundamental to our democracy, can be read as an attempt to consolidate power in the presidency. It is a move towards autocracy. Perhaps we should take more seriously the world leaders Trump admires: Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Prayut Chan-o-cha (Thailand), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Marine Le Pen (France), Nigel Farage (Great Britain).

It would be harmless, if Trump were speaking to a blank wall and tweeting into digital emptiness, but he is not. There are 62 million Americans who love his bluster, attacks, tweets, executive orders, and rants. His bizarreness, pathological lying,  unintelligible interviews, and embrace of authoritarian leaders have no impact on their support. The fact that his policies, if implemented, would have a severe detrimental impact on their lives matters not. The fact that facts are irrelevant to him, is just fine. Those who are not part of the 62 million should be concerned. We really have fallen down the rabbit hole.

Despite the 62 million, Trump’s ratings are in the toilet. The combination of autocratic tendencies and terrible polls is concerning. All presidents benefit from bombing other countries. I have no doubt that if Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would have by now dropped some bombs on somebody somewhere far away from the US. As it turned out, we’ve handed control of our military to Trump and he has benefitted from putting it to use. We’re all aware of the 59 Tomahawks he dropped on Syria. Even some in the liberal press started gushing that Trump had finally become presidential (which says a lot about American values – bombs not bread indicate presidential integrity). However, with little fanfare Trump has also increased bombing in Syria and Iraq in general. In the first three months of 2017 Trump has dropped 60% more bombs than the first three months in 2016. 

What we should also fear in this contentious relationship between military power, autocratic dreams, and presidential job ratings, is a major human made disaster taking place in the United States. If an autocrat wants to increase his powers – free himself of the annoyance of free speech, a truth-seeking media, problematic judges, and constitutional restraints – a crisis is most helpful.

Turkey was once a secular democracy, but it is now quickly becoming an autocracy with theocratic leanings. Aided by the failed military coup attempt in July 2016 the voting public has willingly and enthusiastically voted to move Turkey from a democracy to an autocracy giving Erdoğan immense power. Since the failed coup he has fired 120,000 people from their jobs and arrested 40,000 people, a purge that has been directed at the media, military, police, government, judiciary, universities, and religious organizations (The Gülen movement founded by Fethullah Gülen). The free press is being eliminated (about 150 media works in jail). The constitution has been changed to consolidate power in the presidency. Political opposition has been stifled. And yet, the people rejoice.

It seems melodramatic to even imply such a thing could happen here. The United States is not Turkey, or Hungary, or the Philippians, or Russia. And yet. The journey from democracy to autocracy does not happen overnight (though the failed coup in Turkey surely moved things along for Erdoğan). Break up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as you convince the 62 million that judges can’t be trusted and that they endanger the country. Undermine the integrity of journalism one tweet at a time while telling the 62 million who they can trust – Trump: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.” Increase the powers of the presidency to counter those pesky constitutional checks and balances. Just chip away for eight years. Take advantage of every terrorist attack and bad news story that comes down the pike. And hold on to your 62 million. If you think I’m melodramatic, listen to historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University: it’s “pretty much inevitable” that Trump will try and overthrow American democracy by staging a coup. Hmmm…

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

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