How to fight the slide into an authoritarian dictatorship
Donald Trump has now openly threatened the judiciary. It’s not clear whether he will obey legal decisions that run counter to what he wants to do. The open use of the presidency for personal profit (the U.S. government covering the costs associated with business trips by Eric Trump, Melania’s lawsuit in which she explicitly states that she plans to make millions through the branding opportunities that she has by being First Lady, Donald Trump’s angry tweets at companies for not stocking Ivanka’s products) is bad enough, but there is more danger in Trump’s continued denial of reality (crime rates are the highest they’ve ever been!! (totally false), U.S. is most highly taxed country in the world!! (totally false), and so on). It’s also unnerving when he threatens to destroy the career of politicians who differ with him: this is the very mark of a dictator.
Jonathan Rauch has a good article in the Atlantic that speaks to this crisis:
Whatever his intellectual and political gifts, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was a cunning and dangerous criminal. For him, issuing illegal orders was literally just another day at the office.
One such day, in July of 1971 (nearly a year before the Watergate break-in), found him ordering his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to execute a burglary. The president was exercised about politically damaging documents that he imagined were possessed by scholars at the Brookings Institution, a respected Washington think tank, where I now work. “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon railed, banging on the desk for emphasis. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night?”
Haldeman: “No, sir, they didn’t.”
Nixon: “No. Get it done. I want it done! I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out!”
Anyone who wants to hear the president of the United States sounding like a B-movie mobster will find dozens of examples on the Nixon presidential library’s website. Nixon compiled lists of enemies, tried to suborn the IRS and the CIA, demanded that Jews be investigated and fired (“You can’t trust the bastards”), created a personal black-ops team (the Plumbers), raised hush money and established slush funds, suggested engaging thugs to beat up protesters, proposed selling ambassadorships, spied on political activists, and orchestrated cover-ups. He remained in office for nearly six years, ultimately being forced out only because he made the astonishing mistake of recording himself breaking the law. Until the Supreme Court ordered the tapes turned over to a special prosecutor in July of 1974, Nixon still had enough support to survive a removal vote in the Senate.
The 45th president, Donald Trump, might pose the gravest threat to the constitutional order since the 37th. Of course, he might not. Perhaps we’ll get Grown-up Trump, an unorthodox and controversial president who, whatever one may think of his policies and personality, proves to be responsible and effective as a chief executive. But we might get Infantile Trump, an undisciplined narcissist who throws tantrums and governs haphazardly. Or perhaps, worse yet, we’ll get Strongman Trump, who turns out to have been telegraphing his real intentions when, during the campaign, he spread innuendo and misinformation, winked at political violence, and proposed multiple violations of the Constitution and basic decency. Quite probably we’ll get some combination of all three (and possibly others).
If we get Strongman Trump or Infantile Trump, how would we protect our democratic institutions and norms? “Don’t be complacent,” warns Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian who was the founding director of the Nixon presidential library. “Don’t assume the system is so strong that a bad president will be sent packing. We have someone now saying things that imply unconstitutional impulses. If he acts on those impulses, we’re going to be in the political struggle of our lifetimes.” Meeting that challenge, I think, hinges on whether civil society can mobilize to contain and channel Trump. Fortunately, that’s happening already.
It’s tempting to think of Trump as a fluke, and to believe that at the end of his administration everything will return to normal. Many people hold a darker view, though—among them Yascha Mounk, the co-founder of a new watchdog group called After Trump. A lecturer on government at Harvard and a fellow at the New America Foundation, Mounk thinks the stakes are high. “Most people,” he told me, “are thinking about Trump as a policy problem: how he will lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants or lead the U.S. to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. But I think Trump is also potentially an authoritarian threat to the survival of liberal democracy.”
Mounk is a 35-year-old German who studied in the United Kingdom before coming to the United States. He’s Jewish, and in Germany his Judaism made him an object of curiosity. “They thought of me as an outsider,” he told me. When we first spoke, he was waiting for his final immigration interview before taking the oath of U.S. citizenship. In America, he says, “It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, what religion you are. That’s where I want to live.” He sees America as the world’s preeminent example of multiethnic liberalism, a model he believes is under attack.
Mounk’s work first came to my attention this past summer, when he and Roberto Stefan Foa, of the University of Melbourne, published an article in the Journal of Democracy showing a decline in support for democracy in the West. The decline is alarming. In the U.S., the proportion of people saying it would be good or very good for the “Army to rule” rose from one in 16 in 1995 to one in six in 2014. Ominously, the trend was strongest among the young. When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how essential it was for them to live in a democracy, 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s chose 10, but the proportion dropped with each succeeding decade, falling to only about 30 percent for people born in the 1980s.
The trends were similar in Europe. “I started looking at developments in Europe and also in the United States,” Mounk told me, “and started thinking that democracy was much less stable than people assumed.” In Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, and other new and emerging democracies, authoritarian-minded populists had adopted versions of what Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has called illiberal democracy, which Mounk defines as democracy without rights. In Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other mature democracies, authoritarian populists were gaining in popularity and clout.
At first, scholars and editors pooh-poohed Mounk’s alarmism. Recent events, though, have made a global retreat from democracy look disturbingly plausible. Mounk calls the trend “democratic deconsolidation.” When I asked why, he explained that many students of political development have supposed that in prosperous and democratic parts of the world, liberal democracy has consolidated its standing. Unfortunately, that reassuring theory now appears to be wobbly. Democracy can start to unwind if popular support for it declines, if the public becomes open to undemocratic alternatives, and if undemocratic politicians emerge who can exploit that opening. All of those factors are visible in a multitude of places. “Democracy is no longer the only game in town,” Mounk says.
Why? Mounk suspects the mutually reinforcing effects of three different but related social vectors. The first is. . .
Later in the article:
. . . But there’s a tougher problem we’ll have to confront: behavior by either the administration or its allies that is, in Goldsmith’s phrase, “lawful but awful.” As Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution expert on legal affairs, told me, “The first thing you’re going to blow through is not the laws, it’s the norms.” By “norms,” he means such political and social customs as respecting the law, accepting the legitimacy of your political opponents, tolerating speech you disagree with, performing civic duties like voting and staying informed, treating public office with dignity, and not lying. Fervently and frequently, the Founders warned that the Constitution would stand or fall on the public’s commitment to high standards of behavior—what they called republican virtue. James Madison said “parchment barriers” could not withstand the corruption of democratic norms. George Washington, in his farewell address, said, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” John Adams warned that “avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net.” When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the Constitution established, he replied: “A republic—if you can keep it.” . . .