Tag Archives: democracy

A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic

Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow him to start building his wall by redirecting funds Congress has appropriated for other purposes. The speculation-to-action ratio has been particularly high since then, with political and legal experts giving conflicting views of what will happen next. Let me see if I can boil it down without adding to the confusion.

1. The declaration was made in bad faith. There is no national emergency on the southern border. Trump admitted as much: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.”

As I explained two weeks ago (under the sub-head “and national emergencies”), the point of the national emergency process is to allow the President to respond to events that unfold too fast for Congress to take action. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration and smuggling on the Mexican border, they have been playing out over decades, and are less serious now than they have been at other times.

Congress has had plenty of time to consider appropriating money to build a wall, and has decided not to do it.

With no honest case to be made for either a national emergency or for circumventing Congress to build a wall, Trump once again gave a speech full of lies.

2. This is unlike any previous emergency declaration. As Trump rightly pointed out, presidents have declared national emergencies before (59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace). But a national emergency declaration has never been used as a partisan weapon before. Wallace challenged Trump advisor Stephen Miller to “point to a single instance when the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money and the president then invoked national emergency powers to get the money”. Miller could not answer.

A national emergency declaration has never been challenged in Congress or the courts before, but that’s because previous presidents have used them in uncontroversial ways, not because Trump is being specially persecuted by his opponents.

3. The money will be taken from more worthy projects. USA Today lists the sources.

$3.6 billion will come from a military construction fund, and White House officials admitted that “they did not yet know which military constructions might be cancelled or delayed by the move.” Military Times lists some possibilities:

a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.

Also: a middle school on an Army base in Kentucky. Lindsey Graham explained that “It’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border.”

Another $2.5 billion will come from a Defense Department drug-interdiction program. So presumably it will be easier now to get drugs into the country by boat or plane. Trump’s bogus wall, which will do little to affect drug traffic, will squeeze out programs that actually catch drug smugglers.

4. Congress still has a chance to weigh in, but there’s a catch. As originally passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act allowed what is known as a legislative veto: Congress could override the President’s declaration if both houses agreed to do so. This is, in fact, likely to happen. The Democratic House will pass a resolution against the emergency fairly easily, and the Republican Senate will probably follow suit. (In order to do so, all 47 Democrats and 4 Republicans will have to agree. Mitch McConnell can’t prevent the resolution from coming to the floor, and it can’t be filibustered.)

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court (in regard to a different law entirely) found legislative vetoes to be unconstitutional. As laid out in the Constitution, Congress passes laws and the President has an option to veto them. Congress can delegate its power to the President (as it did in the National Emergencies Act), but it can’t switch places with the President and give itself veto power over his decisions.

As a result, Congress can still undo the President’s declaration, but it requires a joint resolution, which is then subject to a presidential veto. A two-thirds majority of each house would then be necessary to override the President’s veto. This is currently considered unlikely, because not enough Republicans are willing to go against Trump.

So the most likely scenario goes like this: Congress passes a joint resolution against the emergency, the President vetoes it, and Congress fails to override the veto.

5. Then it’s up to the courts. Congress will sue on the grounds that its power of the purse has been usurped. States along the border will sue. Property owners whose land will be seized will sue. Some of those suits have already been filed. (Congress’ suit will probably wait until after its attempt to override the emergency declaration fails.) Then the courts will have to decide whether Trump’s emergency is legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you want to hear, I can point you to an expert who predicts it. Vox assembled 11 experts, and their responses amounted to: Judges shouldn’t OK this, but there’s just enough justification that they can if they want to.

The point of view most generous to Trump is that Congress screwed up when it passed the National Emergencies Act, so its power-of-the-purse is delegated, even if it shouldn’t be. The law doesn’t define “emergency”, but trusts the president not to abuse his power to declare one. Who knew we’d eventually have an untrustworthy president?

Some judges will feel that it’s not their job to second-guess Trump on this. That’s more-or-less how the Muslim Ban case came out. After the administration revised its first two obviously-unconstitutional Muslim bans, the third one passed muster — not because the 5-4 Supreme Court majority agreed with the bigoted pile of bullshit Trump used to justify it, but because five justices deferred to the president’s judgment and declined to examine the details.

As with the Muslim ban, this case hangs on the question of bad faith: How transparently faithless does the President have to be before a judge is obligated to notice?

The problem I have with the Congress-screwed-up view is that the original version of the law didn’t delegate this much power, because Congress retained the ability to override illegitimate emergencies. Now the President only needs one-third of one house to support him. So the Supreme Court changed something significant in the law when it rejected legislative vetoes.

So I would be tempted to make the same kind of argument that conservatives have made against the Affordable Care Act: The National Emergencies Act is a coherent whole, and you can’t invalidate the legislative veto while leaving the delegation-of-power intact. I haven’t heard anyone make that argument, so there must be some reason not to (aside from the fact that all of the currently active national emergencies become invalid, which might not be a bad thing).

6. And the people. This is something worth getting into the streets about. MoveOn has protests planned today, and no doubt there will be others soon.

If you live in a state or district represented by a Republican, you need to challenge your representative to defend the Republic. The expectation that Congress can’t override a veto is based on the idea that most Republicans will stand by Trump’s seizure of power. But if they hear from enough voters, they won’t.

7. Once again, conservatives in Congress and in the courts  will face a challenge: Will they support Trump, even at the expense of what was once considered a core conservative principle? Over the last several decades, much hot air has been blown about defending “the Constitution” and “the vision of the Founding Fathers”. It goes virtually without saying that neither the Constitution nor the Founders ever envisioned or endorsed a process like this: Congress refuses to fund a presidential project, the president seizes the money, both houses vote to condemn that seizure, but it goes through anyway.

Any congressional Republican who refuses to override Trump’s emergency declaration or his subsequent veto can never again claim to be a defender of the Constitution, and should never again be allowed to invoke the Founding Fathers without hearing about this betrayal of their vision. Any judge who allows this travesty to play out can likewise never in good conscience claim to be an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” rather than a partisan judicial activist.

8. There are hardly any core conservative principles left. Republican respect for the Constitution has been suspect at least since Mitch McConnell ignored President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. The GOP’s claim on the Constitution further eroded when the Party decided to ignore the Emoluments Clause and let Trump profit from what are essentially bribes by foreign governments and the governments of the states. But it’s also worth considering the other conservative principles that have already fallen since Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee.

Republicans once claimed to care about the federal deficit, but they have allowed Trump to blow up the federal balance sheet in a completely unprecedented fashion. The record Bush/Obama deficit of FY2009 was a response to an economic catastrophe, but Trump’s deficits are approaching those levels in the late stages of an economic expansion, when the federal budget should be in its best shape. (President Clinton had a surplus during a comparable period.) The next recession, which is due to hit soon, will send deficits into territory never before seen.

Republicans once championed a global system of free trade, but now they stand for tariffs, presidential bullying of American corporations, and one-on-one negotiations with each country.

Republicans once were the advocates for rural America, but now Republican trade policies hit farmers harder than anyone.

Republicans claim their opposition to undocumented immigration stems from a belief in the rule of law, but they support Trump in violating our laws by refusing to let refugees turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum.

Republicans once claimed to be the party of patriotism and freedom, and promoted Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now they stand behind a president who is totally subservient to a Russian dictator, who shows no respect to the world’s other democracies, and instead expresses admiration and envy for brutal autocrats like China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and the Philippines’ Duterte.

Republicans once styled themselves as the party of traditional family values, and (particularly during the Clinton administration) talked endlessly about the importance of a president’s character. Now they make excuses for Trump’s infidelity, corruption, sexual assaults, and shameless lying.

What ground is left for Republicans to stand on, other than bigotry against Hispanics, making the rich richer, and a naked desire to wield power?

Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy

From the beginning, the government of the United States has been founded on compromise. The Constitutional Convention created the House to give big states their due power and the Senate to protect the small states. Slave states wanted their representation in Congress to reflect their whole population, slave and free, while free states wanted representation determined only by free residents. They settled on counting 3/5 of the slave population.

Through the early 19th century, a series of compromises held the Union together: You can have Missouri as a state if we can have Maine. We’ll start a Bank of the United States, but with a charter that will need to be renewed. (It wasn’t.) Henry Clay was known as the Great Compromiser. It was a compliment, not an insult.

That pattern continued into the 20th century: Your district wants a bridge, mine wants a dam; let’s do both. Urban liberals want to fund food stamps, while rural conservatives want farm subsidies; let’s combine them into one bill.

That’s how American democracy is supposed to work: Different parts of the country may be rivals, but they’re not enemies, so win/win solutions are possible. Along the way, we discover things that just about everybody wants: safety from invaders and criminals, not letting poor people die in the streets, security in old age, good schools, effective responses to epidemics, and so on. So you fund the things that everybody wants, and you make deals on the rest. If I want your support for something you don’t care about, I’ll offer to support something you do care about too.

But something changed in American politics after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and it got worse after the Tea Party wave of 2010: Republicans began to adopt extortion tactics. Rather than offer quid pro quo deals to Democrats, they began packaging demands and threats: If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll do something that nobody wants. I’ll shut down the government, I’ll run us into the debt ceiling. I’ll sabotage the nation’s credit rating. Coast Guard families will be going to food banks. The FBI won’t be able to pay its informants. Air travel, going to the national parks, or even just eating food will get riskier. Then you’ll see how serious I am and understand that you have to give me what I want.

Gingrich ultimately changed his stripes; he and President Clinton worked out any number of compromises, as President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil had a decade before. They controlled spending at the same time that they raised taxes, and guess what happened? The deficit went away.

But extortion tactics were never officially renounced, and over the last decade Republicans have gone back to considering them a legitimate option. To get ObamaCare passed, President Obama needed a House majority and 60 votes in the Senate. But Republicans tried to extort a Democratic Senate and President into repeal as soon as they controlled only one house of Congress. (It’s worthwhile to try to picture the reverse situation, because it’s so hard to imagine: Picture Obama taking office in 2009 and threatening to leave our troops in Iraq stranded and unsupplied unless Congress passed his health care plan.)

And now President Trump (who was elected with 46% of the vote and has never had an approval rating over 50%) is trying to extort funding for his unpopular wall.

Partisan extortionists usually try to cloud the issue, but the difference between extortion tactics and ordinary politics is not at all hard to see. Extortion arguments have a don’t-make-me-do-this quality similar to kidnappers’ ransom demands. It isn’t that anybody wants the government shut down, it’s that one side is willing to do it to get what it wants. It’s also not hard to tell which side is extorting: Look at the issue in question and ask yourself who wants it. During the recent shutdown, the central issue was the Wall, and Trump wanted it. He wasn’t willing to make a positive offer to Democrats, so instead he threatened them with a government shutdown. The media’s popular two-sides-bickering narrative wasn’t remotely accurate: Trump was extorting, and Pelosi was resisting extortion.

Democracy can’t go on like this forever. Eventually, some leader will get elected on an openly anti-democratic platform, arguing that our constitutional system is too cumbersome to work any more. Once he gets into office, he’ll provoke an extortion crisis as a way of proving his point: How can we support a system of government that allows stuff like this to happen? Are we willing to stand by while the country falls apart, or do we want the leader to declare a national emergency, abolish Congress, and make things work again?

The way out of that scenario is for the public to re-establish the norm that extortion is not legitimate. The right way to make change is to assemble a majority, and any leader who offers a short-cut around that process — even to get something we think we want — deserves our scorn.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.

The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

The Big Picture: From Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump

The author of On Tyranny is back with a travelogue of The Road to Unfreedom


For several years now, we’ve been observing a global trend of once-democratic countries moving towards fascism. The paradigmic example is Putin’s Russia, but various other “right-wing populist” leaders have taken their countries some greater or lesser distance down the same road: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Trump in the US, and (soon) Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even in countries that have held the extreme right at bay, some proto-fascist party has shown surprising strength: National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, and several others.

Each country has a unique story to tell about personalities, opposition weakness, dissatisfaction among key voting blocs, or previous government corruption. But when you look at the larger picture, you have to ask why. Why now? Why the right rather than the left? Why everywhere at once?

Timothy Snyder has an answer for you. Like all big theories, it’s a bit speculative. If you want a case ready to take to court, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for way to tell one big story about the current crisis of democracy rather than framing it as an unfortunate convergence of many little stories, his recent book The Road to Unfreedom is as a good a narrative as I’ve found.

To an extent, I’m misrepresenting The Road to Unfreedom in this article. I’ll be focusing on the abstract stuff in the background, the frame that holds it together. But Snyder’s book is anything but abstract; it is also a detailed description of how the internal politics of Putin’s Russia led to the invasion of Ukraine, and then to information warfare against the European Union and the United States. It maps out the common tactics that show up again and again, from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump.

But why did those tactics work so well in so many different countries?

Two mythologies and the reality they hide. Snyder points to a sea change in the dominant mythology of democratic societies. For decades, we have been living under a flawed but more-or-less benign mythology he calls “the politics of inevitability”, which is a version of the myth of progress: Irreversible historical trends are pushing us towards an “end of history” in which all nations will become human-rights-respecting democracies joined in a global market. As we approach this goal, many good things are supposed to happen: societies become more tolerant, more and more groups achieve justice and get their rights recognized, and technological progress leads to economic growth that raises the overall standard of living.

The exact timing of these benefits may depend on some heroic action here or there, and occasionally there might be a temporary setback. But the overall outcome is destined; it just happens.

Politics in an era of inevitability becomes either boring or frustrating, depending on your point of view. On issue after issue — a new trade pact, a newly recognized civil right, a new market, new patterns of behavior that correspond to new technologies — there seems to be no real choice. The Future is going there; you either get with the program or you don’t.

Over the last two decades or so, that myth has been undermined, by a lack of progress, by hitting environmental limits, and by contradictions among the various values “the Future” was supposed to optimize. Climate change presents a possibility of dystopia rather than utopia. Both globalization and technological change have produced losers as well as winners. As new groups get their rights recognized, groups privileged by the old arrangements may feel less and less at home; society used to fit them like a glove, and it no longer does. The increased freedom of capitalists may lead to decreased opportunities for workers, and while overall economic growth may continue, the new wealth may simply pile up at the top.

Occasionally, the failure of inevitability manifests in some shocking statistic like this one: Life expectancy in the United States fell in both 2015 and 2016. The drop (from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2016) corresponded to an increase in deaths related to hopelessness: drug overdoses and suicides. In the face of such news, the rhetoric of inevitable progress becomes unconvincing.

The faltering of inevitability has made room for a rival myth that Snyder calls “the politics of eternity”: Your own group (whatever it is) is perpetually virtuous and innocent, but it is surrounded and assailed by evil enemies. He refers to this viewpoint as “eternal” because the story never changes.

When each day is devoted to emotional venting about supposed enemies, the present becomes endless, eternal.

Nothing your group does can ever besmirch its innocence, and the rightful steps it takes to defend itself will never be accepted by the evil forces that assail it. All victories and defeats are just temporary. Only an annihilating defeat or a millennial victory at the end of time could truly break the cycle.

Both myths hide the reality that history is whatever humans make it. We are perpetually confronted with choices, and many outcomes are possible. Humanity makes progress (or not) depending on what we do. Virtue is not something we are born with or inherit from our ancestors; it either manifests in our actions or it does not.

Fictionalization. Inevitability politicians offer an idealized future. Eternity politicians have no utopian vision, so they instead offer a return to an idealized past. If you are suffering here and now, inevitability frames your pain as an aberration or a temporary inconvenience or a worthy sacrifice. Eternity, on the other hand, has no better future to offer you, but it tells you who to blame.

An eternity politician defines foes rather than formulating policies.

One key difference between the two myths is that the Future actually arrives, a little bit at a time. So the case for progress is inherently a fact-based case. An inevitability politician may make up facts, perhaps, or twist them, but he can’t do without them. “A plausible future,” Snyder writes, “requires a factual present.”

But eternity-politics requires only struggle, and the less factual the struggle, the easier it is to maintain. A real struggle might come to some conclusion, but an entirely made-up one never will.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

So, for example, the millions of illegal voters who decide American elections can’t be stopped, because they’re not real. The struggle against them will go on forever. Democrats can never stop trying to take your guns, because they weren’t trying to take your guns in the first place. The War on Christmas will come back every year, regardless of anything the faithful might do to defend themselves.

People believe these narratives because they are emotionally satisfying, not because they are factual. And so eternity propaganda doesn’t simply repeat what it wants the public to believe, but attempts to destroy the public’s confidence in any factual present or coherent narrative of history. Snyder describes Putin’s propaganda during the invasion of Ukraine like this:

According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian society was full of nationalists but not a nation; the Ukrainian state was repressive but did not exist; Russians were forced to speak Ukrainian though there was no such language.

The point is not to win a rational argument, but to make rational argument impossible.

The tools and attitudes of ordinary journalism have failed to deal with this more fundamental attack.

One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. … The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

And if the war is against factuality itself, the press becomes an enemy of the People.

in the Russian model, investigative reporting must be marginalized so that news can become a daily spectacle. The point of spectacle is to summon the emotions of both supporters and detractors and to confirm and strengthen polarization; every news cycle creates euphoria or depression, and reinforces a conviction that politics is about friends and enemies at home, rather than about policy that might improve the lives of citizens.

Already in 2014, as the Russia was invading Ukraine, Putin was unveiling a media strategy that has since become very familiar to American news consumers.

Western editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine.

You might think that history would be useful to a nostalgic movement, but only a vague, cherry-picked history will do. Putin, for example, is the heroic inheritor of both the czars and the Soviets who overthrew them. Similarly in the United States, Trumpists simultaneously revere the statues of slave-owning Confederates and blame slavery on the Democrats, claiming the legacies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as it suits them. Actual history will never support the perpetual virtue and innocence of Russians, Americans, or anyone else, so it must be made incoherent as well.

Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.

Why Russia? In the West, the Great Recession of 2008 was a hammer blow to the myth of inevitability. For communities that had been stagnant or even falling behind for decades, it put an exclamation point on a growing sense that utopia was not coming.

But Russia had gotten to that point much sooner. Within one generation, the fall of the Soviet Union blasted away the Communist vision of historical inevitability, and the corruption and incompetence of the Yeltsin regime discredited the market-democracy alternative. So Russia was the ideal place to hone the new tactics, because it was ahead of other nations on the path to despair and cynicism.

From the beginning of his rule, Putin offered Russians narratives of danger, first from the terrorist Chechens. But after his fraudulent re-election in 2011 brought protesters into the streets, Putin decided he needed a larger enemy: the West, and particularly the United States. The protests, he claimed, resulted from a conspiracy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Putin’s subsequent information war on the West has been motivated by internal politics. Russians know that their own democracy is a fraud, but Putin needs them to understand that all democracies are frauds. No Western nation should stand as an example Russians can aspire to.

Trump. Snyder goes into considerable detail about the course of the Ukraine war (where the current stalemate serves Putin’s interest), as well as the particular myths that have made the European Union vulnerable to attacks like Brexit. But let’s skip straight to Trump.

Trump’s advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended upon American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray, on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character “Donald Trump, successful businessman” in the 2016 presidential election.

Snyder often repeats the  notion of “Donald Trump, successful businessman” as a fundamentally fictional character.

In these conditions, a fictional candidate enjoyed a considerable advantage.

From his campaign through his administration, Trump has been about spectacle and outrage, rather than about substantive plans to improve the lives of Americans — even the Americans who voted for him. He provides emotional benefits for his followers — an energizing anger, self-righteousness, and revenge against largely imaginary enemies — rather than healthcare or highways or schools.

Trump governed just as he had run for office: as a producer of outrage rather than as a formulator of policy.

This can only work for an electorate that expects nothing better from government. And in that sense, it is the failure of inevitability politics that made us vulnerable.

The American politics of inevitability also prepared the way for the American politics of eternity more directly: by generating and legitimizing vast economic inequality at home. If there was no alternative to capitalism, then perhaps yawning gaps in wealth and income should be ignored, explained away, or even welcomed? If more capitalism meant more democracy, why worry? These mantras of inevitability provided the cover for the policies that made America more unequal, and inequality more painful.

Trump’s message resonated (at least among whites) wherever there was hopelessness.

The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win. … Every Pennsylvania county that Obama won in 2012 but Trump won in 2016 was in opioid crisis.  … With one exception, every Ohio county in opioid crisis posted significant gains for Trump in 2016 over Romney in 2012. … In Scioto County, Ohio, ground zero of the American opioid epidemic, Trump took a spectacular 33% more votes than Romney had.

It was in the localities where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great. Without inequality, without a sense that the future was closed, he could not have found the supporters he needed.

Getting off the road to unfreedom. The recent mid-term elections demonstrated that Americans are not yet in thrall to eternity politics. The final tallies are not in yet, but in the best measure of national sentiment — the total popular vote for the House — Trump’s party looks to have lost by something like 8%. (Obama’s 2008 landslide was a 7% victory.)

But as we can see by looking at other countries, Trump is not unique. It was the failure of our politics and our culture that made us vulnerable to eternity politics. In Snyder’s view, we need to resist the charms of national mythology.

To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. To avoid the temptation of eternity, we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither.

He ends with a call for a “politics of responsibility”, one recognizing that history has no direction of its own, and that we have no pre-ordained special role inside it. We can make a better world if we collectively decide to do so, but we can’t just wait for the better world to arrive on its own.

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom

What should we make of “Anonymous”?

As I’m pretty sure you already know, Wednesday the New York Times published “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” by an anonymous “senior official”. [1] The author claims to be one of many similarly placed people who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”. They do this because “we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”

Anonymous diagnoses problems that run deep in Trump’s character and competence: He is “amoral” and has “no discernible first principles”. His “impulses are generally anti-trade [2] and anti-democratic”.  And his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”, resulting in “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back”.

In response, the internal resistance works to “preserve our democratic institutions” by keeping “bad decisions contained to the West Wing”. This results in a “two-track presidency”, where Trump may say one thing, but the government actually pursues a different policy entirely. Anonymous gives the example of how we deal with other countries:

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

So don’t worry, America, “there are adults in the room … [who are] are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t”.

The questions this raises. Since Wednesday, debate has sprung up in a number of areas.

  • Is this for real? If it isn’t, then the NYT (which claims to know who Anonymous is and to have verified that he really wrote this) has made the whole thing up. To me, that kind of fraud would be way more incredible than anything in the essay, but I imagine some Trump supporters will believe that “the fake news media” and “the failing New York Times” do stuff like this all the time. Trump himself, as usual, wants it both ways: He both suggests that the article is fake and demands that the Justice Department find out who wrote it (even though there is no crime to investigate, so this shouldn’t be a DoJ matter).
  • Who is Anonymous, and who else is part of this “we” he describes? (Like most commenters, I’m going to use a male pronoun, which is a good bet for a “senior official in the Trump administration”.) This is the kind of guessing game that Washington insiders love, because getting it right proves you’re more savvy than everybody else. But what difference does it make? Suppose I tell you it’s Mike Pompeo or Dan Coates; does that change anything? [For what it’s worth, here’s my guess: Somebody who just barely qualifies as “senior” wrote it, but he did it with the blessing of his boss, who can now say “Not me!” to Trump and to the public. I’ll illustrate with analogies from previous administrations: What if Lawrence Wilkerson had written such an essay with the blessing of Colin Powell, or Huma Abedin under the direction of Hillary Clinton?]
  • Should the NYT have published this? I hadn’t thought this was a particularly interesting question, but The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen convinced me otherwise. More about that below.
  • Are the internal resisters heroes or villains? This is complicated. Obviously, if Trump throws a fit and wants to nuke Belgium, any staffer who loses that order before it reaches the missile silos is a hero. But when unknown people consistently decide that they’re smarter than both the elected officials and the voters who elected them, that’s a problem for democracy. (It reminds me of countries like pre-Erdogan Turkey, where the military was always checking to make sure the voters got it right.) More below.
  • How will this article affect events going forward? As many people have pointed out, publishing this essay is just going to make Trump more erratic and more paranoid, so it’s hard to see how it furthers the author’s apparent goals. On the other hand, it’s got to have an effect on the mid-term voters. Stories about Trump’s unfit behavior have been around for a while now, but they’ve been filtered through reporters who could be exaggerating or distorting. (Bob Woodward is harder to dismiss on that count than Michael Wolff or Omarosa, though the MAGA-hatters will manage somehow.) But the Anonymous essay is on a different level. Unless you’re willing to believe that the NYT conjured Anonymous out of pure smoke, you have to admit that even some Republicans who work with Trump and his administration every day think that he’s dangerous. Suddenly it makes a lot of sense to elect a Democratic Congress to fill the constitutional check-and-balance roles that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have abdicated.

Gessen’s take on the NYT’s decision. Masha Gessen argues that the Anonymous essay is not newsworthy enough to offer the author an anonymous platform. The anonymous Trump “resister” is just repeating a point of view that we’ve heard many times before: Trump is unfit. He doesn’t understand the presidency, the American system of government, or the details of any particular issue. He doesn’t respect democracy or the rule of law. He doesn’t think rationally, or even hold an idea in his head from one minute to the next. The people around him try to manipulate him (and often succeed) because they believe (correctly) that he’s a dangerous fool.

That’s not news. We’ve been hearing it from anonymous White House sources for a long time now, and just heard it again in Bob Woodward’s new book (out tomorrow, but already widely quoted). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer sums up:

The biggest open secret in Washington is that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. His staff knows it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows it. House Speaker Paul Ryan knows it. Everyone who works for the president, including his attorneys, knows it.

If you know about Trump’s unfitness, are in a position to do something about it, and choose to do nothing, then you are complicit in his presidency. It’s really that simple, no matter what story you tell yourself. Gessen expands the circle of complicity further:

The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”

The corrupt exchange here is that (in return for an article that everyone wants to read), the Times allows Anonymous to paint a virtuous self-portrait: By keeping the American people from knowing what its government is actually doing or why, people like him become “unsung heroes”. I’m sure they tell themselves that, but few things could be farther from the truth. Rather than actually resist, they cover for Trump’s incompetence. Rather than stand up to him, they flatter him.

But since the NYT has bestowed anonymity, we can’t effectively contest that self-portrait, or hold Anonymous responsible for the Trumpian policies he actually did carry out. Why, you might wonder, didn’t some internal resister get in the way of Trump taking children away from asylum-seeking parents? Officials who participated in that evil policy, or helped justify it after the fact — what kind of “resisters” are they really? Or why couldn’t the “adults in the room” manage to get Puerto Rico some help before thousands of American citizens died there?

The Devil’s bargain. If Trump really is unfit, and if this is widely known in the administration and Congress, then why don’t they remove him, either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment? Even if the resisters are only a minority of the cabinet, why don’t they stage a mass resignation and bring their case to the public? Why do the never-Trumpers continue to be such a lonely and pathetic segment of the Republican party?

Serwer explains:

But they all want something, whether it’s upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. The Constitution provides for the removal of a president who is dangerously unfit, but those who have the power to remove him will not do so, not out of respect for democracy but because Trump is a means to get what they want. The officials who enable the Trump administration to maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not “resisters.” They are enablers.

We’re seeing this process right now with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. It makes literally zero sense to allow a president like Trump (who may only hold his office because he committed a crime to get it) to appoint judges who will probably have to rule on important points of his case, like whether he can be subpoenaed or whether he can pardon himself. But Kavanaugh will cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, something the conservative movement has been trying to achieve for decades. Why let that questing beast get away, just because the President is unstable and may have to use undemocratic methods to stay in power?

This is how tragedies happen: because everyone in a position to prevent them has some special reason not to. And usually they all have some way of telling the story that makes them sound like heroes.

They’re not. An official who refuses to carry out an illegal or unconstitutional order is a hero. When a staffer conveniently ignores orders given when the president is not in his right mind, ones that the president himself will soon be glad weren’t implemented — that staffer may be a better friend than the president deserves. There is virtue in openly refusing to implement policies you believe to be immoral or catastrophic, in telling the president directly that you will resign first, and then carrying out that threat and warning the public about what is happening.

But there’s nothing virtuous about setting yourself up as a permanent unelected government-within-the-government, and tasking yourself to implement a policy agenda the voters rejected. Elections ought to be consequential, and if those consequences are too much for the country to bear, then the president should be removed by legal means.


[1] Don’t miss the parodies: Slate’s “I Am Part of the Police Department Inside This Bank Robbery” and McSweeney’s “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult“.

[2] Of all the Trump policies that officials can justifiably monkey-wrench in the name of democracy, I would think trade is about last, because protectionism and getting tough with our trade partners was a big part of Trump’s message from the beginning. If Americans really wanted free trade, somebody like Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush should have been able to make that case against Trump in the Republican primaries. So I have to agree with Ross Douthat:

One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casualty disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service. But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly-misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously antidemocratic and should resign instead.

The drift towards autocracy continues

In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.


For a lot of reasons, it’s hard to make a victim out of John Brennan.

  • The ex-CIA chief is well known, outspoken, and has lots of influential friends.
  • Government service generally has a nice retirement program, and I suspect MSNBC pays its contributors decently, so he’s probably doing OK financially.
  • The privileges he lost when Trump took away his security clearance are ones that the rest of us get along fine without. Clearances typically lapse after people leave the jobs that require them, but high-ranking intelligence officers like Brennan are an exception to that general rule.
  • Losing his clearance probably does not even inconvenience him much. Brennan says that he’s not currently accessing any classified information. He has been available if the CIA wants to consult with him about anything, but he hasn’t sought briefings from them about current situations.
  • Far from being silenced by Trump’s action, Brennan’s point of view is getting a lot of attention these days. Rachel Maddow did an extended interview with Brennan Friday night, and he had a column in The New York Times on Thursday.

So you might be wondering why you should care about Brennan’s clearance, especially at a time when the Trump administration is carrying out much more egregious injustices. For example, hundreds of the children separated from their parents at the border are still in government custody, including 24 who are younger than 5. The children Trump is damaging and the parents who worry about them are much better targets for your sympathy than John Brennan. Why should you care about him?

Bipartisan protest. Let’s start by noting that a lot of people do care, including many who are not reflexively against everything Trump does. Retired Admiral William McRaven (who headed the Special Operations Command when it planned and carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and who has not taken any public political stands until now) published an open letter in The Washington Post, telling Trump that

I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

Twelve other retired intelligence officials, including six CIA chiefs going back to William Webster from the Reagan administration, signed a statement of protest:

we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. … We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.

Three others (including Robert Gates, who was not only CIA Chief under Bush the First, but also Secretary of Defense under Bush the Second and Obama) added their names later. An additional 60 CIA officers issued their own statement:

Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them. What they do represent, however, is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.

So is this really a big deal, or is the Deep State just closing ranks around one of its own?

Presidential power. It’s really a big deal, for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are specific to the intelligence community, but the more general issue is that Trump is redefining presidential power in a way that is moving us ever closer to a Putin-style autocracy. He has been pushing in that direction almost from the moment he took office, but this is a major new step.

During the last two years, a number of books have come out about how a republic can degrade into an autocracy. Studying the ominous examples of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Poland, we see that none of them had a revolution or a coup, and all of them still have elections and parliaments and many other trappings of democracy. Nonetheless, in each of them the essence of republican government is either entirely gone or significantly diminished. How does that happen?

The answer is through the erosion of norms, those underlying principles so basic that constitutions don’t even mention them, or the common-sense practices that enforce those principles. Norms are not written laws and cannot be enforced by courts. They are largely unarticulated traditions that are enforced politically, through public outrage.

Since he took office, Donald Trump has broken a lot of norms. That’s a fancy way of saying that he doesn’t act the way we expect presidents to act. His insult-laden tweet storms, his intertwining of public and private business, his lack of financial transparency, his lack of shame when he denies some obvious fact or contradicts today what he said yesterday (or even a few minutes ago) — it’s all either brand new or on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

But how much of it matters? Breaking a norm might just be a change in personal style, or even a breath of fresh air. Or it might be dangerous. How do we tell the difference?

Here’s a norm that is key to separating a republic from an autocracy: In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.

Revoking John Brennan’s security clearance is the clearest example yet of Trump’s autocratic view of executive power. Presidents have power over security clearances because they are responsible for safeguarding the nation’s secrets. But Brennan, and the other government or ex-government officials whose clearances Trump threatens to revoke next, have not even been accused of endangering classified information. Trump is just taking a swing at people he sees as his enemies.

In other words, he’s treating his power over clearances as a personal prerogative, rather than as a public trust that must account for.

It’s not the only power he’s been using that way.

Pardons. The Constitution grants the president the pardon power (except in cases of treason) and says nothing about how to use it. But traditions going back to Federalist #74 explain its purpose: to correct injustice and show mercy.

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

In other recent administrations, there has been a process that starts with the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. You apply, the Pardon Attorney studies your case, and recommendations wind their way up to the president, who makes the final decision.

Trump, by contrast, views pardons as Get Out of Jail Free cards that he carries in his pocket. There was nothing unjust or cruel in the criminal convictions of Joe Arpaio or Dinesh D’Souza. Arpaio willfully violated a court order, and D’Souza funneled campaign contributions through straw donors. Arpaio was facing at most six months in prison and D’Souza got no prison time at all.

Both were pardoned because they were political allies of the President. Arpaio appeared at Trump campaign rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and spoke at the Republican Convention. D’Souza is paying Trump back for his generosity with a new film that equates Trump with Lincoln and the Democrats with Nazis.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to have played no role in either decision. Trump just wanted to pardon these guys, so he did. He routinely tosses around thoughts of pardoning other people (like Martha Stewart) with no process and for no particular reason. (Possibly Trump thinks pardoning Stewart would strike a blow against James Comey, who prosecuted her.)

Law enforcement. Trump has frequently put forward the point of view that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be working for him rather than for the United States. Again and again Trump has faulted Sessions for failing to “protect” him from the Russia investigation. Again and again he has complained that the Justice Department should be investigating his enemies, not his friends. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told The New York Times.

The most obvious example of Trump doing “what I want” with the Justice Department was the firing of FBI Director James Comey. FBI Directors have 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from political interference. The only other time an FBI Director has been fired was when President Clinton fired William Sessions in 1993. That FBI director had “stubbornly refused to resign despite Justice Department ethics findings that he abused his office”.

The Justice Department report found, among other things, that [William] Sessions had engaged in a sham transaction to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine to take him to and from work, that he had billed the government for a security fence around his home that provided no security and that he had arranged business trips to places where he could meet with relatives.

Comey had been accused of misjudgments, but no ethical lapses. He seems to have be fired for his role in the Russia investigation.

Tariffs and Immigration. During the Kennedy administration, the Trade Expansion Act granted the President power to impose tariffs on products “being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten or impair the national security”. Before Trump used it to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, that power had been dormant since 1982. You could sort of imagine how it might apply to imports from rival powers like China or Russia: What if our ability to build fighter jets depended on getting aluminum from Russia? But Trump put tariffs on Canadian aluminum as well. Seriously? It threatens national security if we become dependent on Canadian aluminum?

Well, no, and Trump has admitted as much in a tweet: “Our Tariffs are in response to [Canada’s] of 270% on dairy!” The dairy industry, I will point out, does not have national-security significance. But the law has given Trump a power, so he uses it as he pleases.

The Muslim Ban is another example. During the campaign, Trump announced:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

Imposing a religious test on people entering the country is completely unconstitutional, and the first two versions of his Muslim Ban were overturned by the courts. But the administration studied to determine how much of a Muslim Ban could be shoe-horned into presidential powers that existed for other reasons. The Supreme Court, to its shame, has let them get away with this. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessy comments:

The President of the United States expresses in his own words that he is motivated by racial and religious animus — so he says, “I am enacting this immigration policy because I want to prevent Muslims from entering the country”. He says that clear as day. He says it multiple times. And then, the Department of Justice offers a different reason for that. They say, “No. This is within the President’s appropriate authority regarding immigration. This has a real security rationale.” And then the President again and again, even after those filings, not only does not disavow his statements, but makes them again and reaffirms them.

[The issue is] whether or not the Court, which traditionally extends deference to the executive branch says, “Well, we’re going to believe what you say. We’re going to examine the facial representation that you’re making about why you’re doing this.”, whether or not they’re allowed to look beyond the pure formal actions, at what the President is saying. So what the Court decided was: No, they are going to continue to extend traditional national security deference to the Executive, even in the face of blatant, open contradiction by the Executive himself.

And so that case really is an example of elevating legal formalism above the plain facts. And that is something where Trump really has been able to quite strategically and shrewdly play institutional commitments to these deeper principles against the very institutions themselves. It’s allowed him to get away with things — and get away with things really brazenly and openly — that I think even three years ago we would have said was impossible.

Security clearances. The security clearance process exists for a reason: to determine who is or isn’t likely to protect classified information.

At various times in a previous career, I held Secret and Top Secret clearances (which have lapsed; I currently have no clearances and don’t need or want any). To get those clearances, I submitted ID information, told the government where I’d lived, listed references of people who knew me there, and gave dates and reasons for every time I’d left the United States. I answered questions about my finances and what drugs I’d used. The themes of the investigations were easy to trace: Am I who I claim to be? Am I generally a responsible person? Am I vulnerable to foreign influence or blackmail?

No one ever asked me who I voted for or whether I supported the current administration. (I got my first clearance during the Reagan administration, which I did not support.) Whether I believed in the American system of government was deemed important, but whether I agreed with the current president wasn’t.

That’s how we do things in America.

But that’s not how Trump does things. The president sits at the top of the executive branch, and consequently he is the ultimate arbiter of every executive process, including the clearance process. So he has the power to grant and revoke security clearances.

I know of no case where any previous president has gotten directly involved in these decisions, but I can imagine how it might become necessary. (In case of a military coup attempt, for example, the president might need to freeze the conspirators out of the government without taking the time to go through any formal process.)

None of the circumstances I can imagine, though, apply to the Brennan situation: No one questions his loyalty to the United States or his discretion in protecting classified information. He is not involved in any emergency that requires quick action, or in some unique circumstance that the ordinary clearance-reviewing processes can’t handle. He’s just somebody the President doesn’t like.

Trump himself explained removing Brennan’s clearance to the Wall Street Journal like this:

I call [the Trump/Russia investigation] the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.

“These people” include everyone else involved in launching the investigation: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Susan Rice, and Sally Yates. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders read a presidential statement saying that their clearances are being reviewed as well.

Trump doesn’t like being investigated, and he has power over security clearances, so he’s using that power to strike back at the people he blames for the investigation. This is not some cynical interpretation of Trump’s actions; it’s what he and his people are openly saying. (If you want a cynical interpretation, Rachel Maddow has one: Trump’s targets aren’t just the people who started the investigation, they are also potential witnesses in an impeachment hearing. Without clearances, they will be unable to review their own files from the relevant period before testifying, and so will be less effective witnesses against Trump.)

George W. Bush’s CIA Director Michael Hayden, who also finds himself on Trump’s enemies list, draws an obvious conclusion:

The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community if you stand up and say things that upset the president or with which he disagrees, he will punish you. And that is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth.

Just as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court averted their eyes from the improper history of the Muslim Ban, Republicans in Congress are finding excuses to support Trump now. Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, responded by saying “I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend of the administration at all.” But Hatch knows that under no previous president has being “a friend of the administration” been a factor in whether or not you held a clearance. Until Trump, it would have been scandalous to suggest that it should be.

And Rep. Jim Jordan of the House Autocracy Freedom Caucus fully embraces Trump’s autocratic view of clearances:

I don’t even see frankly why there is a debate. If the commander in chief of the United States thinks these people should have their clearance revoked, I don’t see why they should have their clearance.

No process, no criteria — security clearances are just a matter of the president’s personal whim, and are not related to any presidential responsibility.

Where this goes. It’s easy to go wild on slippery-slope arguments. (That’s what the NRA does with gun control. Any restrictions on assault rifles will inevitably lead to complete public disarmament, leaving us all at the mercy of armed police and criminals.) At the same time, sometimes there are slippery slopes, and each concession you make puts you in a worse position to fight future concessions. Principles make good lines in the sand: Once you start accepting violations of the principles, you lose your most easily defended positions.

The abstract principle here is that presidential powers are not personal prerogatives, they are tied to presidential responsibilities. In this case, the president’s power over security clearances is tied to his responsibility for securing the governments’ secrets. Any security-clearance decision that can’t be justified in those terms is illegitimate, even if it is technically legal.

If we lose this principle, if Trump is allowed not just to occasionally rationalize his way around it, but to openly deny it and pay no price, then I honestly don’t know where this slide towards autocracy stops. Looking at the way Republicans like Hatch and Jordan are defending Trump, and the many other Republicans (like Paul Ryan) who are dodging the question of his autocratic inclinations, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s vision:

Make no mistake: if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

Some examples of Trump’s autocracy are complicated. This one isn’t. If Republicans won’t stand up to Trump here, where does it stop?

Minority Rule Snowballs

When I did my annual end-of-the-year review in 2013, “the biggest single theme” I picked out was Minority Rule:

Republicans have given up on the idea of persuading a majority to agree with them. Instead, conservatives plan to rule from the minority.

I listed a number of the tactics they had been using: voter suppression, gerrymandering, and judicial activism among them. I didn’t expect these tactics to work nearly so well as they have. Consider:

  • In 2016, Mitch McConnell led a Senate majority that represented far fewer Americans than the Democratic minority. [1]
  • He used that minority-rule majority to radically change the way the Senate considers presidential appointments, blocking President Obama (who had defeated Mitt Romney 51%-47% in the 2012 election) from appointing a new swing vote on the Supreme Court. Instead, McConnell delivered that appointment to Donald Trump (who, even with the assistance of a hostile foreign power, lost the popular vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton 46%-48%).
  • Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, was approved by the Senate 53-46. The senators voting for him represented far fewer Americans than the senators voting against him. [2]
  • Thanks largely to gerrymandering, Republicans in the House have a larger majority of seats than they have of voters. In 2012, Republicans won a 33-seat majority even while losing the popular vote. This year, as Democrats run considerably ahead in generic-ballot polls, political scientists argue over how big the Democratic voting margin needs to be to take control of the House. Is 5% enough? Seven percent? Eleven? One very likely outcome from this fall’s elections is that Democrats win a clear majority of voters, while Republicans win a clear majority of seats.
  • At the state level, things are often worse. Last year in Virginia, Democrats failed to gain a majority in the House of Delegates, despite a landslide 53%-44% victory in the popular vote. In North Carolina, the population is split relatively evenly between the two parties; Trump won the state with just under 50% of the vote compared to Clinton’s 46%, but the Democratic candidate won the governor’s race 49.0%-48.8%, despite one of the country’s most outrageous attempts at voter suppression. Meanwhile, gerrymandering gives the Republicans a 74-46 supermajority in the General Assembly, making Governor Cooper (and hence, the voters who elected him) virtually powerless.
  • Since Gorsuch joined the Court, several partisan gerrymandering cases have come up. The Court has not taken a stand. Gorsuch apparently does not even have a problem with racial gerrymandering.
  • Gorsuch was also the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision allowing purges of the voting roles in a manner than is likely to disenfranchise many legitimate voters while preventing virtually zero illegal votes.

In summary, minority rulers in Congress, the White House, and state capitals keep changing the rules to make it possible to rule with ever-smaller minorities. And a minority-appointed Supreme Court is fine with that.

A certain amount of minority rule was built into the Constitution in institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College, but I don’t think the Founders envisioned even those mechanisms becoming as skewed as they are today. [3] The Founders hoped the United States could avoid splitting into political parties, so they certainly never envisioned the vicious cycle of minority-rule entrenchment we’re seeing now: A political party centered in the small states that the Constitution favors (and representing the interests of the very rich) has used that extra boost of power to make the system increasingly more anti-democratic, giving themselves legislative and executive sway well beyond their voting numbers, making it increasingly difficult for the majority to vote them out, disenfranchising many citizens who might vote against them in the future, tearing down any limits on the use of money in politics, and packing the courts with judges who will rubber-stamp their power-grab.

With Justice Kennedy’s retirement, the minority-rule president and minority-rule Senate have a chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice, tipping the Court’s balance further in their favor for many years to come.  Jonathan Chait notes:

Democrats have won the national vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, which, with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, will have resulted in the appointment of eight of the Supreme Court’s nine justices. And yet four of those justices will have been appointed by presidents who took office despite having fewer votes than their opponent.

We can expect this new justice to make it virtually impossible for the Court to limit or mitigate the techniques of minority rule. [4]

Increasingly, that minority-appointed and minority-approved Court majority has become nakedly partisan. Justice Kennedy’s opinion-of-the-Court in Citizens United is a flight of fantasy in which unlimited corporate money improves the public debate prior to an election, because money (even money from profit-making corporations seeking government favors) is speech, and “There is no such thing as too much speech.” Chief Justice Roberts’ gutting of the Voting Right Act contains very little legal reasoning beyond his vague assertion that “things have changed dramatically” since the first version of the VRA in 1965.

It is no longer necessary to understand the laws or the Constitution to guess which side the Court will favor: Whatever improves Republican chances in the next election is good law. The Constitution’s guarantee of “a republican form of government” increasingly leans on the word form; if the formal process of an election is carried out, it doesn’t matter whether the sovereignty of the People is respected.

We know where this process can go: The end result is plainly apparent in Putin’s Russia, where Potemkin elections are held on a regular basis. The path is laid out by authoritarian “democracies” in Hungary and Poland, whose rulers have not yet achieved Putin’s level of security against the People, but are on their way.

None of that is inevitable, but it gets harder to turn things around the further we go. If the Supreme Court won’t protect democracy, then we will have to count on elected officials to do it. If it takes a 7% margin to control the House, we need to get that 7% margin. If winning the popular vote by three million votes isn’t enough to elect a president, then we need to win by four million votes. Gerrymander-ending laws that can’t get through gerrymandered legislatures need to be passed by referendum.

If a majority ever regains power, it shouldn’t be shy about using it: We need a constitutional amendment that controls corporate political spending. Voting rights need protection, and gerrymandering has to be stopped — by legislation if the Supreme Court will allow it, and by amendment if it won’t. The Electoral College has to be abolished. Citizens without representation in Congress need to get it: Puerto Rico needs to be offered statehood, and the District of Columbia needs representation. Breaking up the big states needs to be on the table.

The sovereignty of the People is a principle that runs deep in the DNA of American voters, even those who might favor conservative social policies. We need to make them understand the trade-off they’ve been making: An American Putin would do many things they’d like, but is it worth surrendering the Republic?

If we’re going to pull this out, we need to have all hands on deck. Apathetic citizens need to be convinced to care and to vote. The canards that “it doesn’t really matter” and “both sides are the same” need to be rejected. For the next few cycles, and maybe for the rest of our lifetimes, democracy itself is going to be the most important thing on the ballot. It’s going to be on the ballot in every election from president to school board. It needs to win.


[1] I couldn’t find a source to reference, so I calculated for myself. (You can check me if you want.) From a list of the senators by state, I determined that in 2016, 20 states had two Republican senators and 16 states had two Democratic senators (counting Bernie Sanders and Angus King as Democrats), accounting for an 8-seat Republican majority (54-46). I then went to the 2010 census and added up: The 20 two-Republican states had a total population of 99,576,045 and the 16 two-Democrat states totaled 126,215,202. I had not expected the margin to be quite so wide.

[2] By the same methods as above, 22 states had two senators voting for Gorsuch and one (Georgia) had one for and one not voting, so I’ll count Georgia’s population for Gorsuch. Those states total 108,613,347. Eighteen states totaling 135,574,383 people had two senators voting against Gorsuch. The other states had one senator for and one against, which I’ll regard as canceling out.

[3] The first census, in 1790, showed that the most populous state was Virginia, with 454,983 free inhabitants. The least populated state was Delaware, with 50,207, a ratio of about 9-to-1. In the 2010 census, California had over 37 million people and Wyoming 568,300, a 66-to-1 ratio. If you combine the populations of the seven states with less than a million people — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming — you have 5.3 million people represented by 14 senators. That’s 1/7th the population of California with 7 times the senators.

The situation gets worse when you consider the Americans not represented in the Senate at all: 3.4 million in Puerto Rico and 700K in the District of Columbia. Puerto Rico’s population almost exactly matches that of Alaska, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Wyoming put together; those states have 10 senators.

The situation is somewhat better in the Electoral College, but still considerably less fair than in 1790. The first census gave Virginia 21 electoral votes and Delaware 3; 9 times the population produced 7 times the electoral votes. But today California has 55 electoral votes to Wyoming’s 3; 66 times the population produces 18 times the electoral votes.

It’s also clear what the Founders’ solution would be: Break up large states. In their time, Kentucky was created from land claimed by Virginia, and Vermont from land New Hampshire and New York were arguing over.

[4] Trump’s legal situation creates yet another problem: Probably, the Supreme Court is going to have to make some serious rulings about whether the president can be subpoenaed, when a corrupt pattern of pardons constitutes obstruction of justice, and even whether the president can pardon himself. Trump may well be deciding those issues himself right now, by choosing a justice who will rule in his favor.

Trump’s long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?

If you have been paying attention to the current administration with any sense of skepticism at all, you probably worry about whether President Trump is a threat to American democracy as we have known it. Briefly:

In January, as he marked the first complete year of the Trump administration, Benjamin Wittes characterized this as “banana-republic-type stuff” and commented

His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet.

And yet, Wittes judged that during Trump’s first year, the response of the rest of the government was “ultimately encouraging”.

Trump simply cannot look back on the last year and be satisfied with the success of his war on the Deep State. His battle to remake it in his image has been largely unavailing—and has come at far greater cost to his presidency than to the institutions he is trying to undermine.

And that is very good news.

So how bad is it really? In other words, the rest of the government has largely remained true to American ideals, and has blocked Trump’s most authoritarian efforts. The courts remain independent, and have struck down several of his most egregious orders. The media has refused to be intimidated, and continues to hold him accountable. Law enforcement has largely — but not entirely — held steadfast against his encroachments on its integrity; so the Mueller investigation continues, and there have been no show trials of high-profile Trump enemies. The military has pushed back against his improper orders, and the intelligence services refuse to simply tell him what he wants to hear, help him subvert the justice system, or propagandize the American people. Even the Republican Congress, while often a lapdog, has occasionally growled: High-profile Republicans have protected Jeff Sessions, and threatened unspecified consequences if Robert Mueller is fired.

So how disturbed should we be? Is Trump simply a bad cold that American democracy will eventually throw off and return to good health? Or is his administration a cancer that our country might fight for a while, but will eventually succumb to? How do we even think rationally about such questions, rather than alternately give in to rosy denial or black despair as the mood strikes us?

Comparable challenges. If we were going to try to think about this like reasonable people, the first question to ask is: When have democracies faced challenges like this before? How did that go? How does our situation compare to theirs?

Trump, after all, is not the first demagogue with authoritarian tendencies to gain popularity in a democratic nation. Sometimes the fever passes, sometimes the nation falls into tyranny (Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey), and some cases look bad but might still be salvageable (Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland).

He’s not even the first American president to stress our democracy, or to be feared by the opposition as a rising dictator. Just about all our major wartime presidents fit that description: Much of what Lincoln did, including the Emancipation Proclamation, was constitutionally suspect, relying on implicit “war powers” that had never been precisely spelled out before. Wilson jailed Eugene Debs during the World War I, and approved the Palmer Raids against leftists in the postwar red scare. FDR broke the two-term tradition, tried to pack the Supreme Court with allies, and approved the Japanese internment.

We don’t usually think of those presidents as potential autocrats, because in each case subsequent administrations (sometimes under pressure from Congress) pulled back from autocracy, returning to what Wilson’s successor Harding called “normalcy“. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt all left American government changed, but in each case the expansion of executive power was eventually controlled, sometimes by codifying it in law and sometimes by setting new limits to keep it from happening again.

Nixon was another president who stretched and abused executive power. But he was forced to resign and voters gave the opposition party an overwhelming majority in Congress. Congress then passed the War Powers Act, wrote new campaign finance laws, and increased its oversight of the intelligence services. His presidency became a warning sign rather than a precedent; no subsequent president has justified his actions by claiming Nixon as his example.

So how does that all work? When does a democracy slide into dictatorship and when does it pull itself back from the brink? If that sounds like a major research project, you don’t have to take it on yourself: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt already did in the recent book How Democracies Die. (If Ziblatt’s name is familiar, that might be because in December I tried to infer the lessons How Democracies Die makes explicit from his previous book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.)

The importance of norms. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s first point is that the U. S. Constitution contains no magic formula that prevents democracy from failing here. Whatever “American exceptionalism” might mean, it doesn’t give us some kind of immunity from the diseases other democracies are prone to. Numerous countries have modeled their constitutions on ours, and seen democracy fail anyway.

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.

(Longtime Sift readers will recognize this as a theme I’ve been harping on for years in posts like “Countdown to Augustus” and “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues“.)

Much of our problem today predates the Trump administration, and stems from the fact that our norms have been sliding for decades. The Senate’s refusal to recognize President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, or to respond to it with hearings and a vote, for example, was not explicitly unconstitutional, but was unheard of in all previous American history. Ditto for brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, or the decades-long evolution of the filibuster from a rarely used break-glass-in-case-of-emergency practice to an automatic tactic of minority obstruction. The other branches of government have changed their own norms to deal with Congress’ dysfunction: Presidents issue more sweeping executive orders (like Obama’s DACA), and the Supreme Court reinterprets mis-stated laws (like the Affordable Care Act) that it would once have sent back to Congress for correction.

If you go back to the bulleted list at the top of this post, you’ll notice that hardly any of my complaints about Trump are explicitly constitutional. The Constitution never says that the President can’t order the FBI to investigate the candidate he just defeated, that he can’t tell big whopping lies on a regular basis, or that he has to give the public enough information to judge whether or not he is corrupt. Those aren’t rules, they’re just good practices. That’s how we do things here in America.

Or how we used to do them.

The root norms. It would be easy to fill pages with the norms that Trump is breaking. Our system, for example, has a tradition of decorum. (“Will the distinguished gentleman from Oklahoma yield the floor for a question?”) No previous president has publicly talked about political rivals in such consistently belittling terms as Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, or Pocahontas.

But rather than list hundreds of specific norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt boil democracy’s essential norms down to two:

  • mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”
  • forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”

All the others stem from these. American government works well when the parties regard each other as rivals rather than enemies, and exercise their powers according to the Constitution’s underlying spirit, rather than wringing every conceivable advantage out of its words. Democracy is in trouble whenever one party regards the other as fundamentally treasonous, and then uses that opinion to justify pushing the powers of whatever offices it holds to their constitutional limits.

Much of what I’ve been doing in my “Augustus” series is chronicling the tit-for-tat loss of restraint between the parties. Most Americans have no appreciation of how far this could go, so I’ll provide an example: The 12th Amendment specifies that the sealed votes of the Electoral College are sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives.” What if the President of the Senate, with the connivance of majorities in both houses, simply miscounted the votes and proclaimed someone else to be president?

There’s no provision for dealing with that scenario — and with innumerable similar situations — because the Founders never anticipated that our political leaders would go that far. And they wouldn’t. Or would they?

The 21st century road to dictatorship. The old model of democratic breakdown was the coup: Caesar illegally taking his army across the Rubicon, seizing Rome, and proclaiming himself Dictator for Life. That was the path of many 20th century dictators like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But 21st century autocrats have realized the usefulness of maintaining the trappings of democracy.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, still has elections, rival political parties, and dissident newspapers. Popular opposition leaders, however, have a way of finding themselves in prison or in exile or dead. Ditto for troublesome journalists. When the media empire of oligarch Boris Berezovsky became unreliable, he was forced to leave it behind him and flee the country. After a few years in exile, he was found hanged. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, began financing dissident politicians, he went to prison.

It was all legal, of course. (Well, not the assassinations, but no investigator would dare trace them back to Putin.) The men who went to jail were convicted of real crimes (and maybe even committed some of them; it’s hard to reach the top of a corrupt system without breaking a law sometime). Similar stories could be told about Turkey or Hungary or Venezuela. The system resembles the quip variously attributed to either Mark Twain or Emma Goldman: “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt use a soccer analogy to map out the steps by which an elected president becomes an autocrat:

  • Capture the referees. In other words, get your people in charge of the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Anyone who used to be a neutral arbiter must become your partisan. You can do this in the judiciary, for example, by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and appointing your people to the new positions (as Roosevelt tried to do), or by impeaching judges who rule against you (as the Republican-controlled legislature is trying to do in Pennsylvania). (In North Carolina, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the legislature has done court-packing in reverse: It shrunk the size of the State Court of Appeals to prevent the new Democratic governor from filling the open seats.)
  • Sideline star players on the other side. “Opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and … religious or other cultural figures” are “sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.” With the referees already in your pocket, the carrots of government contracts and positions, or the sticks of ruinous regulations, taxes, and prosecutions can hollow out the institutions that otherwise might channel public opinion against you.
  • Rewrite the rules in your favor. We were already seeing a lot of rule-rewriting on the state level prior to Trump: Gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in large Republican majorities in states (like North Carolina) where the voters are more-or-less evenly split between the parties. In last November’s election in Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won the popular vote 53%-44%, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 majority. Combining a biased legal system with a lifetime ban on felon voting (as in Florida, where the Sentencing Project estimates that 20% of adult blacks can’t vote) can sideline a large chunk of the opposition electorate. In countries like Russia, field-tilting rules make it difficult for new parties to form, for genuine opposition candidates to get on the ballot, or for opposition voices to get their message out.

Once the right measures are in place, an aspiring autocrat doesn’t need the traditional trappings of tyranny — gulags, thought crimes, children informing on their parents, secret police breaking down doors in the middle of the night — to act with impunity and stay secure in his job.

Resistance. Unlike a coup, though, the subversion of a once-democratic system takes time. While you are corrupting some of the referees, suborning some opposition leaders, and rewriting some rules, the still-intact parts of the system can rise against you — if enough people recognize what is going on and transcend their previous differences. Putin, you may remember, did not become a dictator overnight.

Also, if a country is lucky — and I think the U.S. might have gotten “lucky” in this way with Trump — the would-be autocrat may not be particularly adept. Margaret Drabble’s metaphor of babies eating their mothers’ manuscripts might apply: “The damage was not, in fact, as great as it appeared at first sight to be, for babies, though persistent, are not thorough.” Trump may be persistent in his aggressions against democracy, but he lacks the discipline to be as effective as he otherwise might.

The rosy path. It’s easy to imagine that someday Trump will leave office peacefully — by choice or otherwise — and afterwards there will be a bipartisan effort to shore up the norms he violated.

Such a thing has happened before. For example, after FDR violated the unwritten rule that presidents should retire after two terms, Congress codified that limit in the 22nd Amendment. As a result, FDR’s four terms didn’t lead to a series of presidents-for-life. As I mentioned before, Nixon’s excesses led to a large Democratic majority in Congress that passed a number of executive-restraining laws.

Something similar could happen after Trump: Congress could mandate good practices that previously were taken for granted, forcing presidents to release their tax returns or hold their assets in blind trusts. Laws could spell out in detail which payments are constitutionally-banned “emoluments”. The wall separating the presidency from the investigative branches of the Justice Department could be strengthened.

Other changes wouldn’t require new laws: Voters could begin insisting again on virtues that Trump lacks, like experience, expertise, and honesty. They could once again value respectful and respectable behavior. Congress could begin taking its oversight role more seriously, rather than abusing or neglecting it depending on whether or not the presidency and Congress are controlled by the same party.

If that’s what happens, then the Trump administration will be like that time you drove home after a few drinks and arrived safely without incident. Yeah, it wasn’t a good idea and you shouldn’t make a habit of it, but ultimately no harm was done.

The dystopian possibility. So far, democracy has been protected by two main forces: The so-called “Deep State” (i.e., career government officials who are more committed to the missions of their organizations than to the orders they receive from the White House) and Trump’s overall unpopularity.

So, for example, career prosecutors — even if they are Republicans — have not been willing to sacrifice their integrity by manufacturing a case against Hillary Clinton, or ignoring evidence against Trump himself, just because he tweets that they should. Career EPA officials are refusing to become pawns of the fossil fuel industry no matter how much Scott Pruitt wants them to. Career economists at the Treasury didn’t concoct a bogus tax-cuts-pay-themselves analysis just because Steve Mnunchin promised they would.

That’s the Deep State in action: It’s not a conspiracy masterminded by some shadowy cabal. It’s the professional integrity of people who believe that their jobs mean more than just a paycheck or their bosses’ approval. (That’s true even in some cases where I disagree with them. I think a lot of CIA and Pentagon people really believe in America’s imperial mission, and in the disasters that will happen if they let down their guard. In their own minds, they are patriots.)

That’s both its strength and its weakness. You can’t kill the Deep State just by finding its leader and bribing, threatening, or imprisoning him or her. But conversely, it has no sense of strategy. It is made up of individuals, and individuals can be worn down. The Deep State has held its own for a little over a year, but can it hold for four years or eight?

If, God forbid, Trump got to replace one or two of the liberals on the Supreme Court, the courts might suddenly become pliable.

Trump’s unpopularity has shored up many institutions of democracy. The media has remained critical, rather than giving in the way it did to George W. Bush after 9-11. Republicans in Congress haven’t expressed much criticism, but they also haven’t cooperated with Trump’s desire to rewrite the rules. (The Senate keeps ignoring his plea to abolish the filibuster, and the idea of changing civil service laws to enable an executive-branch purge, or libel laws to muzzle the press, are non-starters.) Congressional Democrats have stayed unified rather than finding excuses to strike individual compromises. Federal judges have not been afraid to stick their necks out.

All that might change if Trump’s approval rating hovered around 60% rather than 40%, or if it were Democrats who were worrying about losing their jobs this fall rather than Republicans.

Levitsky and Ziblatt review cases where democracy held for a while, and then started to crumble, like Fujimori‘s Peru. It’s not hard to imagine how that could happen here: The predicted Democratic wave fails to materialize in the fall. The economy stays strong, the country avoids any new shooting wars or trade wars, and Trump’s victims — immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. — remain isolated. Much of the country then starts to say, “What was all that alarmism about?” When Jim Comey or Andrew McCabe winds up in jail, it seems like a one-off case rather than an assault on law enforcement.

Conversely, suppose Democrats overcome gerrymandering and regain control of the House. (It will take at least an 8% margin in the popular vote to do so.) Then laws will not change in Trump’s favor, Congress will investigate and expose excesses, and if Bob Mueller turns up evidence of impeachable offenses, the impeachment process will begin. We’ll be on our way to getting rid of Trump in 2020 (if not sooner), and starting to rebuild what has been torn down.

The crucial year, and the long-term challenge. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t end with specific predictions, but my impression after reading their book is that 2018 is crucial. Neither complacency about American democracy’s resilience nor hopelessness about turning things around is warranted. The outcome is still undetermined.

In each party, there is a question: Will Democrats put aside their differences in the face of the larger threat, or will they let their factions be played off against each other? In the recent successful campaigns (Lamb in Pennsylvania, Jones in Alabama), they stayed united and won, but the divisions of 2016 are still not healed.

For Republicans, the question is whether their various factions will continue to let themselves be bought off — evangelicals by court appointments, business leaders by tax cuts and deregulation, and so on — or will enough of them come to understand what is really at stake? If they will not join the resistance, will they at least stay on the sidelines?

Long term, both parties need to figure out how to strengthen the norms of forbearance and tolerance, which were in trouble long before Trump arrived on the scene. Unless we can re-establish them, getting past Trump will not solve our problems. His failure, if it happens, might simply be a training example for new and better demagogues.

Should We Care What Happens to the GOP’s Soul?

A healthy democracy needs a reality-based conservative party. We haven’t had one for a very long time.


For more than a year, thoughtful Republicans have been posting warnings about the state of their party’s soul. A few days before the recent Alabama Senate election, David Brooks was particularly eloquent:

“What shall it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The current Republican Party seems to not understand that question. Donald Trump seems to have made gaining the world at the cost of his soul his entire life’s motto.

The question came up during the 2016 Republican primaries, when Trump began pulling away from the crowded field, in spite of — or maybe because of — his blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, and disregard for truth. It came up again at the Convention, when Ted Cruz briefly took a principled stand before eventually slinking back into line. Evan McMullin’s and Gary Johnson’s third-party campaigns attempted to appeal to a more upright form of conservatism, and managed to shave off a few votes here and there, but had little effect on the election’s outcome.

And then, in the campaign’s final month, the Access Hollywood video came out; it showed the inheritor of the mantle of Lincoln bragging about sexual assault and infidelity. More than a dozen women soon came forward to give the specifics of the assaults Trump had only alluded to. Briefly, party stalwarts like Paul Ryan tried to distance themselves from Trump, without actually denouncing him. Behind the scenes, religious-right heartthrob Mike Pence offered himself as a last-minute alternative. But Trump held firm: Both he himself and the women who accused him had been lying. (“Locker room talk“, he called it — an innocent variety of fib similar to fishermen’s stories.) In spite of his own words, no pussies had actually been grabbed.

Across the country, Republicans — especially the white Evangelical Christians who had denounced Bill Clinton with such vigor two decades before — stood firm behind their man. Despite losing the popular vote by  larger margin than any victor in U.S. history, Donald Trump was President of the United States.

But even that was just the beginning, as Brooks acknowledged.

There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him. … That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

And so congressional Republicans completed the theft of a Supreme Court seat by approving Neil Gorsuch. They went along with Trump’s appointment of cabinet secretaries who were either unqualified — like Rick Perry (who didn’t even know what the Energy Department does), Ben Carson (whose main qualification to run HUD seemed to be his race), and Betsy DeVos — or conflicted, like Putin-approved Rex Tillerson, whose company (Exxon) stood to profit massively from his intention to relax sanctions on Russia. They showed no interest in Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency, slow-rolled both the House and Senate investigations into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, and have increasingly cooperated with Trump’s craven effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. Brooks comments:

Trump may soon ask them to accept his firing of Robert Mueller, and yes, after some sighing, they will accept that, too.

But ultimately, what shall it profit them?

Roy Moore. Fundamentally, there are two kinds of moral codes. One insists that you do the right thing, but the other has a lesser demand: Before you do the wrong thing, you have to agonize about it. Again and again, Republicans have demonstrated the second kind of morality.

I had expected the pattern to play out once again with regard to Roy Moore. Faced with a financially corrupt pedophile who has no respect for the rule of law and pines for the days of slavery, both national and Alabama Republicans would agonize greatly, but ultimately they would come through for their party. Alabamans would elect him and the Senate would seat him.

I was wrong, sort of. Apparently, some Republicans finally reached their limit with Roy Moore. Not many, but just enough that a big turnout in the black community could push Doug Jones over the top: According to the exit polls, Moore got 91% of the Republican vote and 80% of white born-again Christians. Statewide, he lost by a mere 21K votes out of a little more than 1.3 million. 649K Alabamans voted for him.

Turning point? So it’s possible that future historians will look back on the Moore debacle as a turning point, when Republicans began to reclaim their party’s soul, as inside-the-tent critics like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Flake have been pleading for them to do.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s no soul to go back to, or if there is, it’s been lost much longer than the GOP’s internal critics realize. As Ezra Klein observed, the problem didn’t start with Trump and Moore:

It is tempting to split today’s Republican Party into factions, to see Trump as a bizarre aberration, to see his voters as alienated and marginal, to see Roy Moore as an inexplicably Alabaman phenomenon, and to frame establishment Republicans as fundamentally normal politicians suffering through an abnormal moment. This is wrong.

Trump could flourish in the Republican Party precisely because “normal” Republicans like McConnell and Ryan spent years dismissing the facts they didn’t like, undermining the institutions and information sources that contradicted them, indulging the conspiracies and falsehoods they found convenient.

No reputable economic analysis predicts that the cuts in the current tax reform proposal will pay for themselves through growth, but virtually all Republicans voting for the bill say otherwise. They also say that global warming isn’t happening, or that fossil fuels can’t be blamed for it, or that nothing can be done about it anyway. They blame poverty on the poor’s lack of motivation, promote the myth of voter fraud, and insist that guns have nothing to do with mass killings. And racism? What racism? We don’t see any racism.

No major faction in today’s GOP is taking a firm stand on the side of reality, or proposing realistic conservative solutions to problems that actually exist. The intra-party debate is entirely about which fantasies and falsehoods they will run on. In such an environment, best and most brazen liar — Trump, in this case — always wins.

Should we care? For a liberal Democrat like myself, it can be tempting to take a pass-the-popcorn attitude when a kook like Moore wages a primary battle against a swamp creature like Luther Strange, or Mitch McConnell faces a Bannonite revolt.

Maybe, from our point of view, crazier is better. Doug Jones probably wouldn’t have beaten Strange, no matter how corrupt the deal that put him in the Senate. Claire McCaskill might have lost to someone saner than Todd Legitimate-Rape Akin. Harry Reid might have gone down, had the Nevada GOP not gone off the deep end with Sharron Second-Amendment-Remedies Angle. And who knows? An establishment figure like John Kasich or Marco Rubio might have beaten Clinton cleanly, without the distortions of the Electoral College or James Comey or Russia.

In any particular election, Democrats probably do better against off-the-wall crazy candidates than against mainstream Republicans. And yet, after each such race, the national conversation seems a little crazier. Even in defeat, I’ve come to believe, such candidates pollute our political discourse. After Roy Moore’s loss, will it be easier or harder for Republicans to nominate the next Roy Moore, and maybe even to elect him? I suspect the answer is easier. Crazy ideas seem less crazy the second and third and fourth times you’re asked to take them seriously.

That’s why lately, in spite of the prospects in this election or that one, I’ve been rooting for Republicans to get their act together. The Republic needs a reality-based conservative party, and we haven’t had one for a very long time.

Disraeli or Hitler? For historical perspective, it’s worth looking at the recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy by Daniel Ziblatt. In it, Ziblatt examines the very different paths that various European countries took towards democracy between 1848 and the 1950s. Some nations evolved gradually but steadily, with an ever-larger electorate and the ever-increasing power of elected officials over aristocrats and generals. But other countries spent that century ping-ponging from revolution to counter-revolution and back again.

What was the difference? All the countries went through economic ups and downs. All of them experienced the internal tensions of capitalists out-pacing landed elites, and labor organizing itself against capital. All of them endured foreign-policy disasters, deaths of important leaders, and corruption scandals. Why was the path to democracy so much rockier in Portugal or France than in Sweden or the Netherlands? And why, for that matter, has the Arab Spring turned out so much better in Tunisia than in Egypt?

The book retells the political history of Europe during that key century to argue for a counter-intuitive thesis: The difference between the easy-path countries and the zig-zag countries was whether or not the old-regime aristocrats and rising capitalists organized themselves into a politically viable conservative party. Where they did, that party might win or lose as circumstances changed. But where they didn’t, eventually the privileged classes would try to protect their interests through extra-constitutional means.

After a wide-ranging defense of his thesis, Ziblatt then zeroes in on two cases to examine in detail: Britain and Germany.

The aristocratic dilemma and its obvious-in-retrospect solution. By definition, an aristocracy is a small class that wields a lot of power. By its nature, it will fear “mob rule” and try to block or delay democratic evolution. But what happens when it can’t avoid yielding power to democratic institutions like a Parliament chosen by a broad-based electorate? Is its goose cooked, or will it find some acceptable (to itself) way to change with the times?

In every country that transitioned to democracy, some kind of conservative political party developed to represent upper-class interests. And that worked fine as long as the electorate was only a little bit larger than the aristocracy itself. The various upper-class and professional-class people who owed loyalty to a local lord would vote that lord (or his chosen representative) into Parliament. But the continuing pressure for democracy resulted in ever-larger expansions of the electorate, each of which required the conservative party to form a larger coalition if it hoped to stay viable.

First they welcomed in the capitalists, but there aren’t very many of them either. Then respectable shop-keepers, small farmers who owned their land, and so on. But eventually working-class people got the vote and became the majority, which led to a dilemma: How do you convince factory workers to vote to preserve upper-class privileges?

The obvious-in-retrospect answer, which you can see very clearly in the development of the British Tories, and which still echoes in America’s religious right today, is to ally with the established church in a coalition to preserve “traditional values”. The conservative party, then, will rally around symbols of patriotism and faith, make a God-and-Country pitch, and hope to appeal to enough workers to keep itself competitive. [1]

Particularly as workers move into the middle class, the conservative party can make a persuasive argument to defend the status quo: If you want to preserve what you have, help everybody else (including the rich) preserve what they have.

How conservative parties fail. In the zig-zag countries, though, the conservative parties failed to make this transition. Rather than put forward a broad traditional-values-and-the-status-quo appeal, they stayed more insular, and relied instead on the unfair advantages their legacy position gave them (like the ability to rig elections or block reform through an anti-democratic upper house). Landed aristocrats didn’t play well with industrialists, and churches developed their own parties. [2] Rather than accept democracy gracefully, the German Conservative Party (DKP) was known to be “more monarchist than the Kaiser”.

What’s fascinating in Ziblatt’s narrative is that he makes heroes out of a class we often think of as villains: the professional politicians and party organizers. Those larger coalitions came about precisely in the countries where a conservative party establishment developed organizational power that allowed it to keep the grass-roots forces (like anti-Irish or anti-Jewish racism) in check, and to resist being dominated by single-issue pressure groups and individual donors. But in Germany, a weak party establishment at the DKP (and its Weimar successor, the DNVP, German National People’s Party) was unable to keep candidates focused on “serious” issues like economics and foreign policy when anti-Semitism could raise more energy, particularly in the rural areas.

The decision that ultimately proved suicidal for the DNVP, though, was to let its own hold on reality slip and instead embrace a comforting popular mythology: Dolchstosslegende,  the theory that Germany only lost World War I because its valiant army was stabbed in the back by traitors on the home front, who were often portrayed as Jewish.

Once the competition shifted to who could tell the most compelling and energizing myth, Germany’s aristocrats and conservative intellectuals were lost. They had hoped to harness popular grass-roots mythology and prejudices against Weimar’s Social Democrats and Communists. But Hitler and his Nazis were much better equipped for that job. What DNVP politicians indulged in as a vice, Hitler saw as a virtue. Freed to tell whatever story he and his public wanted to hear, he was far more convincing.

Sunrise, sunset. Ziblatt is focused on why democracy might fail to take hold in a country, not how it might decay, so he says nothing about contemporary America. But I find the parallels to Trump and Trumpism unavoidable: The conservative role that Ziblatt sees as necessary for a healthy democracy needs a sane and sensible conservative party to fill it. We don’t have one.

In any democracy, some people are going to believe that change is happening too fast, and that old ways that have worked well enough for a long time should not be cast aside lightly. Some sizeable slice of the electorate is going to feel that the reality of what they are being asked to give up is more valuable than the gains they are being promised. Some voters will be skeptical of government programs, or will want to use the power of government to keep what they have rather than right ancient wrongs that seem intractable anyway. Others will grow tired of the governing coalition, whatever it is, and want a change of faces, but not a revolution.

Those people need a place to go, a party that represents them without raising their deepest fears and exploiting their darkest passions. The Republican Party, the party of people like Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, used to be such a place.  It no longer is.

Two generations of leaders — from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, through the two Presidents Bush, and up to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan — thought they could harness the electorate’s darker, more virulent impulses without being tainted by them. During elections, they could dog-whistle to racists, delegitimize journalism and science, and wink at myths from the Trilateral Commission to global-warming-is-a-hoax to Birtherism — and then govern like rational men.

They never saw Trump coming. The vices they indulged in during campaign season are the virtues he practices every day. He leads the rabble they merely exploited, and glories in the adulation of those they were ashamed to be seen with.

Germany only made it to a stable democracy after it crashed and burned; and for decades democracy only took hold in the part occupied by the armies of foreign democracies. Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece had to endure periods of autocracy, sometimes multiple periods. I don’t know any examples of corrupted conservative parties that reformed themselves without disaster.

I may not be optimistic, but still I have to hope that our Republicans can be the first. If they’re going to reform, though, they need to understand where they are: A simple return to the pre-Trump status quo will just lead to another Trump. They need to go back much further. A less virulent strain of mythology won’t do the trick. For the sake of America, the party needs to return to solid standards of truth and fact. It needs to confront real issues rather than manufactured ones, and propose plausible conservative solutions.


[1] Somehow, I had let What’s the Matter With Kansas? convince me that this kind of coalition was unusual.

[2] One disadvantage Germany had was its more-nearly-even Catholic/Protestant split. British Tories could ally with “the Church”; German conservatives had to choose one church or the other.