At the moment the government is careering toward a shutdown. At the end of the week all authorizations for the government to spend money on anything at all expire, again – but this time no one is talking about a “continuing resolution” to keep all current authorizations in place, as is, for a few more weeks, while Republicans and Democrats work out an actual budget. Democrats want a fix to DACA and the expired CHIP program. Let those “dreamers” brought here as children, and who are now exemplary citizens, who know no other country, stay. Make sure nine million children from poor families don’t lose the only health insurance they have. Don’t let them die. Republicans say no “amnesty” for anyone, ever, and they want that big wall, and an end to all this “sanctuary city” nonsense. As for those nine million children, if Democrats don’t want them to die, Democrats will have to accept massive cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It’s one or the other. Republicans feel they have the Democrats nicely trapped on that – and there has not been much guidance on any of this from the White House. This president, alternating between something like charm and reasonableness, and fits of rage driven by an odd need for unequivocal praise for all he does, keeps changing his mind on all this.
Republicans are befuddled, Democrats have pretty much given up on him, and his recent rant about “shithole countries” didn’t help matters. A bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats came up with a plan to fix DACA and add more border security and whatnot. It was just what he said he wanted. They took their new plan to him. He exploded. Why does America have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people, instead of immigrants from Norway?
No one expected that. No one expected the profanity, but that was a minor matter. No one expected the overt racism. Talk of that has consumed the nation. The international outrage has crippled our diplomats everywhere too – and all the while Robert Mueller is closing in. There’s something about Trump and the Russia. That’ll come out. It won’t be pretty. It might cost Trump his presidency. Republicans will probably lose the House in the midterms at the end of the year. They may lose the Senate too. Impeachment may follow.
And then there’s the porn star, as Kevin Drum notes here:
The affair itself is not that big a deal. However, the agreement to pay Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet is a very big deal. Trump’s lawyer has admitted the payment was made, but refuses to say anything more about it. How is this happening? How can the president of the United States get away with what looks like hush money paid to a mistress in the middle of an election? How is it that this isn’t front-page news until Trump tells us what it was all about and shows us the agreement?
How is it that this isn’t front-page news? That’s easy. There’s too much news for even the largest front page, even in the tiniest font. The day-to-day is overwhelming. There’s no big picture.
But there is a big picture. Brian Klaas, a fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy – an ominous title – decided it was time to talk Turkey:
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, authoritarian despots across the globe must be feeling pretty flattered by President Trump these days. Trump’s latest efforts to distort and discredit special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is straight out of the despot’s playbook.
In 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – a democratically elected leader with a clearly authoritarian bent – was facing credible allegations of corruption. A truly independent investigation could threaten Erdogan’s grip on power. As arrests mounted, it became clear that the prosecutorial net was sweeping closer to the prime minister himself.
Erdogan’s political machine sprang into action. Despite overwhelming evidence of corruption among his close associates, Erdogan claimed there was none. He dismissed the investigation as a “dirty plot” by law enforcement. His supporters spoke of a “witch hunt” launched by the Turkish “deep state.” Erdogan demanded that the investigation focus not on him but on his political opponent. His supporters began to agitate about the need to “clean house” in the judiciary and law enforcement. Soon thereafter, Erdogan fired those who were investigating him.
As there, so here:
Despite evidence of at least attempted collusion with Russia, Trump declares that there was “no collusion.” Trump, like Erdogan, has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” A year ago, Trump claimed that law enforcement was out to get him, comparing the FBI to “Nazi Germany.” His supporters – including Republican members of Congress – frequently refer to the Justice Department as a part of the “deep state” that needs to be “purged.” Trump has obsessively urged the FBI to turn its focus away from him and to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, instead. When Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, he openly admitted that he did so because of “the Russia thing.”
Klaas suspects Trump knows what he’s doing:
Erdogan got away with it. Turkey’s leader successfully chipped away at the limited democratic constraints on his authority by politicizing the rule of law. The investigation quietly faded. Now no one in Turkey seems interested in investigating him anymore. After winning the presidency and pushing through a referendum that gave wide-ranging powers to that office, Erdogan today enjoys unrivaled dominance of Turkey’s political system. He has become a despot.
Trump, against the advice of his advisors, immediately called Erdogan to congratulate him on getting that referendum passed, perhaps for good reason:
American institutions are stronger than Turkey’s – for now. But Republicans in Congress are doing nothing substantive to push back against Trump’s increasingly authoritarian calls to politicize the rule of law in a way that is novel in the United States but thoroughly familiar in dictatorial regimes… Trump called on Republicans to “take control” of the Russia investigation. It was a startlingly blatant and brazen demand for his political party to meddle – to Trump’s advantage – in what is supposed to be a completely independent investigation.
But the man is who he is:
As usual with Trump, such behavior is shocking but not particularly surprising. For years, he has shown us that he views the rule of law as a political weapon, not as a pillar of democracy that exists to hold leaders accountable.
He has repeatedly suggested that those he perceives as his political enemies, from Clinton to Huma Abedin, should be jailed. But jailing political opponents without indictments or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is a hallmark of banana republics, not functioning democracies.
Trump has also attacked his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for rightly and lawfully recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Had Sessions done otherwise, it would have been highly improper and a flagrant conflict of interest. Still, Trump has repeatedly said he believes that Sessions should have behaved in that inappropriate way.
Klaas say that’s the big picture:
As Trump continues to furiously tweet attacks on the FBI and peddle crackpot conspiracy theories that Clinton colluded with Russia to hack her own campaign, remember, these strategies may seem unhinged, but there’s a method to the madness. The goal is to politicize rule of law, discredit the Mueller investigation by sowing confusion among the electorate, and hope that those efforts mute the damage coming from Mueller’s eventual report or recommendation.
We know how the story ended in Turkey.
That may be our story too, and John McCain just jumped in:
After leaving office, President Ronald Reagan created the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to recognize individuals who have fought to spread liberty worldwide. Nancy Reagan continued the tradition after her husband’s death, and in 2008 she bestowed the honor on human rights icon Natan Sharansky, who credited Reagan’s strong defense of freedom for his own survival in Soviet gulags. Reagan recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world.
President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way. He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing “fake news awards” upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.
McCain sees the even bigger picture here:
This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common. Britain passed a surveillance law that experts warn chills free speech, and countries from France to Germany are looking to do the same. In Malta, a prominent journalist was brutally murdered in October after uncovering systemic government corruption. In Poland, an independent news outlet was fined (later rescinded) nearly half a million dollars for broadcasting images of an anti-government protest.
The rest is supporting detail, and McCain telling Trump to stop this right now, as unlikely as that seems. The day-to-day is too overwhelming.
E. J. Dionne puts this in a different way:
Political leaders in democracies have a few core obligations. They are charged with solving today’s problems and preparing their nations for the future. They are responsible for creating some sense of shared purpose and mutual respect among their citizens – above all a common commitment to preserving the very freedoms on which democracy depends.
Within this context, citizens exercise their right to argue about how to define the public interest, how to identify the central problems, and how to choose among competing values.
Dionne argues that this is the norm:
Given my social democratic leanings I would assert, for example, that equal opportunity – including the opportunity to participate fully in self-government – demands a far greater degree of economic security and equality than we currently enjoy. This is particularly true when it comes to access to health care, education, family time away from paid labor, and the chance to accumulate wealth.
You might push back and say that my proposals toward these ends impinge more than they should on individual freedom and require higher levels of taxation than you are willing to put up with. Or you might insist that I am focusing too much on economics and that promoting better personal values society-wide is more conducive to the nation’s well-being than any of my programs for greater equity.
And, yes, we might quarrel about who has a right to join our political community and become part of our nation. We should not pretend that our current battles about immigration are unique to our time. In the United States, we have been wrangling over immigration since at least the 1840s. I suspect (and may God preserve our republic) we will be having at least some contention around this subject in the 2140s as well.
This is fairly simple:
Such debates can be bitter, but democracy’s health depends on our ability to hold our passions against each other in check and to offer each other at least some benefits of the doubt.
As the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize in their timely new book, “How Democracies Die,” democracy requires “mutual toleration,” which is “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals,” and “forbearance,” which means that politicians “exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.”
But then there’s President Donald Recep Tayyip Trump:
Our current debate is frustrating and not only because Trump doesn’t understand what “mutual toleration” and “forbearance” even mean. By persistently making himself, his personality, his needs, his prejudices and his stability the central topics of our political conversation, Trump is blocking the public conversation we ought to be having about how to move forward.
And while Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party will do all they can to avoid the issue, there should now be no doubt (even if this was clear long ago) that we have a blatant racist as our president. His reference to immigrants from “shithole countries” and his expressed preference for Norwegians over Haitians, Salvadorans and new arrivals from Africa make this abundantly clear. Racist leaders do not help us reach mutual toleration. His semi-denial 15 hours after his comment was first reported lacked credibility, especially since he called around first to see how his original words would play with his base.
But notice also what Trump’s outburst did to our capacity to govern ourselves and make progress. Democrats and Republicans sympathetic to the plight of the Dreamers worked out an immigration compromise designed carefully to give Trump what he had said he needed.
That was a sign that we might be okay, but maybe not:
Trump blew them away with a torrent of bigotry. In the process, he shifted the onus for avoiding a government shutdown squarely on his own shoulders and those of Republican leaders who were shamefully slow in condemning the president’s racism.
Dionne is not happy:
There are so many issues both more important and more interesting than the psyche of a deeply damaged man. We are capable of being a far better nation. But we need leaders who call us to our obligations to each other as free citizens. Instead, we have a president who knows only how to foster division and hatred.
As for that book that Dionne cites, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner offers this:
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard University who had the fun idea of releasing a new, unfortunately relevant book, How Democracies Die. (For those who find the title too sanguine, Die is written in such large letters on the cover that you have to open the book to see who wrote it.) Inside, you will find a depressingly thorough accounting of the ways in which democracy has withered at various times in various countries over the past 100 years. Much of the book focuses on things like norms breached and then disappeared; concerted attacks from anti-democratic forces on crucial institutions; and the rise of political partisanship.
Levitsky and Ziblatt are not entirely pessimistic, because they believe there are things that can be done to rescue democracies on the brink. But they leave readers in no doubt that they should be worried about the state of American democracy.
That is followed by his interview with Levitsky and Ziblatt with a few revealing nuggets like this:
Chotiner: I think we all agree Trump has very authoritarian instincts. At the same time, I think it’s pretty clear that he is not consciously thinking, “Oh I want to establish some sort of authoritarian system and this is my plan for doing so and I hope that in 2020 I am a dictator and elections are canceled.” I could be wrong, but I really don’t think he or the people around him are thinking in those terms. And that does offer me a ray of hope.
Levitsky: It’s less dangerous that Trump doesn’t have an authoritarian plan than if he did, and there are some autocrats that come to power with a plan. But there are also historically many autocrats that don’t come to power with a plan. Maybe the most obvious case to me is Alberto Fujimori in Peru. He was a political outsider, a political novice, who was elected with an anti-establishment populist rhetoric. He continued that rhetoric in office. He certainly didn’t have a blueprint but he picked fights with the judiciary, picked fights with Congress, picked fights with the media, and you had this spiraling effect in which he said scary things and the courts and Congress upped the ante and was very antagonistic toward him. And eventually, it spiraled out of control to the point where he called out the tanks. Now, Trump is not going to be able to call out the tanks. But it’s a case in which you sort of get unanticipated effects of a novice coming to power with very antagonistic discourse that scares the establishment. The establishment then pushes back. The president then feels deceived and pushes back even further. Again, Trump is not going to be able to call out the tanks, but several years of conflict between presidents and different elements of the establishment could easily weaken our democratic institutions to the point where somebody with a plan can do more damage next time.
That’s not exactly reassuring, and there’s this:
Chotiner: How do you think about the Russia investigation in this context? I think the investigation has served as a kind of lifeline for people who want to see Trump not be the president, but it’s also caused me to have two distinct varieties of fear. The first is that Mueller will say that Trump committed some very bad crime and Congress will do nothing about it, which I think in terms of a norm erosion would be extremely worrying. And the second is that the investigation will not go anywhere conclusive involving Trump, and Democrats will impeach him anyway when they get into office, which I think could also have a bad effect, although not as bad as the first option.
Levitsky: I think you’re right. There are many ways in which this can end up being problematic in terms of our democratic norms. I think the best-case scenario, which isn’t that likely, is a Nixon-like scenario in which Mueller comes up with something pretty overwhelming and a big enough faction of the Republican Party defects so that you get bipartisan consensus behind impeachment and we end up with a sort of norm reinforcing outcome. That doesn’t seem highly likely for the reasons that you say. If there is a partisan division in the reaction to the Mueller findings, which seems fairly likely given the level of partisan polarization, it will probably make things worse. The investigation provides Washington, it provides us, with a viable means to remove Trump and that’s double-edged, right? If Trump is in danger – either because he’s unfit for office or because he’s an authoritarian – that’s potentially a good thing. But any kind of irregular removal of a president before his term is a shock to the system – something that is a fundamentally destabilizing event.
Ziblatt: One way to think about impeachment is that it may become necessary, but if it’s regarded as simply a partisan tool, it’s just the next turn in the kind of death spiral of polarization where each side accuses the other side of exploiting maximum advantage. So that’s why we have to be very cautious.
Levitsky: Right, if a large enough faction of the Republican Party thinks, “Fuck you,” and interprets the impeachment of Trump as a coup, we’re in serious trouble.
In short, there’s no easy way out of this, and Matthew Yglesias puts that this way:
If Republicans hold on to both houses of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, the American system of government could very well collapse into Donald Trump’s distinctive – and disturbing – vision of a personalized, authoritarian state.
Dozens of Republicans in Congress started out skeptical of Trump but have fallen in line behind him as he signed their top initiatives into law, like a trillion-dollar giveaway to the very rich. In exchange they’ve turned a blind eye to Trump’s significant financial conflicts of interest, repeated efforts to undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process, and more. The few remaining critics plan to leave Washington.
Trump may be a bit scattered and uninformed, but Yglesias says that’s kind of impressive:
This is one of Trump’s most underappreciated political achievements of the year: consolidation of power over a party to which he had scant personal or institutional ties. And all signs are that if Republicans win in 2018, slavish loyalty to Trump will only grow more ingrained, especially because Trump himself makes no secret that loyalty to him is the key to access, and access is the key to policy influence.
So maybe it is time to talk Turkey – but that’s almost impossible now. We may have our own Recep Tayyip Erdogan now but the day-to-day is too overwhelming. Still there is the big picture, and it’s not pretty. This is how democracies die.