How did we get into this sorry situation? A meltdown of this magnitude typically has many causes. In this case, the president’s inability to reach some sort of deal rests heavily on several basic failures of understanding by him and his team. These include:
1. A failure to grasp how divided government works. The president somehow came to believe that he’d have more leverage once the Democrats took control of the House. Maybe someone convinced him that, after the transfer of power, he could shift blame for the impasse onto Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a favorite villain of Republicans. Or maybe he assumed that Pelosi & Company would fold in the face of the dysfunction and public outcry a shutdown would bring. Whatever the logic, Team Trump assumed Democrats would become more pliable, and a deal would emerge.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has been spoiled by two years of Congress being led by weak-kneed members of his party who, even when troubled by his excesses, largely let him run amok, lest he call down upon them the wrath of the Republican base.
But for their part, Ms. Pelosi and her new majority are concerned about presenting a united front against Mr. Trump’s challenges to constitutional authority. With the president’s wall having become a flash point, the political costs to Democrats for cutting a deal seen as advantageous to Mr. Trump would be steep.
2. A failure to understand the costs of playing only to the base. While Republican lawmakers may be awed by Mr. Trump’s command of their party’s troops, Democrats are more motivated by the fact that the bulk of the electorate is tired of the president’s divisive demagogy. Time and again, Mr. Trump has chosen partisanship over leadership, doing nothing to expand his appeal. This puts him at a disadvantage in wooing the public to his side of the wall debate.
3. A failure to understand Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, Mr. Trump never got around to reading “The Art of War,” or at least not Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know your enemy.” If he had, the president would have tried to develop at least a basic working relationship with Ms. Pelosi. The White House clearly assumed that, at some point — maybe after she secured the speaker’s gavel — Ms. Pelosi would bend to Mr. Trump’s will. But the speaker is not impressed with bluster. She is seldom cowed by political pressure from her own team, much less the opposing one. She plays the long game, and her will is as formidable as Mr. Trump’s, possibly more so. One key difference: Ms. Pelosi knows how the legislative process works.
Only Trump’s flamboyant awfulness stands in the way of his party’s power grab.
Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.
No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.
.. If you want to understand what’s happening to our country, the book you really need to read is “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. As the authors — professors of government at Harvard — point out, in recent decades a number of nominally democratic nations have become de facto authoritarian, one-party states. Yet none of them have had classic military coups, with tanks in the street.
.. What we’ve seen instead are coups of a subtler form:
- takeovers or intimidation of the news media,
- rigged elections that disenfranchise opposing voters,
- new rules of the game that give the ruling party overwhelming control even if it loses the popular vote,
- corrupted courts.
.. The classic example is Hungary, where Fidesz, the white nationalist governing party, has effectively
- taken over the bulk of the media;
- destroyed the independence of the judiciary;
- rigged voting to enfranchise supporters and disenfranchise opponents;
- gerrymandered electoral districts in its favor; and
- altered the rules so that a minority in the popular vote translates into a supermajority in the legislature.
Does a lot of this sound familiar? It should. You see, Republicans have been adopting similar tactics — not at the federal level (yet), but in states they control... the states, which Justice Louis Brandeis famously pronounced the laboratories of democracy, “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”
.. Thus, voter purges and deliberate restriction of minority access to the polls have become standard practice in much of America. Would Brian Kemp, the governor-elect of Georgia — who oversaw his own election as secretary of state — have won without these tactics? Almost certainly not.
.. you get a lot less reassured if you look at what happened at the state level, where votes often weren’t reflected in terms of control of state legislatures.
Let’s talk, in particular, about what’s happening in Wisconsin.
.. Having lost every statewide office in Wisconsin last month, Republicans are using the lame-duck legislative session to drastically curtail these offices’ power, effectively keeping rule over the state in the hands of the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature.
.. What has gotten less emphasis is the fact that G.O.P. legislative control is also undemocratic. Last month Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the votes in State Assembly elections — but they ended up with only 37 percent of the seats.
.. In other words, Wisconsin is turning into Hungary on the Great Lakes, a state that may hold elections, but where elections don’t matter, because the ruling party retains control no matter what voters do.
.. As far as I can tell, not a single prominent Republican in Washington has condemned
- the power grab in Wisconsin,
- the similar grab in Michigan, or even
- what looks like outright electoral fraud in North Carolina.
.. Elected Republicans don’t just increasingly share the values of white nationalist parties like Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice; they also share those parties’ contempt for democracy. The G.O.P. is an authoritarian party in waiting.
.. Which is why we should be grateful for Trump. If he weren’t so flamboyantly awful, Democrats might have won the House popular vote by only 4 or 5 points, not 8.6 points.
.. And in that case, Republicans might have maintained control — and we’d be well along the path to permanent one-party rule.
Instead, we’re heading for a period of divided government, in which the opposition party has both the power to block legislation and, perhaps even more important, the ability to conduct investigations backed by subpoena power into Trump administration malfeasance.
.. But this may be no more than a respite. For whatever may happen to Donald Trump, his party has turned its back on democracy. And that should terrify you.
.. The fact is that the G.O.P., as currently constituted, is willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power. And as long as that remains true, and Republicans remain politically competitive, we will be one election away from losing democracy in America.