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.
This group will not willingly cede its power.
“After hours of mysterious closed-door meetings that went past midnight, the Wisconsin Senate convened at 4:30 on Wednesday morning and passed by one vote a package of bills devised to curb the powers of the incoming Democratic leaders.”
.. “In Michigan, where Democrats last month won the governor’s mansion as well as the races for attorney general and secretary of state, Republican lawmakers last week introduced measures that would water down the authority of those positions on campaign finance oversight and other legal matters.”
.. Altering the structure of power in a state to limit the influence of an incoming executive of an opposing party wasn’t something I thought I’d ever see in America, but unfortunately this isn’t even the first time we’ve seen it. This is not the first time Republicans have done it.
.. In 2016, Republicans in the North Carolina legislature also pushed through legislation designed to limit the power of an incoming Democratic governor. Kevin Drum wrote a fascinating column about this in Mother Jones titled “Republicans Are No Longer Committed to That Whole Peaceful Transfer of Power Thing.”
.. Republican anti-democratic tendencies aren’t limited to the transfer of power. They extend to areas like the widespread efforts to enact voter suppression, from voter ID laws to voter roll purges to shortening early-voting windows to gerrymandering.
.. a report this year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that voter purging was on the rise:
We found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls, and every state in the country can and should do more to protect voters from improper purges. Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. This growth in the number of removed voters represented an increase of 33 percent — far outstripping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total population (6 percent).
In some cases it is clear that minority voters are disproportionately affected by the purges. One reason is the method used. The report found that 28 states now submit data to the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, the purpose of which “is to identify possible ‘double voters’ — an imprecise term that could be used to refer to people who have registrations in two states or who actually voted in an election in multiple states.”
.. But many people have the same name, which poses a problem for the database. That problem is heightened for minority voters because, as the report says, “African-American, Asian-American, and Latino voters are much more likely than Caucasians to have one of the most common 100 last names in the United States.”
As for gerrymandering, it is “the biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the United States,” according to Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London.
.. eight of the ten most gerrymandered districts in the United States were drawn by Republicans.”
..Even our current immigration debate is far more about future voters than about safety or criminals or the other canards Republicans typically use to oppose it.
.. “among all Latino immigrants who are eligible to vote (i.e. are U.S. citizens) many more identify as Democrats than as Republicans — 54 percent versus 11 percent.”
That is why immigration is such a burning issue on the right and why Donald Trump is able to exploit it: Immigration, both legal and illegal, represents a loss of political power for Republicans.
.. Republican power is increasingly synonymous with white power. The party’s nationalist tendencies are increasingly synonymous with white nationalism.
.. This group will not willingly cede its power just because demographics predict its downfall and current circumstances demonstrate its weaknesses.
If the Republican Party can’t maintain power in the democracy we have, it will destroy that democracy so that its power can be entrenched by limiting the impact of the vote.
the 54 senators who voted to elevate Judge Gorsuch had received around 54 million votes, and the 45 senators who opposed him got more than 73 million. That’s 58 percent to 42 percent.
.. And if the Senate confirms Brett Kavanaugh soon, the vote is likely to fall along similar lines, meaning that we will soon have two Supreme Court justices who deserve to be called “minority-majority”: justices who are part of a five-vote majority on the bench but who were nominated and confirmed by a president and a Senate who represent the will of a minority of the American people.
.. Two more current members of the dominant conservative bloc, while nominated by presidents who did win the popular vote, were confirmed by senators who collectively won fewer popular votes than the senators who voted against them.
.. Clarence Thomas, who was confirmed in 1991 by 52 senators who won just 48 percent of the popular vote, and Samuel Alito, confirmed in 2006 by 58 senators who garnered, again, 48 percent of the vote.
.. If fate were to hand President Trump one more opportunity to put a justice on the court before 2021, it would almost certainly again be a bitterly contested and close vote, and it would probably leave us with a majority of Supreme Court justices, five, who were confirmed by senators who received a minority share of the vote.
.. no Democratic president has ever taken office after losing the popular vote. And second, justices nominated by Democrats have never been confirmed by such narrow margins. Of the four liberals currently on the court, all received 63 votes or more, from senators winning and representing clear majorities of their voters.
.. we’re on the verge of having a five-member majority who figure to radically rewrite our nation’s laws. And four of them will have been narrowly approved by senators representing minority will.
.. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not nominate jurists who had left paper trails of judicial extremism or dropped other hints that their jurisprudence would be radical.
.. outsourced the judicial-selection process to right-wing groups like the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation and twice nominated judges with an eye cast largely toward how happy they would make conservative evangelicals.
.. Republicans are doing to the Supreme Court what they have already accomplished in Congress. There, through aggressive gerrymandering, they’ve muscled their way to a majority even as their candidates have sometimes received collectively fewer votes than Democrats. And now they’re doing it to the court, by breaking the rules (Merrick Garland) and advancing nominees who are confirmed by legislators representing minority support.
Though Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in every single election since 1992, except one, Republicans have managed to secure a far-right majority on the US Supreme Court. As a result, the Court’s claim to be a neutral, non-partisan arbiter for pressing constitutional questions is quickly losing credibility.
.. the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court marks the culmination of a decades-long campaign by the right-wing Federalist Society to reshape the judiciary. For those devout conservatives and their monied backers, faced with the prospect of massive demographic and generational shifts in the country’s body politic, the strategy has long been to find a way to limit severely access to authentic democratic governance in the United States for generations to come. They now seem on the verge of achieving their goal.
.. since 1988, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote in presidential elections – the only consistent measure of national voter intent – just once, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 after a period of national unification following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In every other presidential election (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016), the Democratic candidate won more votes than the Republican candidate.
.. considerable evidence has accumulated that Thomas acceded to that seat by committing perjury during his Senate confirmation hearings.
.. Nine years later, Thomas would go on to join the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, in which the Court ruled that Florida’s 2000 election recount must stop. In doing so, he helped hand the presidency to the son of the man who had appointed him, and denied it to Al Gore, who had won the national popular ballot by more than 500,000 votes.
.. So obtuse was the majority’s written opinion in that case that the ruling actually came with a remarkable disclaimer that it should never be cited as precedent in the future.
.. In 2005, he appointed the current chief justice, John Roberts, to replace William Rehnquist; and in 2006 he appointed Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor.
.. Obama bent over backwards to assuage them, nominating Merrick Garland, the moderate Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
.. Mitch McConnell, succeeded in stymieing the president’s constitutional authority to appoint Supreme Court justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
It bears mentioning that, at this time, the 54 Republicans in the Senate had collectively received 20 million fewer votes than their 46 Democratic colleagues. The Republicans owed their majority strictly to the Senate’s anti-democratic composition, whereby each state is represented by two senators
.. This scheme was one of many concessions made to slave states during the drafting of the Constitution, and with the rise of urbanization, it has come to have an increasingly distortionary effect on American politics. For example, Wyoming’s two senators represent 563,767 people (according to the 2010 census), whereas California’s senators represent 37,254,518.
.. Moreover, Clinton achieved her high popular-vote margin despite widespread voter-disenfranchisement campaigns aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in states controlled by Republicans.
.. In Florida, where elections are regularly notoriously close, more than 1.5 million citizens (over 10% of the state’s total number of adults, and one in five African-Americans) are denied the vote owing to nonviolent criminal convictions, even after they have served their time in prison.
.. Despite having no democratic mandate to speak of, Trump and the Senate Republicans wasted no time in confirming Neil Gorsuch to Garland’s rightful seat on theCourt.
.. Kavanaugh was selected by a president who has been implicated in a felony allegedly committed in pursuit of the office he now holds. That alone calls into question Trump’s legitimacy. But he is also the subject of an unprecedented investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with a hostile foreign power – an investigation that has already resulted in more than 20 guilty pleas or felony convictions.
.. Kavanaugh, a member of the legal team that persuaded the Supreme Court to hand Bush the presidency in 2000 (thereby hastening the whole grim cavalcade of misbegotten) was most likely selected for his conspicuous support of executive authority in the past. His interpretation of the president’s powers seems to brook no limits, and would likely open the door for Trump to ignore a grand-jury subpoena and even shut down the investigation of his campaign.
.. With his party still enjoying a two-vote (minority-elected) majority in the Senate, McConnell has shown no compunction about ramming Kavanaugh’s dubious nomination through that body. That leaves no alternative but to consider the dire implications of a Supreme Court dominated by the Misbegotten Majority: Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh. What will this judicial coup mean for reproductive, criminal, labor, and civil rights?
.. More to the point, one of the main threats posed by the new Court is what it will do to voting rights and the laws governing elections – that is, the democratic process itself. Decisions that bear on the outcomes of elections could very well upend the functioning of the other two branches of government, thereby blocking all other possible avenues of redress available within theConstitution’s wider system of checks and balances.
.. Of course, this has been the Republicans’ idea all along. For decades, the Federalist Society, which has overseen all of Trump’s judicial nominations, has understood that cultural and demographic trends are poised to strip the power of its wealthy, predominantly white male sponsors. That cohort is in the process of dying out, and the majority of future voters – and, indeed, current voters, judging by recent popular-vote counts – will be younger, more diverse, more tolerant, and considerably further to the left on economic matters.
To forestall this outcome of democracy, conservatives’ first instinct was to limit the franchise itself. The broad demographic and generational changes underway could be nullified by denying key constituencies the right to vote. And when that wasn’t possible, the next best option was to tamper with electoral outcomes by means of untraceable “dark money” and gerrymandering. The result is that Austin, Texas, one of the most liberal cities in America, is represented in the House of Representatives by four Republicans and just one Democrat; and North Carolina, a state that is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, is represented by ten Republicans and just three Democrats.
.. He was also on board for the decimation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for a half-century had prevented blatant racial discrimination in districts with documented histories of disenfranchising African-Americans and members of other minority groups. And he routinely passed the buck on gerrymandering cases.
.. Citing so-called states’ rights, the Court might start by overturning a recent 3-0 federal circuit court decision ordering North Carolina to redraw its egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts. With that precedent in place, other states will be able to step up their own voter-suppression efforts across the board.
.. For example, some states might decide to deny college students the right to cast absentee ballots, or to vote in jurisdictions where they have not established a permanent residency (or both). Others may think to impose property requirements for voter eligibility, or to “save costs” by shutting down polling stations in, say, Latino neighborhoods.
Still others might require non-drivers to show another form of state-issued identification, which can be acquired only at some remotely located administrative office.
.. retaking the House in 2018 won’t do the Democrats much good as far as the Court is concerned. All of the constitutional checks on the judiciary rest with the Senate.
.. when it comes to voting rights, gerrymandering, and other election-related cases, he has been one of the justices leading the charge from the right.
.. Whereas Democratic presidents have based their appointments to the Court on merit, Republicans have made a point of selecting younger jurists who will remain on the bench for decades.
.. All of this will be justified on the grounds of “originalism” – the FederalistSociety/Scalia doctrine of sticking to the strict letter of the Constitution as intended (according to them) by its authors at the time of its promulgation. Never mind that in 1787, only propertied men took part in the Constitutional Convention, and that a sizeable plurality were slaveholders zealously guarding their right to treat people like chattel.1
.. if individual states try to enact progressive policies on their own, they should be prepared for the Misbegotten Majority suddenly to suspend its much-vaunted devotion to “states’ rights” and strike those down, too. After all, that is the job their sponsors put them there todo. They will not soon forget that they are part of a decades-long project of minority rule.
.. After 2020, more avenues for the proper functioning of checks and balances could open up, especially if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. Frustrated by their democratically legitimate legislation being scuttled by a misbegotten Court, they could see fit to draft articles of impeachment against Thomas.
.. The journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have marshaled clear evidence that Thomas lied under oath throughout his confirmation hearing on matters pertaining to his past behavior toward female co-workers and subordinates. And Kavanaugh himself may be facing similar jeopardy with regard to possible perjury in his own confirmation processes.
.. Alternatively, Democrats could pick up where former President Franklin D. Roosevelt left off, by trying to expand the size of the Court, which can be achieved through legislation. But, given the squishiness of swing-state Democrats, a court-packing gambit could fail, as it did with Roosevelt; or, even worse, it could backfire by setting a dangerous precedent for Republicans to follow when they return to power.
.. America would hardly be the first democracy in history to succumb to plutocratic autocracy verging on fascism.