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.
The story of Origo’s transformation from independent news source to government cheerleader offers a blueprint of how Mr. Orban and his allies pulled this off. Rather than a sudden and blatant power grab, the effort was subtle but determined, using a quiet pressure campaign.
Origo’s editors were never imprisoned and its reporters were never beaten up. But in secret meetings — including a pivotal one in Vienna — the website’s original owner, a German-owned telecommunications company, relented. The company, Magyar Telekom, first tried self-censorship. Then it sought a nonpartisan buyer.
But, ultimately, Origo went to the family of Mr. Orban’s former finance minister.
“When Orban came to power in 2010, his aim was to eliminate the media’s role as a check on government,” said Attila Mong, a former public radio anchor and a critic of Mr. Orban. “Orban wanted to introduce a regime which keeps the facade of democratic institutions but is not operated in a democratic manner — and a free press doesn’t fit into that picture.”
Taxes and health care aren’t the only things on the ballot.
It’s a near-certainty that Democrats will receive more votes than Republicans, with polling suggesting a margin in votes cast for the House of Representatives of seven or more percentage points — which would make it the biggest landslide of modern times. However, gerrymandering and other factors have severely tilted the playing field, so that even this might not be enough to bring control of the chamber.
.. In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say that if the G.O.P. holds the line on Tuesday, it may be the last even halfway fair elections we’ll ever have.
.. Look at what’s happening in Georgia, where Brian Kemp — the Republican secretary of state, who oversees elections — is running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. In any other democracy, letting a man supervise his own election would be inconceivable. But that’s how it is in Georgia, and Kemp is abusing his power to the max.
.. In recent years Kemp has purged millions of names from Georgia’s voting rolls, on dubious grounds. Finding himself in a close race despite these efforts, he tried to purge even more based on criteria so spurious that the courts have — for now — blocked his efforts. So over the weekend Kemp’s office issued a warning, with no evidence or specifics, that Democrats may have tried to hack the voter registration site.
A political party with any kind of commitment to democracy and fair play would treat Kemp as a pariah. Instead, he has the full support of the national G.O.P.
.. And Georgia is far from unique. There have been similar if less spectacular attempts to rig the vote in Kansas and North Dakota, where would-be absentee voters were told that they had to use the right color ink— and were given conflicting information about what color was acceptable.
.. The lesson we learn from all these abuses of power is that today’s Republicans are just like their fellow white nationalists in Hungary and Poland, who have maintained a democratic facade but have in reality established one-party authoritarian regimes.
.. Oh, and in case you’re tempted to bothsides this: No, both sides don’t do it. Voting restrictions are almost entirely a Republican thing. As always, Democrats aren’t saints, but they appear to believe in democracy, while their opponents don’t.
.. the media said it anyway), while tending to dismiss talk about Republican abuse of power as hysterical.
President Trump stopped his motorcade in Manhattan today, jumped out of his limousine and shot a man on Fifth Avenue who was shouting anti-Trump epithets. The shooting was recorded by the White House press pool as well as by dozens of bystanders with cellphones and by security cameras in the area. When asked for his reaction, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “We will need more information than is available at this point.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said through pursed lips that he “was not going to comment on every up and down with this president.”House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said he already had information indicating that the man whom Trump shot “worked for the Clinton Foundation and may have been a relative of former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.”
Fox News did not cover Trump’s shooting at the top of its broadcast, which focused instead on the killing of an Iowa woman by an undocumented immigrant. Fox’s only reference to the fact that the president shot a man on Fifth Avenue was that “a New York City man died today when he ran right into a bullet fired by the president.”
Senator Lindsey Graham quipped that “Trump shoots as well as he putts”and that this incident would not cause the South Carolina senator to cancel his coming golf round with the president at his Bedminster, N.J., course.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that she was looking the other way when the shooting happened so she had no comment, adding: “I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with the president. I’ll get back to you if I have something. But the president has stated many times that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. So he’s just keeping a campaign promise. He did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. And even though I have no comment, and he has no comment, we’ve commented on this extensively.”
Hours later, though, the president tweeted: “Actually, some people are saying that a man who looked a lot like Barack Obama did the shooting. I’m not saying that — but some people are. It also could have been somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds who fired that shot. Like Rudy said: Truth is not truth — unless I say so.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., a top evangelical leader, announced that his movement would be holding a vigil this evening, praying that the president had not stressed himself too much by having to shoot a man on Fifth Avenue. Falwell added, “This would never have happened if Jeff Sessions were doing his job.”
The day ended with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declaring that the fact that the president could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight “only proves again why we need to arm all our schoolteachers.”
My biggest challenge in writing all of the above? Worrying that readers wouldn’t realize it was made up.
.. America, we all know, won the Cold War. Our values and economic system proved superior to Russia’s. But what is at stake in the 2018 midterms is who is going to win the post-Cold War.
.. what we are seeing in the behavior of Trump and his toadies in the G.O.P. is the beginnings of the Russification of American politics. Vladimir Putin could still win the post-Cold War.
.. Because the Soviets claimed to have built a worker’s paradise, it was important that we had strong unions, a strong middle class, less inequality and an adequate social safety net. The Soviets did not have the rule of law. So we had to have it more than ever.
“I came here from Russia in ’75,” Gorbis added, “and it was remarkable to me that in this society there were laws and norms and principles, and people abided by them. The idea that people actually paid their taxes was kind of remarkable to me.” In the Russia she grew up in, said Gorbis, “we did not have that; if there was a law, there was always a way to bribe and get around it.”
.. But with the Cold War now far back in our rearview mirror, Trump has not only insisted on bringing America closer to Putin’s Russia geopolitically, but also politically.
.. Trump still refuses to show us his tax returns long after his “audit,” which can only mean he is hiding something. His campaign chairman Paul Manafort is a convicted tax cheat who was trying to keep Putin’s stooge in power in Ukraine. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is another confessed tax cheat.
.. And the first two House Republicans to endorse Trump in 2016 — Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins — were both just indicted on corruption charges.
.. one has a stronger feeling than ever that with a moral vacuum at the heart of the Trump White House — and with the president assaulting the media and the judiciary on a regular basis, not unlike Putin — everything goes, so grab what you can, because no one’s looking.
.. “The Russification of America under Trump, it’s not just about collusion, corruption and money laundering,” said Gorbis. “It is about his behavior” — crass language, simplistic slogans reminiscent of the Soviet rhetoric, use of terms such as “enemy of the people,” and his insistence on personal loyalty over loyalty to the Constitution or institutions.
.. There are other parallels between Trumpism and Putinism: the glorification of oil, gas and mining over science and technology; the elevation of white, Christian, nationalist values; and the neutering of the legislative branch — today’s G.O.P.-dominated Congress behaves just like the rubber-stamp Russian Duma. Worse, this Russification of politics is also spreading — to the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and maybe soon to Brazil.
.. A few more years of this Russification of America and the rot will be everywhere. Russia will have won the post-Cold War
There is no right to bear arms in Russia, and under this regime there never will be. According to court papers, Butina nevertheless convinced some naive members of the National Rifle Associationthat she was a genuine activist. In doing so, she gained access to their world.
.. They were both seeking to assist political movements they believed to be pro-Kremlin (the Communist Party of the 1930s; the pro-gun wing of the Republican Party of the 2010s). They were both backed by Kremlin money, diverted through cutouts (the Communist International, in the former instance; a couple of Russian oligarchs, allegedly, in the latter).
.. Butina, even if considering only her role as an open, pro-Kremlin activist, also has many counterparts, agents of influence who are openly agitating for Russian interests, now on the far-right edge of Western politics instead of the far-left.
- Gianluca Savoini, the leader of the enigmatic Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, seems to perform a similar role in Italian politics, even showing up recently as a member of an official Italian government delegation to Moscow.
- Bela Kovacs , a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, is on trial in Budapest on a charge of spying on European Union institutions on behalf of Russia.
.. they too are part of a long-term project, though it’s not a proletarian revolution. Instead, it’s a kleptocratic coup d’état: The modern Kremlin project seeks to undermine Western democracies, break up the E.U. and NATO, and put corrupt relationships rather than the rule of law at the center of international commerce.
.. it’s worth remembering why Golos and his network failed. In large part,
- it was because the center-left — especially the anti-Soviet wing of the American trade union movement — rejected Soviet-style communism in the United States. It’s also because,
- in the 1940s and 1950s, the American political establishment, Democratic and Republican, unified around the need to defeat Soviet-style communism in Europe. And it’s because,
- even in the depths of the Depression, the majority of Americans were never beguiled by the appeal of authoritarianism.
.. A wing of the Republican Party is preparing to double down and support the Russian autocracy, which it believes, mistakenly, is “Christian.”
.. To push back against them, as well as their equivalents from the rest of the autocratic world, we will need not only to catch the odd agent but also to
- make our political funding systems more transparent, to
- write new laws banning shell companies and money laundering, and to
- end the manipulation of social media.
It took more than a generation for Americans to reject the temptations of communist authoritarianism; it will take more than a generation before we have defeated kleptocratic authoritarianism too — if we still can.
All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.
fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—
- a devastating world war,
- drastic economic upheaval, the
- fear of Bolshevism.
.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?
.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:
- elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
- once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
- while inflaming powerful popular currents of
- reactionary religion,
- homophobia, and
- resentments of all kinds.
.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”
.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.
.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.
There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.
.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and
.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.
Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.
One could mention
- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
- Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
- India’s Narendra Modi as well.
Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by
- unemployment and
right-wing “populist” parties are surging in
- the Netherlands,
- Austria, and even
- Sweden and
And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.
.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.
.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:
- They control the media,
- pack the courts
- .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
- “reform” education,
- abolish long-standing precedents, and
- use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.
While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret.
.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.
.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.
.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The
- fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
- MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
- Fox-addicted retirees, the
- hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
- gun nuts have found one another.
.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.
One proposal would limit justices to 18-year terms, which would create an opening on the court every two years, and reduce some of the political gamesmanship that surrounds open seats today. But any change to the justices’ tenure would require a constitutional amendment, and so is a longer debate for another day... During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump publicized a list of possible Supreme Court nominees preapproved by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, another conservative group. It was scrubbed of any squishes along the lines of David Souter, Anthony Kennedy or even Chief Justice Roberts, all of whom have been deemed insufficiently committed to the cause for failing to vote in lock step with the radical right’s agenda. (Judge Kavanaugh was left off the original list but was added later.)
The Federalist Society claims to value the so-called strict construction of the Constitution, but this supposedly neutral mode of constitutional interpretation lines up suspiciously well with Republican policy preferences — say, gutting laws that protect voting rights, or opening the floodgates to unlimited political spending, or undermining women’s reproductive freedom, or destroying public-sector labor unions’ ability to stand up for the interests of workers.
.. Senate Democrats need to use the confirmation process to explain to Americans how their Constitution is about to be hijacked by a small group of conservative radicals well funded by ideological and corporate interests
.. We’re witnessing right now a global movement against the idea of liberal democracy and, in places like Hungary and Poland, its grounding in an independent judiciary. Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans appear happy to ride this wave to unlimited power. They will almost certainly win this latest battle, but it’s a victory that will come at great cost to the nation, and to the court’s remaining legitimacy.
.. Americans who care about the court’s future and its role in the American system of government need to turn to the political process to restore the protections the new majority will take away, and to create an environment where radical judges can’t be nominated or confirmed.