The G.O.P. Goes Full Authoritarian

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.

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage

None of Trump’s extremist policy ideas has received public support. The public opposed last year’s

  1. Republican-backed corporate tax cut, Trump’s
  2. effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his
  3. proposed border wall with Mexico, the decision to
  4. withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the
  5. imposition of tariff increases on China, Europe, and others.
  6. At the same time, contrary to Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), the public favors investments in renewable energy and remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

.. Trump has tried to implement his radical agenda using three approaches.

1) The first has been to rely on the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress to pass legislation in the face of strong popular opposition. That approach succeeded once, with the 2017 corporate tax cut, because big Republican donors insisted on the measure, but it failed with Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, as three Republican senators balked.

.. 2)  The second approach has been to use executive orders to circumvent Congress. Here the courts have repeatedly intervened, most recently within days of the election, when a federal district court halted work on the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project strongly opposed by environmentalists, on the grounds that the Trump administration had failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. Trump repeatedly and dangerously oversteps his authority, and the courts keep pushing back.

.. 3) Trump’s third tactic has been to rally public opinion to his side. Yet, despite his frequent rallies, or perhaps because of them and their incendiary vulgarity, Trump’s disapproval rating has exceeded his approval rating since the earliest days of his administration. His current overall disapproval rating is 54%, versus 40% approval, with strong approval from around 25% of the public. There has been no sustained move in Trump’s direction.

.. In the midterm elections, which Trump himself described as a referendum on his presidency, the Democratic candidates for both the House and Senate vastly outpolled their Republican opponents. In the House races, Democrats received 53,314,159 votes nationally, compared with 48,439,810 for Republicans. In the Senate races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 47,537,699 votes to 34,280,990.

.. Summing up votes by party for the three recent election cycles (2014, 2016, and 2018), Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican candidates by roughly 120 million to 100 million. Nonetheless, the Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate, where each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the size of its population, because they tend to win their seats in less populous states, whereas Democrats prevail in the major coastal and Midwestern states.

Wyoming, for example, elects two Republican senators to represent its nearly 580,000 residents, while California’s more than 39 million residents elect two Democratic senators. 

Without control of the House, however, Trump will no longer be able to enact any unpopular legislation. Only policies with bipartisan support will have a chance of passing both chambers.

.. On the economic front, Trump’s trade policies will become even less popular in the months ahead as the American economy cools from the “sugar high” of the corporate tax cut, as growing uncertainty about global trade policy hamstrings business investment, and as both the budget deficit and interest rates rise. Trump’s phony national-security justifications for raising tariffs will also be challenged politically and perhaps in the courts.

.. True, Trump will be able to continue appointing conservative federal judges and most likely win their confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. And on issues of war and peace, Trump will operate with terrifyingly little oversight by Congress or the public, an affliction of the US political system since World War II. Trump, like his recent predecessors, will most likely keep America mired in wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of significant public understanding or support.

.. Nonetheless, there are three further reasons to believe that Trump’s hold on power will weaken significantly in the coming months. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may very well document serious malfeasance by Trump, his family members, and/or his close advisers. 

.. Second, the House Democrats will begin to investigate Trump’s taxes and personal business dealings, including through congressional subpoenas. There are strong reasons to believe that Trump has committed serious tax evasion (as the New York Times recently outlined) and has illegally enriched his family as president (a lawsuit that the courts have allowed to proceed alleges violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution). Trump is likely to ignore or fight the subpoenas, setting the stage for a major political crisis.

.. Third, and most important, Trump is not merely an extremist politician. He suffers from what author Ian Hughes has recently called “a disordered mind,” filled with

  • hate,
  • paranoia, and
  • narcissism.

According to two close observers of Trump, the president’s grip on reality “will likely continue to diminish” in the face of growing political obstacles, investigations into his taxes and business dealings, Mueller’s findings, and an energized political opposition. We may already be seeing that in Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior since the election.

.. The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger. He could explode in rage, fire Mueller, and perhaps try to launch a war or claim emergency powers in order to restore his authority. We have not yet seen Trump in full fury, but may do so soon, as his room for maneuver continues to narrow. In that case, much will depend on the performance of America’s constitutional order. 

It’s Been an Open Secret All Along

The scandal of Michael Wolff’s new book isn’t its salacious details—it’s that everyone in Washington has known its key themes, and refused to act

But “it was an open secret” now properly seems a broadened indictment, of all those who quietly let him get away with it, rather than an excuse.

The details in Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury make it unforgettable, and potentially historic. We’ll see how many of them fully stand up, and in what particulars, but even at a heavy discount, it’s a remarkable tale.

.. His functional vocabulary is markedly smaller than it was 20 years ago; the oldest person ever to begin service in the White House, he is increasingly prone to repeat anecdotes and phrases. He is aswirl in foreign and financial complications. He has ignored countless norms of modern governance, from the expectation of financial disclosure to the importance of remaining separate from law-enforcement activities. He relies on immediate family members to an unusual degree; he has an exceptionally thin roster of experienced advisers and assistants

.. He views all events through the prism of whether they make him look strong and famous, and thus he is laughably susceptible to flattering treatment from the likes of Putin and Xi Jinping abroad or courtiers at home.

.. nearly 11 million more Americans voted against Trump last year than for him, including the three million more who voted for Hillary Clinton. (The rest were for Gary Johnson, who got nearly 4.5 million; Jill Stein, with nearly 1.5 million; Evan McMullin, with about 700,000; and a million-plus write-ins.)

.. They understand—or most of them do—the damage he can do to a system of governance that relies to a surprising degree on norms rather than rules

.. The failure of responsibility starts with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, but it doesn’t end with them. Every member of a bloc-voting majority shares responsibility for not acting on their version of the open secret. “Independent” Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski share it. “Thoughtful” ones, like Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake.

.. When they vote as a majority against strong investigations, against subpoenas, against requirements for financial disclosure, and most of all against protecting Robert Mueller and his investigation, they share complicity in the open secret.

.. We are watching the political equivalent of the Weinstein board paying off the objects of his abuse. We are watching Fox pay out its tens of millions to O’Reilly’s victims. But we’re watching it in real time, with the secret shared worldwide, and the stakes immeasurably higher.

Trump Dissolves Voter Fraud Commission After Pushback From States

President had blamed fraud for losing popular vote in 2016, but provided no evidence

President Donald Trump dissolved the commission he created just eight months ago to investigate his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election, bringing an end to a panel that had faced resistance from state election officials.

.. Mr. Trump formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May and installed Vice President Mike Pence as chairman after blaming voter fraud for his loss in the popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The panel was created despite independent experts saying there was no evidence to support his claim of widespread fraud, whether by illegal immigrants or others.

.. On Wednesday, the White House blamed the panel’s demise on states that refused to provide voter information.

.. In a statement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that there was “substantial evidence of voter fraud” but that the White House didn’t want to “engage in endless battles at taxpayer expense.”

.. An analysis by the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy think tank, has found that votes by noncitizens account for between 0.0003% and 0.001% of all votes cast.

America Is Not Yet Lost

The U.S. may yet become another Turkey or Hungary — a state that preserves the forms of democracy but has become an authoritarian regime in practice. But it won’t happen as easily or as quickly as many of us had feared.

.. never in the course of our nation’s history have we been ruled by people less trustworthy.

.. And the growing evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia doesn’t seem to have induced any prominent Republicans who weren’t already anti-Trump to take a stand. Instead, we’ve seen erstwhile critics like Lindsey Graham become obsequious toadies promoting Trump properties.
.. we need to be realistic about the likely results of Robert Mueller’s investigation. The best bet is that no matter what Mueller finds, no matter how damning and no matter what Trump does — even if it involves blatant obstruction of justice — Republican majorities in Congress will back up their president and continue to sing his praises.
.. as long as Republicans control Congress, constitutional checks and balances are effectively a dead letter.
.. It’s going to be hard, because the game is definitely rigged. Remember, Trump lost the popular vote but ended up in the White House anyway, and the midterm elections will be anything but fair. Gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic-leaning voters in urban districts have created a situation in which Democrats could win a large majority of votes yet still fail to take the House of Representatives.
.. Our democracy needs two decent parties, and at this point the G.O.P. seems to be irretrievably corrupt.

Trump Once Said the ‘Access Hollywood’ Tape Was Real. Now He’s Not Sure.

Despite his public acknowledgment of the recording’s authenticity in the final days of the presidential campaign — and his hasty videotaped apology under pressure from his advisers — Mr. Trump as president-elect began raising the prospect with allies that it may not have been him on the tape after all.

.. in January, shortly before his inauguration, Mr. Trump told a Republican senator that he wanted to investigate the recording that had him boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.

“We don’t think that was my voice,” Mr. Trump told the senator, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Since then, Mr. Trump has continued to suggest that the tape that nearly upended his campaign was not actually him, according to three people close to the president.

.. In recent days, he has continued to seed doubt about his appearance on the “Access Hollywood” tape, stunning his advisers.

.. Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the “Access Hollywood” tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality. Advisers say he continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact.

.. In recent months, they say, Mr. Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

He has also repeatedly claimed that he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud, according to advisers and lawmakers.

.. To the president’s critics, his conspiracy-mongering goes to the heart of why he poses a threat to the country.

.. Mr. Flake, who is not running for re-election, said in the interview that he was about to begin a series of speeches on the Senate floor outlining his concerns about Mr. Trump. The first, he said, will be dedicated to what Mr. Flake called the president’s disregard for the truth.
.. But the president’s success last year has also left some in his party in awe of his achievement and uneasy about angering his base of supporters.
.. “This guy got $2 billion of earned media in the primary, and he won an election that nobody thought he was going to win,” said Senator David Perdue ..  “This is a guy who is doing things that are totally unprecedented.”
.. “This guy, I think, is a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America when we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.”
.. Mr. Trump’s friends did not bother denying that the president was creating an alternative version of events. One Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said that Mr. Trump’s false statements had become familiar to people over time. The president continues to boast of winning districts that he did not in fact win, the lawmaker said, and of receiving 52 percent of the women’s vote, even though exit polls show that 42 percent of women supported him.

Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers

The claim, which he has made before on Twitter, has been judged untrue by numerous fact-checkers. The new president’s willingness to bring it up at a White House reception in the State Dining Room is an indication that he continues to dwell on the implications of his popular vote loss even after assuming power.

.. As part of that conversation, Mr. Trump asserted that between three million and five million unauthorized immigrants voted for Mrs. Clinton.

.. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California ..

.. “We talked about the Affordable Care Act and said what the Affordable Care Act has been successful in doing is improving quality, expanding access and lowering costs,” she told reporters. “And any proposal that they might have that does that, we’d be interested in hearing about.”

.. A “beautiful, beautiful relationship,” Mr. Trump told reporters.