Republicans have grown obsessed with purging the FBI of any figures they suspect lack the requisite loyalty to the Trump administration. Last night, Jonathan Swan reported that Christopher Wray, the FBI director Donald Trump installed to replace the fired James Comey, has threatened to resign in the face of intense pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clean out the Bureau’s top staff. Does the news that Wray has resisted this pressure indicate that professional norms are holding fast in the face of Trumpism? Or does Sessions’s willingness to carry out his boss’s extraordinary demands indicate serious peril?
The case for complacency about Trump is having a moment. And, to be sure, there is plenty of evidence American democracy will survive this presidency unscathed. Trump’s party has suffered massive reversals in special elections in Alabama and Virginia, and expects to lose one or both chambers of Congress in the November midterms, and the president himself has been revealed as a hapless dope, snickered at by Republican legislators and even his own aides. One understandable conclusion some observers have drawn from this sorry performance is that Trump is not the threat to democracy his critics have made him out to be. “Far from being an autocrat, he is a weak president susceptible to the views of the last person he’s talked to and so deferential to Congress that he spent all of last year pining for a signing ceremony for literally anything lawmakers could send him on health care or taxes,” argues National Review editor Rich Lowry. “If authoritarianism is looming in the U.S., how come Donald Trump looks so weak?” demands left-wing columnist Corey Robin. Ross Douthat reaches a similar, though slightly more hedged, conclusion.
It’s true that Trump has proven even less competent in office than his most dismissive critics anticipated. It is also true that the fears that Trump would permanently weaken American democracy have not come to pass, and the most hyperbolic fears — that he would become an American Hitler — will never come to pass. But the argument for complacency misunderstands how authoritarian leaders attack democratic governments, and how Trump might yet do so.
(1) Trump’s ignorance and authoritarianism are not mutually exclusive. Trump is not an ideologically committed authoritarian. He is an instinctive one, who understands relations between people and countries in terms of zero-sum dominance. He certainly has no coherent plan to dismantle the republic. But his authoritarianism springs primarily from his ignorance. Trump believes the government should be run like the Trump organization, with law enforcement and he military pledging personal loyalty to him as if they were his bodyguards. He cannot grasp any distinction between his interests and those of the government he represents, which explains his refusal to divest or even disclose his business interests, and his gleeful use of office for personal gain. The normal tensions a president experiences with independent actors, like the media and law enforcement, strike Trump as unforgivable impudence. To look at this behavior as pure weakness is to absorb a partial truth.
(2) Democracy and authoritarianism lie on a continuum. Americans correctly understand democracy to be a fragile thing. But it’s not fragile like an egg, either kept intact or cracked open and ruined. The scope of a democracy can advance or retreat. American government has generally grown more democratic through its history, as the franchise was extended beyond white male landowners, the secret ballot was introduced, senators became subject to popular election, and so on.
When they imagine threats to democracy, many people tend to grasp for well-known historical cases like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Corey Robin devotes most of his column to knocking down the spurious comparisons between Trump and Hitler. But the concern of serious democracy scholars is not a totalitarian state that murders its opposition en masse. It is “democratic backsliding.” Voting can be more or less fair, legislators more or less representative, the governing party more or less able to use its power to ensure its continued control.
(3) Fights over democracy are part of normal party politics. Studying democratic backsliding in foreign countries makes the crux of the issue easy for Americans to identify. When a president rigs legislative races to protect his party, or abuses law enforcement, or whips up sectarian anger and violence, we recognize those symptoms easily. When they happen in the United States, we process them as familiar red team versus blue team fights. That is one reason why comparative government scholars are relatively alarmed: They recognize Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric in a context outside the cable-news shoutfests in which Americans have processed it.
(4). It doesn’t always happen immediately. One of the most surprising conclusions in How Democracies Die, a new study of case histories in democratic backsliding by Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is that some authoritarian leaders have waited a year or more to attack institutional constraints. But anti-democratic rhetoric can be a telling indicator of what lies ahead. Trump’s refusal before the election to accept the possibility he might be fairly defeated, his blanket dismissal of all media not controlled by his party as “fake news,” his demands to lock up his opponent, and his attempts to turn law enforcement into an organ of personal control all have predictive value even in the absence of follow-through in his first year.
When governments do undertake democratic backsliding, the process is gradual. “For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible,” wrote Levitsky and Ziblatt. “After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in Congress. Independent newspapers still circulate.” This raises the question of whether we are watching imperceptible, or only somewhat perceptible, democratic backsliding, or nothing at all.
From the standpoint of democratic backsliding, the most alarming development over the last year has been the Republican Party’s almost total abdication of independent responsibility. Even before he took office, Trump shredded long-standing anti-corruption norms requiring a president to disclose tax returns and place his wealth in a blind trust. Even the vague fig leaf Trump offered of donating foreign profits has been completely ignored. House Republicans have assisted him by repeatedly blocking votes to compel the publication of his tax returns.
“We don’t oversee the Executive,” New Jersey Republican congressman Tom MacArthur lectured constituents last year. “Congress is not the board of directors of the White House.” In fact, the Constitution gives Congress precisely this duty. But the abdication of oversight has been almost total.
One of the crucial concepts outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt is “capturing the referees.” Any modern state is powerful enough that, if the ruling party were able to suborn its power to its own ends, it would be difficult for voters to dislodge it. A functioning democracy must therefore have offices and officials bound to act in a nonpartisan fashion. Much of the struggle to maintain neutral referees has focused on law enforcement. The perception of criminality was crucial to Trump’s election. As far as the public knew, Trump’s opponent was under FBI investigation — a fact he reminded voters of at every turn —and he was not.
Trump is obviously determined to replicate this outcome. He is applying intense pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen dry investigations into the Clinton Foundation and a 2010 uranium sale. These efforts have borne fruit.
It is true that Trump has not yet followed through on his repeated demands for Robert Mueller’s probe to be halted. Douthat, arguing that Trump has been hemmed in by the bureaucracy, notes that “the scope of the Russia investigation has only widened since Trump’s hamfisted intervention.” On the other hand, any meager interest the GOP Congress had in protecting this investigation has evaporated. The House Intelligence Committee is running a counter-investigation of law enforcement. Its hyperbolic conclusion that the FBI is shot through with liberal bias has galvanized Congress and the rank and file. The purge Sessions is attempting to carry out is a mild version of the demands coursing through conservative media.
“I can’t understand why the U.S. marshals haven’t been dispatched to the Justice Department and FBI to sequester everything and to at least take into custody the top people who are responsible for the operation of those organizations,” demanded Lou Dobbs Monday night. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York cheerfully assented to Dobbs’s ravings. Dobbs may be confused about the organizational details (U.S. marshals work for the Department of Justice) but the gist of his sentiment is chillingly clear. It is now a perfectly mainstream conservative belief not only that the investigation of Trump is corrupt and illegitimate, but that allegedly anti-Trump officials should be subject to mass arrest.
Trump is like a captured animal thrashing against the walls of his pen. So far the walls have held up. Will they hold up for the duration? That will be answered by a political fight of a still-undetermined outcome.