the national interest

2018 Will Be a Fight to Save Democracy

President Trump. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The sheer quantity of deranged statements contained in Donald Trump’s interview last week with Michael Schmidt meant that none of them fully registered in the fashion they might have if they had arrived one by one. But one particularly illuminative Trumpian riff merits special attention. The president explained his belief that the Department of Justice on principle ought to cover up crimes by the president and his administration.

Here, Trump explains his view of how Eric Holder, the former attorney general, behaved in office:

Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the I.R.S. scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.

Trump is referring here to a pair of Obama-era pseudo-scandals that have survived in the conservative fever swamp. It is not surprising that Trump, an avid consumer of right-wing media, believes Obama’s IRS targeted conservatives (it didn’t) or that the president had some role in the “Fast and Furious” operation (he didn’t). Nor is it surprising that Trump believes that a DOJ cover-up enabled Obama to survive these pseudo-scandals. What’s striking here is that Trump is actually endorsing the imagined cover-up.

In the past, Trump’s beliefs about the powers of the Department of Justice have been closely intertwined with his position on his innocence in the investigation at hand: Investigators should leave him alone, or be fired, because the Russia scandal is phony. But here he has detached his belief in his total command over the powers of law enforcement from any claim of innocence. He now says the Department of Justice should protect the president even if the president has committed what Trump himself considers to be serious crimes. There is no plausible defense of this principle of Executive power that is consistent with democratic government. A president who can control law enforcement to the point of absolving himself and his allies of any crimes — or directing prosecutions of his political enemies, as Trump has also repeatedly urged — is authoritarian almost by definition. The only serious question is whether Trump claims the powers he so obviously covets.

The year 2018 begins much as 2017 did, with advocates of American democracy holding their breath to see whether it can withstand the assaults of an autocrat in the Oval Office. In 2017, the restraints mostly held. Taking stock of these developments, Benjamin Wittes expresses some (extremely provisional) relief that the president has failed to carry out his threats to undermine the rule of law. “Trump simply cannot look back on the last year and be satisfied with the success of his war on the Deep State.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, meanwhile, mocks democracy advocates and their hand-wringing. “As Donald Trump heads into his second year as President, we’re pleased to report that there hasn’t been a fascist coup in Washington. This must be terribly disappointing to the progressive elites who a year ago predicted an authoritarian America because Mr. Trump posed a unique threat to democratic norms,” taunts the editorial page that has run interference for the president’s assaults on the rule of law.

Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a more foreboding analysis. Their forthcoming book, How Democracies Die, studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.

Levitsky and Ziblatt dismiss several popular myths that may serve as comfort. Authoritarian presidents do not always or even usually act immediately — they often take few steps against their opponents in their first year in office. Authoritarianism does not usually take the form of a sudden, dramatic coup, but instead the slow strangling of institutional restraints by the ruling party. It is more of an outgrowth of partisan politics than a sudden departure — partisanship taken to newer heights.

In their historic study, the most important variable in the survival or failure of a democracy is the willingness of a would-be authoritarian’s governing partners to break with him and join the opposition. In countries that have successfully staved off authoritarianism, parties that hold the balance of power, usually those in the center-right, instead join with the opposition. They act out of the belief that any policy gains they might wrest from an ideologically friendly authoritarian are not worth the long-term threat to their country’s democracy.

Some Republicans have shown signs of this sort of commitment to democracy. A handful of Senate Republicans have warned Trump not to fire Robert Mueller. Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary committee, publicly signaled his reluctance to confirm a successor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions should Trump fire him. On the whole, however, the party has made the opposite decision, to attach themselves to Trump. Levitsky and Ziblatt borrow the term “ideological collusion” from the sociologist Ivan Ermakoff to describe this calculation that “the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while many Republicans abstained from endorsing Trump in 2016, only a single elected Republican official actually endorsed Hillary Clinton. (That was New York congressman Richard Hanna, who — like most openly anti-Trump Republicans — was retiring.) The party has used its control of Congress to quash the oversight function that is more necessary now than it has been in decades. While Trump has continued to operate his business and use his power to fatten his bottom line — including by obtaining policy concessions from foreign governments — Congress has held no hearings into his open corruption. Even the modest step of disclosing Trump’s income, so the public can have knowledge about who might be bribing the president, is too much; House leaders have blocked repeated proposals by Democrats to compel release of Trump’s tax returns.

Congress has instead used its oversight capacity to oversee the law enforcement officials who are investigating Trump’s connections to Russia. The House is running a counter-investigation into alleged liberal bias at the FBI, a theme that has blossomed into an obsession in the conservative media. The entire premise is utterly comic, of course. The FBI is an agency that has long attracted disproportionately white, male, and politically conservative talent. During the presidential campaign, the FBI publicized its active investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server (which produced no charges) while concealing its investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia (which has already produced multiple indictments). The discrepancy produced a wide impression that Clinton had engaged in serious criminality and Trump had not, an impression Trump skillfully exploited, when the reverse was true.

The spurious charge that the FBI was motivated by pro-Clinton bias has become a pretext for a political purge to advance Trump’s goals of transforming the agency into a political weapon at his disposal. To say this is not to make an accusation against the president but simply to describe the views he has made perfectly clear. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told the Times. “But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.” He likewise implores the Department of Justice to imprison political antagonists who have committed no crimes.

“Next year will bring ‘full Trump,’ said one person who recently talked to the president,” Mike Allen reported over the holiday week. Allen’s reporting focused more on Trump’s nativist instincts, which his conventionally right-wing governing partners have largely deflected until now. The point is that Trump does not surrender his obsessions or impulses. He can be delayed and distracted, but he keeps returning to his essential identity. At his core, Trump is a man who expects the federal government to serve him personally exactly like the Trump Organization does. He either despises the very notion of popular sovereignty — and its premise that the state serves the people and not the personal whims of their executive — or simply fails to understand it. It is simplistic to expect boots marching in the streets, but there will be a battle for democracy.

2018 Will Be a Fight to Save Democracy From Trump