the national interest

Trump’s War on Democracy: An Update

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The Washington Post has an explosive report that the Trump administration directed the Department of Homeland Security to release immigrant detainees into “sanctuary cities,” including districts represented by Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi. This was not one of the bizarre, megalomaniacal schemes President Trump tends to dream up and rant about intermittently, but a pattern of concerted bureaucratic pressure. Trump tweeted a confirmation of this thinking on Friday:

That the effort failed allows us to read the story with two minds. On the one hand, we might conclude that the system worked: The department’s lawyers refused to endorse a transparently illegal scheme, and it has now been exposed in the media by a whistle-blower. On the other hand, the bureaucratic resistance to the administration’s demand was followed by a sweeping purge of the department, one specifically predicated on the refusal of its leadership to violate the law.

There is little mystery about Trump’s intent to turn the department into an unalloyed instrument of his agenda. So we are left wondering whether the danger has been thwarted, or whether it yet looms over our heads.

Trump’s election inspired a wave of concern, sometimes shading into outright panic, over the stability of the republic. It is fair to say that nothing has yet occurred that would irreversibly impair the democratic character of the state or entrench Trump and his allies in power. In this light, an increasingly smug wave of revisionism has taken hold. Shadi Hamid, writing in the Atlantic, scolds the intellectuals who wrung their hands over the possibility of democracy’s backsliding under Trump. He mocks the widespread attention to the book How Democracies Die — dismissing it as “an alarmist bible” — and, especially, the widespread use of Hitler analogies.

Of course, it has never made sense to consider the Nazis a historical analog to the party of Trump. While Trump may be an instinctive authoritarian who admires the control exerted by strongmen, unlike Hitler, he is not a social Darwinist bent on a genocidal war of territorial conquest. The worst-case scenario with Trump is not going to culminate in anything resembling totalitarian rule, industrialized murder, and global war.

Such stark, black-and-white terms have never been adequate for assessing the problem. The democracy literature, including How Democracies Die, is an attempt to frame the problem in less dramatic terms without downplaying its seriousness. One myth the authors are attempting to correct, without any apparent success on the part of critics like Hamid, is the popular habit of treating democracy in binary terms, with the alternatives being either an idealized republic or the rule of the most murderous totalitarians of the 20th century. The phrase “democratic backsliding” captures a messier reality in which autocracy moves along a continuum rather than suddenly descending in a parade of jackboots in the street. It involves the subversion of democratic norms and recruiting neutral government actors into agents of the regime’s political interests.

In recent days, the warning lights have flashed as bright as ever. Trump has ramped up the volume of his authoritarian rhetoric. This week alone, Trump has used “treasonous” as a description for both Democratic immigration policy (“I think what the Democrats are doing with the Border is TREASONOUS. Their Open Border mindset is putting our Country at risk”) and the Mueller investigation (“In fact, it was an illegal investigation that should never have been allowed to start. I fought back hard against this Phony & Treasonous Hoax!”).

Meanwhile, he is energetically subverting the independence of the Federal Reserve. The country’s economic health and the president’s standing are generally in alignment, but to the extent that they diverge, Trump wants to ensure that the Fed will prioritize the latter over the former. He has appointed a pair of flagrantly unqualified hacks to the board. “He wants guys he can call at home at night and tell them what he wants done,” a former administration official tells The Wall Street Journal.

The Senate appears predisposed to reject Herman Cain for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, ranging from the numerous sexual harassment allegations against him to his association with a group that has challenged incumbent Republican senators. But Stephen Moore’s confirmation appears likely, and it would seem simple for Trump to appoint somebody just as pliant as Cain without the gratuitous disqualifying factors.

The Republican Senate recently mounted faint, ineffectual resistance to Trump’s plan to unilaterally redirect federal funds for a purpose Congress has rejected. And it has formed a solid wall of support behind Trump’s refusal to hand over his tax returns to Congress, despite both deep-rooted norms and law supporting the demand that he do so. This is in keeping with a broad Republican decision that Trump is entitled to run a personal business empire while holding office without disclosing the numerous avenues for corruption this arrangement opens up.

Also this week, Attorney General William Barr supplied fresh evidence he is carrying out the job the way Trump has always demanded: as a Roy Cohn figure committed to ignoring Trump’s misconduct while hounding his enemies. Barr announced he is investigating the possibility that the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign. The most likely explanation for what went on, and the one supported by all the known evidence, is that the FBI merely investigated figures associated with the Trump campaign who were connected with Russian intelligence, not the campaign itself. But Barr instead teased more nefarious explanations, even prejudging the outcome of his investigation. (“I think there was a failure among a group of leaders [at the FBI] at the upper echelon.”) And he attacked the FBI for allegedly failing to inform the Trump campaign of Russian infiltration, when in fact it did exactly that.

It is never easy to tell in the moment where all of this is going. Maybe Barr and other Republicans are patronizing the president, appearing to busily carry out his demands while actually delaying things and doing little. Or maybe Trump is actually figuring out how to get his hands into the gears of government and corrupt it as he sees fit.

The most dire outcomes do not have to be the most probable outcomes in order to legitimately command our attention. We know for sure that whatever Trump’s capabilities, the malevolence of his intentions lies beyond dispute. If Trump does win reelection — a prospect that is close to a coin-flip proposition under current economic conditions — that would place us now barely more than a quarter of the way through his presidency.

Trump’s War on Democracy: An Update