A Republic, If You Can Keep It
Our democracy is failing and its citizens must save it.
By Phillip | 5/18/20
The greatest fear of Democrats after 2016 was that Donald Trump would end our democracy. These fears have largely proven unfounded because Trump has lacked a strategy for any grand takeover of government, but rather haphazardly defends “his guys” and attacks “those other guys” through legal, sorta legal, and illegal methods. That may change with the Coronavirus.
In the past month, the government has dropped the case against Michael Flynn and fired the inspector general who opened up an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russia. Pompeo was being investigated for an arms sale to Saudi Arabia (who murdered journalist Jamal Kashoggi) and making an employee do personal tasks. The judicial system and oversight are essential to any democracy, which functions only with the trust of its citizens. Right now, that trust is being violated.
We have become normalized to President Trump’s misdeeds, but Senator Chris Murphy still notices. He tweeted “Using foreign aid to destroy rivals. Weaponizing the judiciary. Firing all the inspectors general. Democracies begin to die when a leader starts to destroy the limits on his power, and his faction decides that he is more important than the republic. Welcome to that moment”(Heather Cox Richardson). We are in a scary moment where the greatest punishment available to congress, impeachment, failed to do anything.
In Hungary, President Viktor Orban used the emergency of the Coronavirus to sign an indefinite law enabling him to create and destroy laws without the parliament. Instead of waiting until he could use his universal powers, he also “democratically” passed a law in which “distorted truths” are punished with jail time. These actions capped a years-long transformation from a free country to an authoritarian one. Just like in America, the governing party (Republicans and the EU) was not willing to hand down a punishment.
In 2017, the Washington Post slogan became “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (amusingly, Coronavirus profiteer Jeff Bezos owns the newspaper). These four dark words were meant to convey how essential knowledge is to a democracy. This is why nearly all authoritarian strong men seize newspapers and information sources as they rise to and maintain their power: Xi censors information to and from 1.4 billion people and Orban imprisons people speaking “falsehoods.” In America, Trump’s tactics are more subtle but no less vicious: he attacks the credibility of reputable news sources as “Fake News!” and boosts Fox News, his conservative cheerleader. Donald Trump’s rhetoric has caused his base to trust only seven news sources while Democrats trust 22 news sources (Fox News is trusted by 65% and relied on by 60% of Republicans).
Although Trump cannot influence the whole population’s information sources without taking more extreme measures, he already controls Fox News’ 2 million viewers per day. Some randomly selected headlines from today include: “Framing of Michael Flynn” and “Obama motivated by ‘fear,’ ‘anxiety’ by coming after Trump.”
America seems fundamentally different from Hungary. We are the land of the free, and wouldn’t both parties would stop Trump if things got too out of hand? However, things have already gotten out of hand, we are just too numb to notice. A dictatorship starts slowly with a message that catapults a leader to power, they strengthen their control, and then eliminate their enemies. Trump promised an end to corruption and the establishment, and proceeded to lose the election by a close enough margin that he won the presidency. Once in power, Trump eliminated anyone who wasn’t loyal to him, so that he could remake the bureaucracy, the cogs of government, in his image. His base was with him, so the Republican establishment had to be with him. Across America, the Republican party gerrymandered and suppressed the Democratic vote. Finally, Trump turned on his enemies: he withheld congressional money to a foreign power so they would investigate Joe Biden, his son called Joe Biden a “pedophile,” and he manufactured an “Obamagate” scandal.
The Coronavirus, like any crisis, is a time of great opportunity. Leaders have broad powers to take extreme stances that match extreme times. They are allowed to move quickly, without all the hassle that democracy causes, especially if other governing bodies can’t meet (in this case due to social distancing). They are often extremely popular as a result of the “rally around the flag effect,” but Trump botched nearly all aspects of the epidemiological and economic response that he has seen nearly no polling change (Keep on chugging that hydroxychloroquine, Mr. President!). As Trump begins to recognize that his reelection chances are fading, he may take more extreme steps to guarantee power for the person he cares most about. If he will fire oversight and drop charges to protect his friends, then what will he do for himself? Would anyone be surprised if Trump once again encouraged Russia to generate outrage on Facebook and hack our voting machines? Would anyone be surprised if Trump loses the election and refuses to leave the White House? Would anyone be surprised if Republicans don’t do anything to stop him?
The only thing that has saved America is Donald Trump’s incompetence and indifference, but he may soon become more skilled and willing to destroy our democracy. This message seems alarmist, but we are all (Republicans and Democrats) becoming numb. The extreme, if repeated, becomes mundane. Democracies don’t last forever: they need devoted and informed citizens who tend and care for them. When asked what type of government the founding fathers created, Ben Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Let’s make an effort to keep it.