Photo © Orhan Cam
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, America’s most venerable institutions have been compromised or attacked and its values questioned. The assertion seems risible: the United States, the world’s lone superpower, the most powerful military in the world, the world’s oldest democracy with multi-layered, carefully developed institutions purposely designed to nurture and protect its democracy? Who could even think the possibility? It’s absurd.
But let’s consider. Let’s look at those institutions, starting with the largest and purportedly soundest, the American public. Someone intending to undermine America’s democracy would first have to convince Americans to elect him or her. How does anyone accomplish such a massive feat? Well, not all Americans need convincing because not all Americans vote. In 2016, about 56% of the voting age population actually cast a ballot. The US ranks in the bottom quartile of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development democracies for voter participation.
Even so, how does one convince the majority of 137 million American voters to jettison a proven democratic model for something else?
For that, candidate Trump turned to the dog-eared pages of the populist-turned-great leader’s play book. Paint a calamitous picture of the nation’s circumstances and then finger those responsible. In Trump’s version, it was immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, China, the establishment, environmentalists, gays, transgender, liberals, elitists and others. His instrument was fear. Make people afraid for their future, their jobs, their security and even their lives, and they’ll agree to things they’d never accept otherwise.
Americans know and sadly often embrace negative campaigning. It is destructively seductive. Politicians have used fear for centuries, none better than Hitler in 1933 and Vladimir Putin — an apparent role model of Trump — in 1999. As masterfully related in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Hitler accused Jews of conspiring to steal from and tear down the German fatherland. Germans gave up their constitution for rule-by-decree and their nascent democracy for Nazism. The heretofore unknown Putin pointed to non-Russian minorities, especially Chechens, for real and contrived acts of terrorism. Russia’s newborn democracy was effectively returned to Soviet-style government. By 2004, Putin even did away with elected regional governors. He still rules unchallenged.
So, a tried and true campaign strategy worked. Another American institution, the Electoral College, purposely set up to avoid cases of an undemocratic populist assuming the highest office in the land, dutifully rubber-stamped Trump’s victory despite having lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes.
NEW WEAPON AGAINST DEMOCRACY
What about America’s free media? That’s a more difficult undertaking since Americans surely would not allow two of their most cherished freedoms, speech and the press, to take a back seat. Trump’s genius happened on a better strategy. He didn’t have to attack the media, though he has in vigorous and unprecedented fashion. Mainstream media — now made to be a pejorative cudgel for attacking responsible journalism — strives to report the truth. But the ubiquity of social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like — makes everyone part of the media. Trump used it unreservedly, only now to blast the world with his versions of truth. He brilliantly blurred the lines between fiction and truth, turning the latter into a mere matter of opinion. Truth is relative in Trump’s world and in the world of those who follow him. Everyone and no one is a liar.
And he received help. As we now know, Russians and others flooded 2016 campaign reporting with millions of fabricated bots, which also conveniently served as sources for Trump’s own lies and as well as for alt right media reporting.
Donald Trump didn’t have to muzzle the media. He neutralized them. What they report has no greater import or relevance than his tweets, and maybe less. They are, after all, the “mainstream,” “establishment” media, i.e., those responsible for creating the self-declared disaster that describes his America.
What about the Congress, which shares so many powers with the executive branch? With the election of Republican majorities in both houses, Trump was given a rare gift — a Republican Party determined to overturn the policies of the White House’s previous occupant at any cost. So far, they were able to fill the Supreme Court vacancy denied President Obama, but have achieved little else. Until now.
The newly signed tax law bestows unprecedented financial benefits on large corporations, financial institutions and America’s wealthiest 1%. As reported by The Washington Post, it’s what donors to Republicans wanted and expected. Now, those beneficiaries will be hesitant, if not downright resistant, to give up that newfound wealth.
With his tax “reform” law, Trump should be able to count on them to reward him, backing the campaigns of not only him but also Republican think-alikes for Congress, including in the all-important November 2018 congressional elections. The president has lined up the wealth of big business and America’s richest to bankroll political campaigns. The landmark Supreme Court Citizens United decision gives them virtually unrestricted ability to do so. Has the US Congress sold out?
INTELLIGENCE AND DIPLOMACY SIDELINED
Anyone setting out to undermine America’s democracy must still contend with a range of other institutional roadblocks. For example, there is the country’s many intelligence institutions tasked with protecting the US against enemies, both foreign and domestic. Trump’s distaste for bona fide CIA briefings and analyses, and outright dismissal of the world’s finest intelligence organization, are well known by now. What they say, apparently, does not accord with what he prefers to believe.
Now, according to a BuzzFeed report, the Trump White House is entertaining proposals by private companies to create a special spy network that will use contractors. One need look no further than America’s fateful decision to invade Iraq to understand the enormous danger of intelligence filtered and edited to accommodate the biases of a president as opposed to accurately advise him. Private spy networks and intelligence organizations answerable only to the head of state are the province of dictatorships, not democracies.
The president has also publicly attacked the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, the FBI. The attacks are a transparent effort to undermine and discredit the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and of allegations of collusion between his campaign organization and the Russian government.
There is also the Foreign Service, the leading edge of America’s diplomatic power and responsible for the day-to-day implementation of US foreign policy, promoting American values like democracy and freedom, and advising the government’s top decision-makers on the complexities of foreign policy and foreign nations. Today, Trump’s pliant secretary of state is dutifully carrying out unilateral disarmament of the State Department. There have been forced resignations of top career diplomats, failure to fill key foreign policy positions within State and critical ambassadorships, a hiring freeze on new Foreign Service officers and marginalization of the professional career service from policy decision-making. It is an unprecedented action to emasculate what has been the world’s most professional, expert and effective diplomatic service.
In the president’s words, “I’m the only one who matters.” There have been many heads of state in just the last 100 years who have uttered such words. They all led their countries into oblivion.
PILLARS OF US DEMOCRACY
Weakening of other institutions has also appeared. The Environmental Protections Agency, the Census Bureau, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department have all seen significant reductions in resources and changes in leadership, rendering their previous missions to serve and protect the American people much diminished. Actions against the Census Bureau are particularly disturbing as its 2020 census will be a major determining factor in future elections and apportioning congressional seats. Minorities and lower income Americans are particularly likely to suffer from an inaccurate census.
The independent judiciary is seen as a core element of America’s democratic system, keeping in check both the president and Congress from steering the nation away from the Constitution and the nation’s fundamental principles. But over time, with a compliant Congress well supported by an enriched business and wealthy class, one can easily imagine the appointment of ever more judges and Justice Department officials happy to hew to Trump’s new form of government. We have already seen several signs of his intentions, i.e., the appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the removal of FBI Director James Comey and appointment of several unqualified federal judges with strongly conservative views.
There are other disturbing signs of attacks against the country’s institutions of democracy. They include reductions in education funding; taxing of university endowments used to support students and fund an increasing number of university departments and programs insufficiently funded through tuition and/or state budgets; and multiple failures to condemn the actions of white nationalist, neo-Nazi and other racist groups.
FROM INSTITUTIONS TO VALUES
The weakening of America’s many vaunted institutions of democracy, honed through the experiences and sacrifices of millions of loyal and committed Americans since the nation’s founding, raises another disturbing specter: Once people lose confidence and trust in their institutions, even the most venerated, they start to question the values these institutions represent.
That has begun, too. Sadly, where one aligns on the multitude of sexual misconduct allegations that have come to light recently often depends on the political affiliation of the accused. Therefore, candidates and office holders accused of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct against minors and women are excused. Lest one think this is a problem exclusive to today’s political circumstances, one need look no further than the impeachment hearings of former President Bill Clinton.
If America can’t even draw the line on protecting children and women from sexual predators, what does it say about its values as a nation? Like the blurred line of truth referred to above, must values first to be subjected to a political test? Are Americans under Trump creating political tribes defined by blinkered political views untethered to core human values? Will America’s political tribes brook no tolerance of, no respect for and no compromise with those of differing views?
During the days of the Soviet Union — and in Putin’s Russia today — decision-makers knew that America could not be defeated from the outside. To weaken and defeat the US, it had to be done from the inside, using weaknesses in America’s own institutions and exploiting vulnerable Americans. First, get Americans to question the very institutions on which their veritable democracy necessarily sits. Without a foundation, how stable is any democracy? Then, convince them the sacrosanct and inviolable values, which their democracy embodies and institutionalizes, are relative to time, place, party or person. Without institutions and the cement of values, America’s democracy cannot stand.
Abraham Lincoln, the most passionate and committed defender of his nation’s then-fragile democracy, declared, “America will never be destroyed from the outside; if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Throughout history, the world has seen countries unable to accommodate much less sustain democracy. America’s democracy is a project with no prototype, no precedent, no prescribed blueprint. The actions, words and views of President Donald Trump raise questions about his commitment to preserving America’s democracy as Americans and the rest of the world have come to know it. So, if the American project is to be permanent and not falter, then it will be the responsibility of every American to make it so.