Can American democracy survive Donald Trump?
It might not end with a bang, but the president is doing deep, lasting damage.
Opinion – USATODAY.COM
May 15, 2017
In 2014, Turkey’s authoritarian president fired four prosecutors who were leading an investigation into an alleged corruption scandal involving the president himself. The interference was blatant. The intent was clear. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted the corruption scandal to disappear. It was technically within his authority, but there was widespread outcry that the rule of law was under attack. In response, Erdogan claimed he was the victim of a widespread conspiracy by his political rivals. Then, he threatened his opponents.
And he got away with it.
It's hard not to see parallels with President Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. In ousting the man leading the FBI investigation into Trump team ties and possible collusion with Russia, Trump behaved like a strongman. The only open question is whether the democratic institutions of the United States will fight back in a way they were unable to in Turkey.
There is reason to be hopeful. American democracy has robust institutions and the framers designed resilient checks and balances. The Constitution provides an ingenious model that has survived every threat for 230 years. Any would-be despot or demagogue faces long odds against it.
Yet Trump is deeply damaging American democracy as he tests its limits. That damage will last well beyond his time in office and will be extremely difficult to repair. As with sand castles, it’s far easier to destroy democracy than to build it. Trump’s abuses of power and his administration’s assault on the truth are the latest waves of attack.
If lying were an Olympic sport, the White House would have won gold, silver and bronze this week. They tried to convince the American people that Trump acted for noble reasons, unrelated to the Russia investigation. Vice President Pence, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and of course the Usain Bolt of “Alternative Facts” herself, Kellyanne Conway, all deceived the American people. They aimed to show that there was no conflict of interest, no authoritarian effort to undermine an active and ongoing investigation into the Trump team.
They failed, because it was a lie. And the person who “unmasked” the lie was none other than Trump. In saying he was thinking about "this Russia thing" when he removed Comey, Trump fired the smoking gun while we all watched on national television. It was like the lawyer giving his closing arguments only to have the defendant stand up and say “Actually, I did it. And when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
A day later, Trump took to Twitter for an early morning meltdown. Two authoritarian outbursts stood out.
First, Trump floated the idea of no longer holding press briefings. That would be a tremendous attack on the principle of open and transparent government that is at the heart of democracy. Consent of the governed is impossible if the White House won’t tell them what they are doing. That has already happened with the obscuring of White House visitor logs, but the end of press briefings would be catastrophically opaque. Second, Trump openly threatened the FBI director he had just fired. This amounts to witness intimidation, as Comey is likely to be called on to testify during the ongoing investigations.
We must accept a deeply shocking and unfortunate truth: the president of the United States is a man who not only admires despots, but mimics them. He aspires to their strength. He loathes constraints placed upon him by democratic institutions like the press (“enemy of the people”); Congress (“obstructionists!”); and the courts (“so-called" judges that he blamed for any future terror attack). Those constraints deter his worst authoritarian impulses. That’s why they are under constant attack from Trump’s White House.
In the past, democracies used to die with a bang — a coup d’état, a war or a revolution. Now, more democracies are dying slow deaths. In places like Hungary or the Philippines, they wither, as a power-hungry president gets away with one authoritarian abuse after another. Opposition gets bullied into submission. The goalposts of what is deemed acceptable within the democracy shift. Previously unthinkable transgressions become routine (sound familiar?). And over time, democracy hollows out to just a shell of its former self — as it did in Erdogan’s Turkey.
The response to Comey’s firing is a crucial moment for American democracy. If Trump gets away with it free from serious consequences, as Erdogan did, then it will encourage further authoritarian abuses. Just as worrisome, it will also chill future opposition to Trump, as he successfully sends the message that anyone who challenges him will be fired. Rule of law will weaken. The beacon of American democracy will dim even further.
That is, unless citizens stand up for democracy, stand against authoritarian abuses of power, and insist that their elected officials do the same.
• Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @brianklaas.