The ’18 midterms: Checks and balances, or a blank check?

Color image of unidentifiable persons voting in booths at a polling station, during elections.

(Alexandru Nika/BigStock)

During one of his disinformation rallies, staged as usual in a rabidly red enclave, Donald Trump said: “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

He wants midterm voters to render a verdict on his serial authoritarian assaults? His war against truth? His trashing of the rule of law? His weak subservience to Vladimir Putin? His racism, demagoguery and xenophobia? That’s fine with me.

The hitch, of course, is that his cultists are also stoked about treating tomorrow’s elections as a Trump referendum. They’re fully prepared to give Trump and his Republican abetters a blank check to sustain their detestable wreckage. Their vision of America – which garnered a minority share of the ’16 ballots – may well prevail, in both congressional chambers, unless defenders of western democracy show up tomorrow in sufficient numbers to provide the checks and balances that can slam the brakes on our precipitous descent.

Brian Klaas, a London-based political scientist who has written several books on authoritarianism, said it well this weekend: “Democracy doesn’t usually die when a demagogue wins power. It usually begins to die if they win the next election, because that’s when institutions, parties, and voters either reject the demagogue or get co-opted by him.”

There it is, folks. It’s now or never.

I could list the reasons why Trump deserves a thumbs-down verdict, why his craven enablers need to be thrown out of office (a net switch of only 23 House seats will turn the chamber blue), but you’ve heard them all before. I’ll simply quote Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, a proud Republican for four decades until the rise of Trumpism. Here’s the gist of his election-eve analysis:

“The 2018 midterms are, more than anything else, a referendum on the corrosive changes in our political life wrought by the current president of the United States…Perhaps most important, the president is in a full-blown assault on the notion of truth itself. Or, more accurately, he is doing everything in his power to ensure that ordinary citizens cannot tell the difference between the truth and a lie. He has inoculated millions of Americans against ever grasping a fact of which he does not approve by demanding that citizens of a democracy behave as though they are subjects of an authoritarian state, and accept that he, personally, is the only source of truth.”

It’s conceivable, at least in swing House districts, that a decent number of traditional Republicans in the Nichols mold will cast protest votes for Democratic candidates – not because they suddenly like the opposition party (which Nichols describes as “a hot mess”), but because they recognize our national emergency. Last week, Shelley Howland, a lifelong Republican in a swing suburban House district, told me: “I know a lot of Republicans and family members who are voting (Democratic)…Trump’s attitude, his disrespect, his attacking institutions – we find him offensive, beyond the pale. Politics is rough-and-tumble, I get that, but he has taken us into the sewer. I watch Trump screaming and I ask: How long can we go on like this?”

I can answer that: If Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill keep the House and Senate, they will interpret the midterms as a mandate to wreak far more havoc – to constrain the Mueller investigation, to again target Obamacare, to fulfill their mission (cited by Mitch McConnell) to use the massive budget deficits they’ve created as an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare, to attack the press, to give aid and comfort to right-wing domestic terrorists, to lie each day with even greater audacity. That’s the long answer. The short answer is that Trump’s cult of personality will metastasize.

So we’ve reached the crossroads: Checks and balances, or a blank check? What kind of nation are we? Are we informed citizens, or sheep? Nichols, who joined the GOP as a young Reaganite, writes: “The choice is whether to continue to enable the president’s behavior, or to contain him with the reliable device of divided government. (Elected Republicans) have failed the tests not only of responsible oversight, but of constitutional fidelity. Their removal from the majority is crucial to preserving a democracy that must survive long after Trump and his courtiers are gone.”

Truth should not be a partisan concept. Saying no to demagoguery should not be a partisan concept. The most crucial midterm elections in living memory are an opportunity for voters to act as patriots, on behalf of the pluralistic democracy that they love. And I’m pleased that Chester B. Sullenberger agrees with me.

Surely you remember “Sully,” the heroic airline pilot who safely landed a passenger plane in the Hudson River. Turns out, he was a registered Republican for virtually his entire life. Turns out, he’s not voting Republican this year. He says he’s voting “as an American.” And who’s better than Sully to explain why?

“Today, tragically, too many people in power…are cowardly, complicit enablers, acting against the interests of the United States, our allies and democracy; encouraging extremists at home and emboldening our adversaries abroad; and threatening the livability of our planet. Many do not respect the offices they hold; they lack – or disregard – a basic knowledge of history, science and leadership; and they act impulsively, worsening a toxic political environment…This is not the America I know and love.”

Tell it, Sully: “We cannot wait for someone to save us. We must do it ourselves.”

How about tomorrow?

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