Now that the broad contours of American authoritarianism have been blatantly laid bare — with Trump taking serious steps to trample the rule of law — us remind ourselves that this crisis was made possible by a minority of oblivious voters who blithely injected this toxin into our body politic.
The news that his team seeks to control, thwart, discredit, and perhaps terminate Robert Mueller’s independent probe; the news that he’s already weighing the idea of pardoning himself (and aides and family members) for whatever crimes he claims have never been committed – none of this Putinesque behavior should surprise us. It was all telegraphed in technicolor during the presidential campaign.
In a way I don’t even blame Trump, because he doesn’t know any better. A poseur with Louis XIV pretensions (“L’etat c’est moi,” said the French king — “I am the state”), Trump has no concept of checks and balances, no respect for America’s enduring democratic institutions, and he’s been dodging accountability his whole life. His one mode is attack; long-dead Roy Cohn, his thug mentor, appears to be dispensing advice via his tooth fillings.
And we’re all paying the price, because step by step, day by day, the foretold authoritarian future is unfolding. In the sobering words of rule-of-law analyst Benjamin Wittes, “We are in a dangerous moment – one in which the president, with his infinite sense of grievance, feels entitled publicly to attack the entire federal law enforcement apparatus, and that apparatus, in turn, lacks a single person with the stature, the institutional position, and the fortitude to stand up to him.”
Worst of all, of course, are the Republicans, who, even now, even after Trump’s multiple attacks this week on law enforcement and the rule of law, tremble at the prospect of warning Trump that meddling with Mueller will not stand. Center-right columnist Jennifer Rubin eviscerates her brethren today: “Republicans wring their hands…That’s the attitude of supplicants toward royalty, not (of) free men and women who have taken an oath to defend the Constitution.”
And for all this, I blame us — the collective American electorate. We are careening toward an historic constitutional crisis of our own making. We are truly the ones at fault, because, unlike Trump, we’re supposed to know better.
This warning was issued last November, one day before the election:
“It can happen here…It can happen tomorrow if a critical mass of voters — be they naively oblivious, feckless, well-meaning but credulous, or just plain racist — decide to hire a huckster who harrasses and intimidates a free press…who builds a wall between truth and disinformation, who role-models the Russian despot, who attacks the legitimacy of our entire election process. If this is truly the path we prefer — an authoritarian sensibility, a strongman cult – a systematic breakdown of our democratic institutions — then, by all means, Donald Trump is the man to make it happen here.”
“Authoritarian movements are often successfully fueled by well-meaning decent people whose impulse to send an anti-establishment message tragically overrides their common-sense concerns about the messenger. Yes, it can indeed happen here. That future is down the dark path at the fork in the road. If we take it, we own it.”
I’m the one who wrote those paragraphs. I’m replaying them now, not because I had any special insight, but because I saw the obvious and sought to share.
Trump’s behavior in ’16 vividly foreshadowed what we’re witnessing now, most notably his contention, shared this week with The New York Times, that everyone in law enforcement is there to serve, advance, and protect his personal interests. And if he decides to shut down probes into his shady global finances (and their potential links to Russian oligarchs), then hey, no problem; in his words, “It can’t be obstruction, because you can say, ‘It’s ended. It’s over. Period.'”
We took the dark path, now we own it. Or, as the French lawyer-diplomat Joseph de Maistre said two centuries ago, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Yeah, I know, a lot of people voted for Trump because they couldn’t stand Hillary. But I suggest they read this Trump quote, culled from The Times interview. At one point he was asked about health insurance — specifically, the political challenge of nixing Obamacare coverage. His reply:
“Politically, you can’t give it away….Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, ‘I want my insurance.’ It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.”
Ignore the incoherence. Let’s all simply agree that Hillary, whatever her faults, would surely know the difference between health insurance and life insurance.