"A Durable Authoritarian Regime"
Following up on my prior post on the importance of constantly reiterating the anti-democratic nature of the Republican party and the specific dangers of authoritarianism presented by Donald Trump, I wanted to highlight the way Trump and the Republicans are laying the groundwork for the establishment of a “managed democracy” used by autocrats like Putin in Russian and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
There are really four pillars to a well-functioning democracy. First would be a electoral system that provides universal suffrage, free access to the ballot, and a structure for expressing the will of the people. Second would be a strong judiciary that is able to uphold the rule of law and a clear separation of powers. Third would be a free press. And the final piece would the right of free assembly that allows citizens to gather together to protest the actions of their government.
In the last few weeks, we can see that Trump and his administration are openly attacking every one of those pillars. In Washington, DC, there is a trial currently being heard that has the potential to create a chilling precedent for future demonstrations. The case involves the demonstrations during Trump’s inauguration which did turn violent and lead to real property damage. But there has no been no evidence that the six people currently on trial had anything to do with the violence other than being part of the larger demonstration and potentially near the area where damage occurred. The sole evidence the prosecution has presented are merely that the six were wearing black that day which is the same color of clothing that the rioters were also wearing. In essence, the prosecution’s case is that someone has to pay for the private property damage so it might as well be the six on trial. If this prosecution is successful, there are another 180 people waiting to be put on trial on similar charges, adding to the 20 or so others who chose to plea bargain to lesser charges rather than go to trial.
But prosecuting demonstrators is not the only way Republicans are trying to chill any public dissent in the country. A number of states have introduced legislation that would essentially shield drivers who “unintentionally” run down protesters who are blocking traffic. Other states are trying to force organizers of demonstrations to actually pay for the police presence required as well as increasing fines and penalties on protesters.
Of course, Trump has been attacking a free press since he became a serious candidate in the 2016 election. In addition, he has also been focused on creating his own version of truth and the “managed media” that is a feature of autocracies. In the wake of three significant but immediately retracted errors by the media, Sarah Sanders went on the attack, accusing the press of willful deception. Said Sanders, “There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people. Something that happens regularly. You can’t say — I’m not done. You can’t say that it’s an honest mistake when you are purposely putting out information that you know to be false or when you’re taking information that hasn’t been validated, that hasn’t been offered any credibility and that has been continually denied by a number of people including people with direct knowledge of an incident. This is something that — I’m speaking about the number of reports that have taken place over the last couple of weeks. I’m simply stating that there should be a certain level of responsibility in that process.” The ultimate irony, of course, is that Sarah Sanders stands up in front of the press and the American people and intentionally lies through her teeth virtually every single day. And never apologizes, ever, when she is caught out on those lies.
The next day, Sanders went even further, essentially threatening to bar a CNN reporter from a pool spray if he even asked a question. According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, Sanders told the reporter that “I can’t promise you will be allowed into a pool spray again” if he asked a question of the President. This isn’t the first time that the Trump team has threatened to or even withheld access for the US media and is yet another blatant attempt to intimidate the press.
But the idea of “managed media” that Trump is seemingly trying to create involves more than ensuring an intimidated and pliant media. It is the idea that there is no objective truth other than what the state decides or says. The purest example of that effort is the one-page analysis of the GOP tax bill that Steve Mnuchin and the Treasury Department put out yesterday. As Paul Krugman noted, Mnuchin had promised a detailed report but in actuality “there was no economic analysis; Trump officials just made up numbers that would give them the result they wanted. Even reporters hardened to Trump administration lies seemed shocked by the brazenness of this bait-and-switch.” The document was just the latest example of the Trump administration and the Republican Congress putting out statements and analyses that are totally contrary to objective reality. Many Republicans in Congress continue to insist that the tax cuts will pay for themselves despite every independent and even partisan analysis, including dynamic scoring, shows that it will clearly add at least $1 trillion to the national debt.
From Judge Curiel to the courts that struck down the Mulsim ban, Trump has continually attacked the judiciary. He apparently is furious with Jeff Sessions for recusing himself in the Russia investigation, probably one of the few acts of real courage and citizenship Sessions has ever made. Trump has continually called the Russia investigation a hoax. His lawyer essentially declared the President above the law, claiming he can not be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. And now one of his other legal representatives, Jay Sekulow, is basically calling for an investigation of the investigators due to the rather mundane revelations that some FBI officials have political views and that their wives also work. Says Sekulow, “The Department of Justice and FBI cannot ignore the multiple problems that have been created by these obvious conflicts of interests. These new revelations require the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate.”
Of course, there is no evidence that these officials engaged in any prejudicial activity nor is their any indication that the internal Justice Department procedures for investigating any inappropriate behavior are somehow compromised, something that would require another Special Counsel. The whole purpose of Sekulow’s statement, which has been eagerly taken up by the GOP sycophants in Congress, is to portray the entire DOJ and FBI as disloyal to Trump and having engaged in a conspiracy to create the Russian dossier in order to deny him the election.
Yesterday, the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee continuously pressured Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein to appoint a second Special Counsel to investigate whether bias within the FBI and DOJ allowed Hillary Clinton to avoid prosecution and provided the fodder for the Russian dossier and the subsequent investigation of Trump. Some went so far to claim that the Mueller investigation should be disbanded and replace by this new investigation. Jim Jordan ranted at Rosenstein, “You’re the guy in charge. You’re the guy who picked Mueller. You’re the guy who wrote the memo saying why he needed to fired Comey. You’re the guy in charge. You could disband the Mueller Special Counsel and you can do what we’ve all called for, appoint another Special Counsel to look into this…The Comey FBI and the Obama Justice worked with one campaign to go after another campaign…What’s it going to take to get another Special Counsel?”
The fact that the dossier was not revealed to the public until well after the election or that the most important factor in getting Trump elected was James Comey’s own “October surprise” by re-opening the email investigation against Clinton is completely ignored in this fiction, as is the fact that much of the dossier has proven to be true and that a number of Trump campaign officials have been indicted for actual crimes not based on the dossier.
Beyond the attacks on judges, law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the Mueller investigation, Trump is also busy creating a judiciary filled with political cronies. Just yesterday, a nominee for the 8th Circuit Court was confirmed by the Senate, with only Republican votes, despite being rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association, the traditional group that assesses judicial nominations. This nominee was one of four nominees rated unqualified by the ABA that Trump has proposed. More importantly, Trump and the Republicans have managed to confirm nearly 20 conservative judges, virtually all signed off on by the Federalist Society, to fill the Supreme Court, appeals and district courts for a lifetime.
And the last pillar of our democracy, free and fair elections, has been under attack from Republicans for years through extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression, made worse by the Supreme Court’s unraveling of the Voting Rights Act. The examples are legion but I will just use the results from last night’s election in Alabama. In that state, the Secretary of State has said, “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter”. In other words, the state is committed to make it difficult to vote and has instituted voter ID to make that happen. But gerrymandering is the GOP’s ultimate weapon.
In Alabama on Tuesday night, Doug Jones won a shocking victory with a razor-thin margin of just 1.5%. But if you look at how that vote was allocated by Congressional district, you find that Moore won in 6 out of 7 those districts. And in only one of those six was the margin of victory for Moore under the 1.5% that Jones actually won by. Worse, in the one district that Jones won, his margin of victory was by over 56%, with over 70% of the vote. That is the epitome of the “wasted” Democratic votes that allows Republicans to control Congress, state legislatures, and, due to the structure of the Electoral college, even the Presidency despite often not winning a majority of votes.
Individually, none of these items may seem like a huge deal. But taken together, they create a pattern of behavior that is increasingly chipping away at our democratic foundations and slowly but surely creating an authoritarian environment. As Josh Marshall at TPM says, Trump and the Republican party have simply one ideology at this point: “accept no independent centers of power“. And, as Matt Yglesias notes in response to the attacks on Mueller, “‘Republicans succeed in creating a durable authoritarian regime’ has become a badly underrated possibility.” Badly underrated indeed.