Destruction of a republic does not occur overnight, but it is usually too late before anyone notices. The Roman Republic did not end with Augustus donning the imperial purple, or with Caesar crossing the Rubicon; the Republic, by that point, was already dead.
The men who would turn republic to empire were simply giving name to something that was already done.
Republics rarely fall due to outside pressures. Rather, it is insidious internal rot that lays them low. Too often, that rot can only be identified after the fact. Like a great oak felled by undermining termites, it looks strong and steady right up to the point of dissolution.
A Fragile Treasure
What causes this rot is the loss of faith and belief in the institutions and norms that underpin a republican way of life. It is a belief that must permeate the attitudes of both the ordinary citizens (the ultimate legitimizing force of a republic), and the governing elites. The loss of belief of either group (or worse, both) will lead to the rapid hollowing out of institutions and principles that may have once seemed absolute.
Faith is fragile, and so are republics. To borrow from a fictionalized Marcus Aurelius: “There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.” Two millennia later, the fundamental fragility of republican government is no less apparent.
Today, the United States is facing a profound crisis of a scale few are willing to acknowledge. For decades, citizens have been growing more and more skeptical of not only their elected leaders, but even of the democratic process itself. At the same time, the elites in government, commerce, and media have morphed into rival camps that have lost sight of the nation’s institutional and normative underpinnings, instead seeking to create a permanent adversarial environment in which each side seeks to subvert the constitutional order to its own ends. Forces on all sides of politics are conspiring to destroy the American republic. The tragedy is that few of them realize what they are doing.
Fear and Loathing in Washington, D.C.
Anger over Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is to be expected. When things do not go according to plan, it tends to be upsetting. The seeming metaphysical certainty so many Americans had that Clinton would win made Trump’s surprise triumph all the more jarring, especially considering his loss of the popular vote by a wide margin.
This election was hardly the first time in recent memory that the popular vote did not reflect the final outcome of a presidential race. George W. Bush came to power without a popular mandate, only after the conservative-leaning Supreme Court put an end to recount efforts in Florida (a state which happened to be governed by Bush’s brother, Jeb). Yet, despite all those arguably questionable factors, the Democrats eventually accepted the result, and few in the political mainstream would question his fundamental legitimacy.
A Question of Legitimacy
Jump to 2016 and the story is completely different. Left-wing activists and politicians have been unceasing in their claims that Trump stole the election or is not the legitimate president. #NotMyPresident is still going strong. Claims that Russia, or maybe the FBI director, worked to subvert democracy and install their preferred candidate (perhaps as a puppet) have continued unabated.
It would not be a serious problem if this behavior was relegated to the leftist fringe, but it is an opinion expressed by some of the most respected leaders of the Democratic Party. Rep. John Lewis, one of the greats of the Civil Rights Movement, actually stated that he did not believe Trump was the legitimate president-elect, which must mean that to Lewis, Trump’s administration and all it does will be wholly illegitimate.
“I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Rather than condemn such talk, many other Democrats rallied to Lewis’s side. This was exacerbated, admittedly, by Trump’s vitriolic, and predictably blustery, response in which he called into question Rep. Lewis’s character and ability as a legislator. That counter-punch certainly gave some Democrats cover to back Lewis, but the fact that so many did not condemn, or even respond to, Lewis’s original, extremely dangerous, statement is a sign of how polarized and destructive politics has become.
When the legitimacy of constitutionally elected officers is being called into question, anyone with half a brain should know there is a potential existential threat on the horizon, but that did not happen with Rep. Lewis. In fact, his message was reinforced by an unprecedented number of Democrats boycotting (or rather, “not attending”) Trump’s inauguration.
Words and deeds like these are not just empty gestures. Ultimately, a government functions on the basis of legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the nexus of elites. When sides divide in such a way that the opposition is no longer seen simply as the opponent, but a dangerous adversary, then the democratic process itself comes under grave threat.
A true republic relies on an institutional order that disperses governmental power into multiple loci of authority, some of which may be controlled by opposing factions at the same time. This works when all sides are willing to treat their political opposites as legitimate actors. It breaks down when they treat them as illegitimate threats.
Questioning the Basics
For a sign of just how fraught things have become at the centers of power in the United States, we need only look at the rhetoric surrounding the ascension of President Trump and the retirement of President Obama. Ominously, much of the language used to describe the presidential transition sounded more like what one hears coming from semi-democratic states in Africa or Asia, where the peaceful transfer of power from one side to another is not guaranteed. This has never been an issue in the United States, where power has always passed between the major parties; sometimes with rancor, yes, but it was never in doubt.
Yet, in 2016, there were repeated refrains in the media and from political leaders, including President Obama, that democracy relies on the peaceful transfer of power. Surely, that is a given, so why do they feel the need to say it?
The reason is that despite the appearance of business as usual, the very fundamental ideas and norms that govern political behavior are starting to be questioned. Mostly these are questions that dance around, or graze the edges, of the issue, and are not asked outright. But the insinuation is there.
This is very dangerous in a mature democratic republic because so much of what is taken for granted as a norm or standard of behavior is unwritten. Like the unwritten British Constitution, the rules and behaviors that provide for smooth transfers of power, and for the acceptance of opposition victories, are understood by traditional modes of action. In their absence, the whole process becomes less certain, and is threatened.
Without the certainty in, and acceptance of, the democratic process leading to periodic peaceful transfers of power, the desire to cling to power, or to undermine processes and institutions, becomes far more acute.
A Very American Coup
Other symptoms of rot have become apparent since Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency. The rhetoric questioning his legitimacy has been supplemented with accusations that he is a tyrant, or “literally Hitler” in the eyes of the frothing, overwrought Left.
Comedian Sarah Silverman even used Trump’s favorite mode of communication, Twitter, to call for the president’s ousting: “WAKE UP & JOIN THE RESISTANCE. ONCE THE MILITARY IS WITH US FASCISTS GET OVERTHROWN. MAD KING & HIS HANDLERS GO BYE BYE.”
Yes, that is a call for a coup by the United States military against the democratically elected President of the United States, who has been in office for less than two months. Even the CIA waited two years before deciding to back a coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende.
The bizarre thing is that only a few months ago these sorts of calls were the exclusive province of hard-right groups like the Oath Keepers and various fringe militia movements. They were the ones calling for soldiers to disobey unconstitutional orders, or to resist and rise up against perceived federal tyranny. Now, apparently, it’s left-wing comedians and media personalities who think what America really needs is a good old-fashioned junta to overthrow the fascistic “mad king.” And we all know military coups have never done lasting damage to democracies in the past.
Even Silverman’s attempt to walk back her initial tweet had worrying connotations, when she tweeted, “FEAR can motivate even peacenik snowflakes 2 incite violence & last night I felt it hard. Trying 2 keep in check bc damnit I love u America.”
Silverman claims to love America, but apparently also believes that fear of people like Trump in power can drive even the most peaceful folks to violent rebellion. Revolution or a coup would, in her opinion, be an act of love for America, irrespective of what the Constitution says.
The Right Autocrat
The very power Trump commands is the product of bipartisan efforts over the past few decades to centralize power in the Executive Branch. It was only a matter of time before someone truly dreadful got their hands on the levers of power.
In an ideal world, this realization might produce a reevaluation of the proper division of power within the federal government, as well as between the federal government and various state governments. Progressives must recognize that they are now reaping what they sowed, and it is in the form of The Donald.
We do not live in an ideal world and despite their apparent newfound love of states’ rights, progressives remain committed to the underlying idea that government is the answer to all problems (provided the “right people” are in power). It is that last proviso that is the real problem, and could undermine the future of American democracy, and the republic itself.
When you only acknowledge the power and legitimacy of “the right people,” who just so happen to be the people you agree with, you open the door to the breakdown of democracy. As the power of the federal government and of the executive in particular, has grown, so has the cost of handing power to the opposition. This problem has been further exacerbated over the course of the Obama Administration, as the president relied heavily on direct executive orders to achieve policy goals. The fickleness of such unilateral action has already been thrown into stark relief by President Trump’s early barrage of orders, overturning large parts of his predecessor’s legacy with the stroke of a pen.
Now that Trump has exposed the sheer naked power a motivated president can wield, one might think that the logical reaction would be to curtail the power of all presidents. Instead, the natural reaction for the many people who have been raised to a fever-pitch of partisan rancor is to simply deny the power to anyone who does not agree with them. Blind support by progressives of Obama’s executive overreach has turned to rage when Trump utilizes those same powers. And conversely, while Republicans in Congress frothed at the mouth every time Obama took executive action, now they seem largely content to allow their man to do as he pleases.
With both sides seeing the loss of power as an existential threat to the nation, it becomes only a matter of time before one side decides that it is in the national interest (and, coincidentally, its own) to deny the transfer. We are not there yet, of course – Trump is president and Obama is enjoying retirement. But the strife and rancor of the recent transition shows the warning signs of things to come.
But They Started It
Thus far, this essay has been focused principally on addressing the dangers to the survival of the republic created by the behavior of Democrats and progressives. But they are far from the only culprits. The Right has been just as active in trying to undermine the legitimacy of America’s governing institutions.
Take the birther movement, for example. Spurious claims about Barack Obama’s place of birth helped fuel a conspiracy theory that sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Obama Administration. Donald Trump is perhaps especially to blame, as he used the controversy to lay the groundwork for his own political ascent.
The Republicans flirted with birtherism and with extreme elements of the Tea Party; it helped them retake Congress, but has also opened a Pandora’s Box. Democrats are already using these attitudes as justification for their own efforts to delegitimize the Trump Administration.
The years of partisan blocking of the Obama agenda has also done its part to build a wall of mistrust between the two main parties and the voters on the Left and Right. In survey after survey, trust in government institutions continues to diminish. But worse still, trust of people with different political affiliations is also declining at a terrifying pace.
Both sides have to realize that their short-term power plays are building up to a long-term dysfunction. The republic cannot survive for long when the power elites and citizens are so violently divided. A free and open society can tolerate many different views and acknowledge when leaders with differing views have been elected to power. A society of fear in which leaders are considered moral monsters by their opponents is doomed to self-destruction.
Trumping Checks and Balances
It is important also to understand that Donald Trump is no victim in this drama. He has used the politics of fear, division, and grievance to propel himself to the White House and has continued to use those emotional levers to force his agenda forward.
The real issue (or at least the only issue that fits within the scope of this essay) is not so much what his agenda is, but how he has chosen to pursue it. By using executive orders, frequently without consultation of the relevant government departments, or with Congress, Trump has worked to ram his vision through at a breakneck pace. No doubt many of his supporters like that about him, but the fact that there are so many people fed up with the way government functions is itself a symptom of the greater moral malaise afflicting the American body politic.
Trump has ignored congressional leaders, and even lashed out at the few Republicans who have been willing to call him out on his most outrageous moves. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have shown significant mettle, though even they have blanched at making a break from the new president. This does not bode very well for the power of Congress to hold Trump in check.
And that’s just it: checks and balances are not formal institutions. Rather, they are levers that only have power when people in positions of power have the will to pull them. There is nothing in the sinews of Congress, or the parchment of the Constitution, that makes the president come to heel. It takes courage and action. In the absence of political courage, the very notion of checks and balances comes apart, to the nation’s cost.
The judiciary has also come under threat in these first days of the Trump administration. When a federal judge (an appointee of George W. Bush, as it so happens) blocked Trump’s sweeping immigration order, the president took to Twitter to excoriate the judge, and call into question his judgment. Again, Trump apologists might say this is just Trump being Trump. Yet a direct attack on a federal judge by the sitting president represents a line crossed. It is a sign of the further erosion in the respect for judicial review, and for the check it places on the executive. It may seem a small thing now, but it is a precedent that could resonate long into the future.
Lest Darkness Fall
All is not lost, however. There are still countless good people in the United States who love and respect the nation’s history and the unique institutional order that has kept the country free. Even as the rest of the world has flirted, on occasion, with various kinds of authoritarian rule, our republic has and can endure, but it will not do so on its own.
The republic will not fall during the Trump Administration, but it could be mortally wounded. It is up to us to not allow that to happen. That means standing up to both major parties and challenging their short-sighted power games. It is not too late, but it will be soon. It is time to make a stand.
Featured image: Mirela Monte / ActiveRain.com
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