Glenn Tucker | Trump’s America: How democracies die
‘Demagogue’: A demagogue or rabble-rouser is a leader who gains popularity in a democracy by exploiting emotions, prejudice and ignorance to arouse an audience, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation.
It was November of 2016. A still shocked world continued to pinch itself to see if it was dreaming. With nearly three million votes less than his rival, Donald Trump was declared President of the United States.
Somewhere in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, Stephen Walt sat down to write. Walt is a distinguished American professor of international affairs at that school’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He belongs to the realist school of international relations, has made important contributions to the theory of defensive neorealism and also authored the Balance of Threat Theory.
In the excellent, prophetic article that followed, the professor wrote, in part, of his concerns about, “…the threat that Trump may pose to America’s constitutional order, as it is well known that he is a vindictive man who will go to extreme lengths to punish his opponents and will break a promise in a heartbeat and without remorse … The 2016 campaign confirmed that he has little respect for existing norms and rules (withholding tax returns, lying repeatedly … deep contempt for both his opponents and supporters).”
Indeed, during the campaign, after his most obnoxious and callous behaviour, some apologists would announce that “this is just campaign stuff. When he wins, he will be presidential”. This nonsense was parroted by sections of the media and Americans bought it.
I was more concerned, however, when after giving clear, credible warnings, Walt sought to comfort Americans with statements like:
“This list of warning signs will no doubt strike some as overly alarmist. As I said, it is possible – even likely – that Trump won’t try any of these things (or at least not very seriously) and he might face prompt and united opposition if he did. The checks and balances built into America’s democratic system may be sufficiently robust to survive a sustained challenge.
“Given the deep commitment to liberty that lies at the heart of the American experiment, it is also possible the American people would quickly detect any serious attempt to threaten the present order and take immediate action to stop it.
“The bottom line: I am by no means predicting the collapse of democracy in the United States under Trump …”
And finally, “To repeat: I am not saying this dark scenario of subverted democracy is likely, only that it is far from impossible.”
POISONOUS TO CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACIES
In an attempt to provide a response to an otherwise outstanding article, I opined that the possibility of a man, well into his seventies and bereft of any spiritual moorings, would have a Damascus Road experience, seemed extremely remote.
In fact, had the professor lived a century earlier, he would have as his colleague William James, the groundbreaking psychologist, whose text ‘Principles of Psychology’ is thought to be the first time modern psychology, observed the idea that personality settles down, or stabilises during adulthood. One of the most quoted lines from the book is in the fifth paragraph of the fourth chapter and goes like this: “In most of us, and by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again”.
The topic that has dominated talk in Washington over the past months centres around the thinking of the founding fathers in writing the Constitution and, in particular, the powers of impeachment and removal from office. If one were a fly on the wall in that room, one would leave with the impression that the framers felt nothing was more poisonous to constitutional democracies than demagogues.
About eleven days after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Washington wrote to his much younger friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, on June 6, 1787. His reason, he said, for attending the conference was to prevent, “Some aspiring demagogue who will not consult the interest of the country so much as his own ambitious views … thus destroying it …”
Another fear harboured by the founders was, “…insidious wiles of foreign influence”. And well they knew. During the 1790s, French diplomats sought by various means to exert undue influence on the young nation.
It is now accepted that Russia influenced the 2016 elections in Trump’s favour. In 2019, with elections looming again and polls showing former VP Biden likely to beat Trump at the polls, an abundance of evidence revealed that Trump attempted to influence the 2020 elections by withholding funds – approved by Congress – from a nation, under siege by Russia, until that country’s leader did him a personal favour by helping him to smear the character of Biden, his opponent.
With a Democratic majority in Congress, Trump was impeached. The trial to remove him from power was, however, in the hands of the Senate which has a Republican majority. The outcome was inevitable.
WAYS OF A DICTATOR
At the end of his article, Walt posits ‘Top Ten Ways To Tell If Your President Is A Dictator’.
We could look at these four years later to determine how close he is to the truth:
1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media. Trump’s berating of the media is almost a daily fixation with him. A daily White House Press Briefing has always been standard procedure. The last one was 325 days ago. George Orwell in his book 1984 said “Autocrats survive by controlling information”.
2. Building an official Pro-Trump media network. Breitbart, Fox News and his busy Twitter account have accomplished this.
3. Polarising the civil service, military and domestic security agencies. By replacing career public servants with his hand-picked ‘yes men’, heads of the critical arms of government have been reduced to presidential errand boys. When Trump started the world laughing by claiming that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama hard, all the reputable weather services issued statements contradicting him. However, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association came out in support of Trump over its own scientists and rebuked them for accurately contradicting him.
4. Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents. EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland got that post after donating $1 million to the Trump Inauguration. But Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, which frequently criticises the government, is coming under increasing pressure.
5. Stacking the Supreme Court. All courts are being stacked by ‘Trump’ judges, many of whom have never tried a case. The recent trial of Trump in the Senate is reminiscent of a trial on Orwell’s Animal Farm with Squealer (McConnell) as the judge.
6. Rigging the polls. The Mueller Report confirmed this.
Numerous cases of fear mongering, demonising the opposition, and enforcing the law for just one side can be sited.
Has the constitutional reality lived up to the founding fathers’ hopes and ideals? Where are the self correcting qualities? Most of the citizenry care little about the decline of the democratic process. But that’s because they are not paying attention.
There are three sections of government. Each is expected to watch each other. The Senate has now surrendered and is controlled by the president. Congress’ powers under the 14th Amendment have been shorn dramatically. A major party is refusing to check an illiberal president and presiding over the erosion of critical norms and practices that shape political life.
I have been searching for something in America. It is called eternal vigilance. I can’t find it.