Democrats versus authoritarians

So, I meant to post this last week and kind of forgot.  So, it actually has nothing to do with the last few days, but still super-relevant.  Francis Wilkinson:

The Democratic Party now confronts a predicament familiar to democratic political parties in authoritarian states such as Hungary and Russia. As those parties have learned, there is no good answer to the problem.

The proximate cause of the difficulty for Democrats is that Republicans are suddenly fond of subpoenas again. They plan to issue them to “a wide variety of Obama administration officials” in connection with the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week: “The American people deserve answers about how such abuses could happen.

Republicans famously defied subpoenas issued by the House during its attempts to investigate discrete aspects of President Donald Trump’s sprawling criminality. Indeed, even the most somber constitutional endeavor — impeachment — was met with a near-blanket stonewall from the White House, which refused to make documents or personnel available.

In the midst of the current national emergency, the executive branch has largely refused to acknowledge the House, disregarding dozens of letters sent by its committees seeking information on the coronavirus pandemic. At least nine requests to Cabinet officials to attend a hearing, briefing or videoconference have been rejected.

McConnell and his Republican colleagues have aggressively abetted Trump’s lawlessness, including the coverup of his shakedown of Ukraine and the subsequent purge of officials whose professionalism, patriotism or honesty enraged him. Attorney General William Barr is working diligently to supplant the facts of the Mueller investigation into Trump’s dalliance with Russia in 2016 with a wonderland of right-wing fantasy. Meanwhile, armed Trump allies don militia gear to intimidate political opponents.

So how do Democrats respond? The Republican subpoenas will be saturated in bad faith. Why should Democrats honor them? In politics, isn’t turnabout fair play?

Many Democrats will say so. But for a democratic party seeking to sustain rule of law against authoritarian attacks, turnabout also threatens to undermine the very values and norms that the party is fighting to preserve.

“In a democratic context, with two parties, when one party begins to violate or break the rules, the second party has no clear winning strategy,” Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” said in an email.

There are still traditional Republicans scattered about the states. But in Washington the party is organized around Trump’s white nationalism, corruption and contempt for rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz party has traveled a similar route, and the signposts are familiar: hyper-gerrymandered legislative districts, courts packed with loyalists and a party propaganda infrastructure owned by oligarchs aligned with the party. Even Fidesz scapegoats have a familiar ring: immigrants, Muslims, George Soros.

One hallmark of authoritarian politics, in addition to an adversarial relationship with the truth, is ignoring the law as it applies to party interests while deploying it as a weapon against political opponents. For example, party politicians might ignore lawful subpoenas intended to expose their corruption while subsequently using subpoenas of their own to construct a phony case of wrongdoing by opponents. [emphases mine]

Such is the seedy exercise of “Obamagate.” Republicans needn’t attack Barack Obama directly. He has credibility, political skills and ready access to strong allies and national media. Instead, they will likely attack Obama administration figures largely unknown to the public, with far fewer resources, whose words and deeds can more easily be twisted for propaganda purposes.

Few knew the names of the Americans who died in Benghazi. But Republicans exploited their deaths for years with a fully manufactured “scandal” that, like the Obamagate fiction, does not withstand scrutiny. No matter. The extended Benghazi attack, the bull’s-eye for which eventually settled on the 2016 Democratic nominee for president, served its nefarious purpose. Obamagate will similarly find its target: the 2020 nominee.

Because neither the news media nor the nation’s larger political culture has reckoned with the GOP’s authoritarian evolution, the habitual response is to mislabel GOP authoritarianism as hypocrisy. Calling out hypocrisy is a pointless shaming mechanism for a party that has broken free of shame. Worse, it camouflages a war on democracy as democratic politics as usual.

With no counter-authoritarian playbook, Democrats will simply have to improvise. “Certainly there is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Levitsky. “Are there viable institutional solutions (e.g., courts, elections)? The existence of competitive elections in 6 months may suggest a different strategy from a case where elections are not free or fair.”

An authoritarian summer is coming. It will be followed by an election shaped by pandemic, demagogy and Russian sabotage. Democrats will have to be deft to prevent further destruction of democracy, or a long authoritarian winter awaits.

And Jonathan Bernstein:

Regular readers will recognize this combination as signs of presidential weakness that nonetheless is dangerous to democratic government. Another way to put it is that it’s the essence of lawlessness. It’s not that Trump necessarily breaks laws (although he surely has done that), but that he appears oblivious to the whole idea of the rule of law — the idea that there are rules that apply to everyone, including the president.

Another way of looking at it is that Trump doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been hired to do a job, and that he has more than 300 million bosses. As with any job, it comes with written rules, and an employee — that’s what he is — must thoroughly master the terms of employment if he or she hopes to perform well. Instead, Trump seems to believe he’s won some sort of honor, and it entitles him to things. That’s simply not the reality of the presidency. Sure, there are perks (as there are with many jobs), but more than anything, it’s employment.

The worst part of this is that failing to recognize and uphold the rule of law is a fundamental abuse of power by the government employee whose job it is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” That is the core of his obligation to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is the heart of the presidency.

Now, for normal presidents this gets complicated very quickly. Defending the rule of law is not incompatible with disputing what exactly the law means, including the rules constraining the president. Every modern president (and at least many of those before the modern era) has pushed around the edges of what the Oval Office is able to do. All of them fought to further enlarge an office already loaded with far more powers than their 18th- and 19th-century predecessors had. We all expect presidents these days to do things that were simply not part of the job for Martin Van Buren or James Garfield, and we provide them with a large White House staff to fight for the president’s program. So it’s hard to say that this or that attempt at presidential power crosses a line into autocracy.

But Trump? His entire approach to the presidency ignores all the lines about what he’s authorized to do and what he isn’t. It’s true, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson and the political scientist Dave Hopkins say, that the Republican Party paved the trail Trump is on and are deeply implicated in all of this. But it’s also true that Trump is very different than George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan in this regard. It’s always hard to tell what’s in someone’s mind, but I’ve never heard anything from Trump that suggested any real respect for the rule of law.

And, oh, heck, let’s just make this a mega-post and throw in George Will’s latest where, damn, does he go off:

The nation’s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes much larger than the small man who is the great exacerbator of them. Most of the causes predate his presidency, and most will survive its January terminus. The measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many and will be protracted far beyond his removal. One such measure must be the removal of those in Congress who, unlike the sycophantic mediocrities who cosset him in the White House, will not disappear “magically,” as Eric Trump said the coronavirus would. Voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.

In life’s unforgiving arithmetic, we are the sum of our choices. Congressional Republicans have made theirs for more than 1,200 days. We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what? Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.

As I’ve said before.  Be for small taxes all you want.  Desire less help for poor people.  Or outlawing abortions.  But, if you actually want to live an a functioning democracy all that is secondary to rule of law.  And it is more clear than ever that rule of law is on the ballot in November.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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