The Republican Party and the decline of U.S. Democracy

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Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Tomada de Twitter
La Jornada Maya

Martes 25 de febrero, 2020

On January 29, 2019, noted legal scholar and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told senators judging President Trump at his impeachment trial that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected is in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

It appears that in Dershowitz’s opinion, President Trump can do no wrong while in office, and the U.S. president is above the law.

This matches President Trump’s perceived view of an imperial Presidency, one in which he is not only the center of power but the paramount power. He has constantly attacked the other branches of government that were designed to act as a counterweight to presidential power. Indeed, Trump is actively engaged in ensuring that Congress and the Courts lose their constitutional status as co-equal partners in government.

This goes against almost three hundred years of American jurisprudence that has always posited that no one is above the law and that Presidents can be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

After being found guilty and being impeached by the Congress, the U.S. President went on trial in the Senate for tying U.S. military aid to Ukraine to that government’s agreement to dig up dirt on his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The Republican controlled Senate’s verdict to acquit the President without allowing any witnesses to testify will legitimize a new practice in U.S. electoral politics – allowing candidates to seek the help of foreign governments to dig up dirt on political opponents. If foreign interference in the U.S. election of 2016 managed to get Donald Trump elected, the effects of appearing to legalize foreign interference in political campaigns will encourage others to seek the same assistance in helping to get them elected. This would result in yet another blow for U.S. democracy.

In my view, Republican support for President Trump in this case marks a watershed moment in the history of U.S. democracy. Republicans appear to have sold out their country and their constitution for power. They have struck a Faustian bargain with the devil himself to maintain their seats in Congress at the cost of supporting this President. They have allowed him to get away with corruption on a massive scale, evade a variety of accusations of sexual misconduct, nepotism, and use of office for personal profit for himself and his family in order to retain power.

Republicans from Senator Lindsay Graham to Congressman Matt Gaetz blindly defend the over 15,000 lies that the President has told since assuming office in 2017. This behavior is rampant today throughout the Republican Party and is amplified by FOX News and Breitbart. This has cemented Trump’s ties to his core supporters who continue to support him regardless of how egregiously he behaves and how much he lies.
The instruments of democracy are under attack and the U.S. Republican party largely to blame for facilitating this.

According to legal experts, a good number of his judicial appointments are not up to the standard one would expect in a democracy such as the United States. Indeed, his recent Supreme Court appointee, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of sexual improprieties that allegedly occurred on a number of occasions. Yet, the Republicans in the Senate ratified his nomination unanimously. This for a post in which the incumbent is expected to have the maximum probity.

The people who surround Trump – in Cabinet, in Congress, and in the Party – are not stupid people. They realize that he is their meal ticket. They choose to support Trump in order to get what they want all while giving him what he wants, an imperial presidency and public adulation.

They accept Trump’s vanity and irrationality, and make good use of it by passing legislation that decreases their taxes and enhances their power. His own family, unelected and firmly ensconced in the White House, are busy making deals that contribute to their well-being and, since Trump is enriching himself personally from the public trough, benefit from his blind eye.

One might ask why the rank and file continue to support Trump and how they are benefitting if not materially.

We must remember that the United States is the center for materialism and consumption. In many ways and not unlike other countries, Americans have lost some of their sense of community, and it is now every person for themselves. This has led to a search for a spiritual path – in the case of many Americans, this path is not the Christianity of old but, rather evangelical Christianity or even atheism, consumerism and isolationism.

This fractionalization benefits the evangelical Christians the most as they are well organized, passionate, and have strong communications facilities to propagate their messages. Their payoff comes in the form of an end to secularism, the return of God to the classroom, and the extreme right-wing social agenda that the Republican party has supported for many years and that the Trump administration has implemented.

Republican appointments of anti-abortion and gun supporting judges to every level of the judiciary over the past twenty years have cemented their loyalty to the Republican Party and to Trump, and they will continue to serve his interests as long as he serves theirs.

So, given the above, why may he win once again in November?

For a variety of reasons.

Firstly, Republican members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have seen how those who oppose Trump are immediately challenged in primaries by pro-Trump supporters. Former South Carolina Governor and Congressman Mark Sanford met this fate when he campaigned against Trump. Trump’s base gets the vote out and what is left of the moderate wing of the Republican Party seems effectively silenced into irrelevancy. They are scared of losing and, consequently, support Trump.

The fact that Senate Republicans prevented any witnesses from testifying in the Senate impeachment trial underscores the levels of collusion between Republican leaders and Donald Trump to defend the latter’s brazen attacks on U.S. democracy and the rule of law. By caving into Trump’s caprices, history will judge the Republican Party as guilty by association.

Indeed, other than Utah Senator Mitt Romney, Republican senators displayed an appalling level of disregard for the rule of law. While many privately admitted that Trump had behaved egregiously, fear kept them from voting their conscience and displaying any respect for the constitution or for the office of the President itself. And fear keeps them from taking on a president who represents the worst elements of American values.

Secondly, Evangelical Christians want to send the U.S. back to when it was a Christian, white, and male dominated society. Republican appointments of judges opposed to abortion, women’s and minority rights support them in attaining their objectives. They have become a potent force in Republican politics and, in 2016, were instrumental in winning Electoral College votes for Trump in key states. Trump has gained their support regardless of his own personal immorality or lack of probity. Evangelical Christian leaders have gone so far as to call Trump the Second Coming, and their followers seem to take this seriously.

Thirdly, the Democrats remain deeply divided between right and left. The current crop of pre-candidates does not display any ability to unite both wings of the party. They cannot yet agree on a common platform that will not only bring together candidates, but that will also galvanize the broad middle of the party and independents to vote and campaign enthusiastically.

Many Democrats and independents stayed at home in 2016 rather than vote for Hillary Clinton. Democrats now must elect a candidate who can get past this debacle and create a winning image with policies designed to attract voters. While Democrats will never attract Trump voters, the other 60 por ciento of the electorate is up for grabs.

But Democrats also have to focus on elections to Senates, state houses, and state legislatures, where Republicans have majorities and use them effectively to appoint leaders to top positions that allow them to ensure the longevity of their vision. Democrats must remember that not only is the White House at stake here, but that their strategists must develop the messaging that wins at state and local levels.

Absent this, Republican gerrymandering will continue apace, and this will make electing Democrats in many states even more difficult.

These are the reasons why I am concerned about the route that U.S. democracy is taking, and how this will affect U.S. society over the longer term.

Diminishing respect for mainstream media, for academia, for science and facts are leading to a society deeply divided into those who pursue intelligence, knowledge, and expertise, and those committed to believing in conspiracies and falsehoods. Some may call this an elitist way of dividing the U.S. population, but it is a way to describe social and political dynamics in that country today.

The increasing and unabated reliance on unvetted social media as a news source is at the base of seeding many in conspiracy theories and fake news.

Some may argue that U.S. democracy is strong enough to resist the damage being inflicted by Trump and his followers. Indeed, they claim that the fact that Republicans were elected to office and that voters will get their chance to vote again in November is proof that democracy in the U.S. is working.

I am not sure.

Voting is only a small part of democracy. Respect for the independence of political institutions as called for by the constitution is paramount. Respect for a free media and allowing the media to do its job is a fundamental element of any democracy. Respect for the law at all levels of society is essential for a democracy to function. And telling the truth is vital for any political leader to be able to claim they have been elected in a free and fair manner.

The conditions that led to Trump’s victory at the Electoral College in 2016 continue to exist. The frustrations on the part of many disenfranchised Americans that in turn led to Trump’s election have not abated. Yet, his inability or unwillingness to ameliorate their condition has not seemingly diminished the enthusiasm of his core supporters. Meanwhile, his lies continue unabated while Republican members of Congress in both Houses will once again campaign on his coattails this year.

Democracy in a presidential system depends on the fine balance and interplay between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Trump and his team have thrown the system out of kilter, and have called into question the very equilibrium created by the drafters of the constitution that is fundamental for a democracy to work.

As the impeachment trial wound down, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins told media that she believed that Trump had learned a lesson.

In fact, he had, but not the lesson that Collins had in mind.

Trump learned that, no matter what he does, the Republican Party, absent a few more honest members like Senator Mitt Romney, will follow him and support him blindly and enable him to pursue his drive to unconstitutional power.

His determination to create an imperial presidency continues apace, as does the threat to U.S. democracy.

Trump will continue to feed the polarization that has the U.S. political system paralyzed and U.S. democracy in real danger of collapsing.

It remains to be seen if a successor government in 2020 or, as is perhaps more likely, 2024, will be able to steer the Republic back from the precipice and return respect for democratic institutions and the real separation of powers to its rightful place.