It takes three elections to lose Democracy. America faces number two.
Here we are, the day before the midterm elections. I’ve spoken to many people about this for the past few months but I’ve hesitated writing anything. With the purported electoral sentiment in the US it feels alarmist. But, at the same time, it also seems like if there’s even a 1% chance of it happening, we should be cognizant of America’s worst case scenario.
My mother’s parents survived the holocaust. They came to the United States after the end of the war but, unsurprisingly, the lessons of the Nazi’s rise were a constant weight in her life. And, as a result, a constant presence in mine.
For a long, long time I struggled to understand how a country like Germany could practically change from a democracy to dictatorship. Yes, Hitler was charismatic, yes Germans were angry, yes people wanted scapegoats, yes he used propaganda, yes Germans didn’t “stand up”. These standard answers do an alright job describing why, but are virtually useless when trying to investigate how.
And how is what we must know if we want to recognize something in our own time.
Honestly, in all my reading and research I didn’t have a serious understanding until I read “In The Garden of the Beast”. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It is an account of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany has he slowly turns from unenthusiastic bureaucrat to one of the first Nazi opponents.
As far as I can tell, there is one moment to which we can all look for the death of democracy — when the voters allow the government to punish people for individual political actions. Once people start disappearing, once they start accepting elections in which the ballot clearly shows a “correct” answer, the choice of whether to establish a dictatorship is in the hands of the dictator, not the people.
How can people accept a situation like that? How can they not vote to stop a government which is literally perpetrating violence against them?
I’ll tell you. And it only takes three elections.
Dictatorship Doesn’t Require a Plan
Donald Trump is not a dictator. I won’t even say he wants to be a dictator, that it’s his real plan, even though he clearly doesn’t like putting up with the democratic process.
Likewise, I won’t say Republicans are all, or necessarily, trying to establish a dictatorship. But they are clearly in love with money and power, which are the wrong motivations for running a democratic Republic.
Instead, what we can be sure of is that we are slipping towards dictatorial tendencies. Many people have said that, but what does that mean in an instructive way? In keeping with the thesis, that means we’re sliding towards a situation in which people will accept their own government using the power of the police and the jails and the courts against them for political purposes. How?
Ultimately this comes down to Trump’s tweets. You might ask how I can say that. How can it be possible that a democracy rests on such a frivolous thing as tweets? It’s not the propaganda or the attacks on the free press. The answer is that Trump’s tweets represent the truest expression of his policy positions which energize his base. Let’s look at just five:
1. Doing away with due process for immigrants.
Trump has mentioned this multiple times. And many have responded with a great point — if you eliminate due process for one segment of the population, you eliminate it for anyone.
Let’s say you’re an American citizen going about your business and you’re picked up by ICE as an illegal. You’re detained and they won’t let you out because you’re a suspected illegal. But you’re a citizen! Who are you going to tell? The judge? There’s no judges. Your lawyer? Without a trial you have no right to counsel so nobody even has to know you were taken. A federal agent? If you meant a Federal judge, there’s no right of appeal (as there currently is in immigration cases). If you mean someone higher up in ICE, well…
2. Expansion of ICE/Border Patrol
It’s not secret ICE loves the President and the President loves ICE. He gets them and they support his aggrandizement and resourcing of their department. There’s just one snag — the Federal government has a very, very small police force. Hardly large enough to control large populations. Almost all police in the U.S. are at the State and municipal (sub-State) governments. ICE is directly responsible to the President, but they’re just not that big.
However, if you could find a way to enlarge ICE, you’d have a police force which could operate with almost no limitation within 200 miles of the U.S. border or coast. That’s not a lot of land, but it happens to be where a majority of the population is; especially the dissidents who are most opposed to Trump’s administration. It would be a major (potentially death) blow to democracy if they also had the power to detain without trail.
You might say “but detention centers are already full to bursting, ICE can’t do much more than they are.” But this section is called expanding ICE. If you have full jails the solution isn’t to slow down arrests, it’s to build more jails and hire more ICE agents.
3. Investigating political opponents
It goes without saying but Trump’s constant calls for the Federal government to investigate his political opponents is bad. Regardless of what you think of them, if you give one President the ability to turn the government against a political opponent, it will eventually be turned against others.
4. Placing the Presidency above the law
The defenses Trump’s team uses to discredit the Mueller investigation, and the way he describes it on Twitter, are themselves subversion of democratic norms. For Trump to shut down the Mueller probe without consequences would effectively place him, as President, above the law.
And, even if he doesn’t succeed in that, the Justice he just placed on the Supreme Court is known to have an expansive view of Executive power.
5. Executive Decree of Citizenship
It started with questioning Obama’s citizenship but has grown into a dream of making citizenship malleable. But already, the Trump administration has been testing it’s ability to deny citizens rights, like rescinding their passports and deporting them, under the argument they could be immigrants (really, Google “trump deports citizen”).
This may seem like an impossible lift, given the specificity of the 14th Amendment, so let’s get into how all these crazy tweets become law.
The Three Elections
Admittedly, this is an accelerated timeline. After all, if you’re being generous, it took the Nazis four. But distilling the process down to the bare minimum gives us insight for what is ultimately a slow churn of politics.
Number 1: Election of the Leader
When Donald Trump was first elected there wasn’t much love between him and the Republican Party. Certainly not like Hitler and the Nazis at all. But, as we’ve seen over time, the Party and more importantly the Congress, have come to accept and even cheer his Presidency.
Still, on his most outlandish ideas like denying immigrants due process, they are…silent. Not in opposition, just silent. Though a handful of Senators have notably announced their retirements so that people with fewer moral scruples can take their place.
Number 2: Ratification of the Leader’s Agenda
This is the big one. This is where we will be tomorrow. It is NOT the reelection of Trump. It is the acceptance of his politics.
If the Republicans hold on to Congress (the House and the Senate) Trump’s agenda will be ratified. And, more importantly, his position as electoral cornerstone of the Republican Party will be solidified. That means Republican representatives cannot oppose him — not if they want to stay in their seats.
A Republican win, even by a slim margin, will drive Republican’s closer to Trump’s base. And that means closer to the policies written in his tweets.
Trump tweets a lot. But, as a result, if they pass even half of what he spews out we’ll be well on our way to dictatorship. And maybe not by anyone’s plan, just an ad hoc expansion of power in the hands of someone willing to push every new power he has to the breaking point.
Have we had a dangerous expansion of Executive power before? Absolutely. It happens pretty routinely, actually. Have we had it in the hands of someone so openly contemptuous of democracy as autocratic sentiment sweeps the globe and proposes a potential alternative to republicanism? Arguably not.
Number 3: Ratification of the leader
By the time we get here, resistance is difficult because elections become unreliable. Citizens barred from voting, vocal dissidents “accidentally” detained for long periods, political opponents harried by government investigations, an expansion of the vote shenanigans we’re seeing today (the Nazi’s literally made the their circle on the ballot bigger); it can go on. All the way to outright violence against opposition — either by the government or by partisans who expect no repercussions.
And, if it’s too inconvenient to vote today, who will vote when it’s too dangerous tomorrow?
What to do
Obviously vote. As I said when I started, this seems almost alarmist or hyperbolic given the activism I’ve seen and the early returns from some States. Still, we need to vote and Democrats need to win. Even if you don’t like Democrats, a divided government right now is as important as one you’re really happy with.
But beyond that, if Trump keeps control, we do have one thing Germany didn’t have: A Federal system with several sovereign states. If the Republicans win, and if they start enacting an agenda directly undermining civil rights in an aggressive way, it will require real leadership from our States.
Not the platitudinal leadership we often see about “fighting”. And, not just the lawsuits to which we’re accustomed — though the courts are the first, best option. Truly courageous leadership; because a worst case scenario requires a worst case response. One which may trigger a constitutional crisis.
For example, if a Republican Congress decided to remove due process for immigrants, and the Supreme Court ruled ICE could indefinitely detain or deport without trial, States like New York and California (or the cities within them) could order their local police to take control of ICE facilities and implement due process locally. This would be in contravention of Federal authority. A Governor or Mayor who did this might be arrested by the FBI or Homeland Security and found guilty of treason…if local authorities allowed it.
Again, this isn’t to say this is what will happen. I don’t think it will. It definitely doesn’t need to. But I’ve seen so many articles about Trumpism and Fascism and they all skirt around the danger of dictatorship. Not the danger to democracy, but the danger to people.
I’m not an alarmist, but I just felt like I had to write something about the way it could happen. The step by step. The very laws which would be passed and how they are sitting in the President’s mind, if not on his desk. And how, in the last moment, if a skewed vote subject to suppression and gerrymandering doesn’t save us, the States can.