Jeff Sessions was the first US Senator to support Donald Trump early in his campaign at a time when Trump’s campaign was regarded as a joke by most Americans who just thought that the billionaire was enjoying the media attention he was getting and that he would soon get embarrassed by media scrutiny and drop out to avoid further shame like most Billionaires who dabble with a vanity campaign for president. We were wrong because Trump loves publicity and even enjoys the kind of publicity that would embarrass most people.
Trump highly values personal loyalty to himself and in return for Sessions’ early support, Trump picked him to be his Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department, FBI, and federal law enforcement. Trump soon thereafter fired FBI Director James Comey for not squelching the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s ties to Russian election interference. Trump lied about his reasons for firing Comey, but the day after the firing, he told Russian officials that he did it to the “great pressure” he faced over the Russia investigation. This obstruction of the Justice Department investigation created a political outcry and in response, Jeff Sessions appointed Robert Mueller to take over the investigation. To eliminate political pressure from Trump to end the investigation, Sessions recused himself from involvement in the affair. This incensed Trump who wanted Sessions to end Mueller’s investigation and Trump spent nearly two years berating Sessions about it and threatening to replace him with someone who would obstruct Mueller’s investigation. Finally, the day after the midterm elections when the news media was busy reporting on big news of electoral upheavals, Trump fired Sessions and replaced him as Attorney General by a flunky who is unqualified for the job, but who has openly declared in the press that he will do Trump’s bidding to obstruct the investigation as much as is possible without causing too much political backlash and hopefully end it. There are basically three ways democracy can end.
- Violent invasion or civil war.
- Bloodless military coup d’état.
- A gradual erosion of democratic rules and norms.
Zack Beauchamp says that Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions should be even more alarming than his firing of James Comey and the fact that (almost) nobody is upset may come to be seen as the tipping point in the death of American democracy. It is like the Ship of Theseus in Greek philosophy. If you replace a board of a wooden ship, it is still the same ship, but if you keep replacing boards until you have replaced every single part of the ship, at what point does it cease to be the original ship? The sturdy planks of the old ship of democracy are being steadily replaced with the rotten wood of autocracy. Democracies usually die slow deaths like this without much outcry about the loss.
[What you see] in countries like Hungary and Venezuela, is a piece-by-piece dismantling of democratic systems. Instead of doing everything in one go, and making a show of suspending the Constitution, you pass a series of laws that amount over time to the destruction of democracy.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has spent the past eight years setting up a system that resembles a democracy but isn’t actually one. He didn’t abolish elections, but he gerrymandered parliamentary districts and seized control of the civil service that administers elections. He didn’t ban the free press, but he either bought up critical publications or forced them to sell to government-friendly allies. This didn’t all happen immediately, but rather bit by bit since Orbán took office in 2010. There was never a specific moment in time when you could say, “Aha, now Hungary isn’t a democracy” — it just evolved, over time, into something different and unfree.
This is what makes Trump’s approach to firing Sessions such a worrying moment.
It really is the case, as New York magazine‘s Jonathan Chait points out, that this is a serious threat to the health of American institutions. Even if acting Attorney General Whitaker doesn’t fire Mueller straightaway, it’s possible that he could hamstring the probe behind the scenes through bureaucratic tools like refusing to approve Mueller’s indictments and subpoenas. Indeed, Whitaker has even publicly floated the idea of cutting probe funding. He could run the same playbook — small fights rather than a major confrontation — that helped him assume office without a huge public fuss.
The president …is exploiting a weakness in the democratic immune system. Democracies depend on a motivated and involved public for their survival. But if politicians only take one small legalistic step away from democracy at a time, each one narrow enough to be justifiable to their political allies, then a systematic shift away from democracy and constraints on presidential power never ends up truly galvanizing the opposition. If you don’t give the people a crisis point to rally around, you can get away with a lot.
You might even have experienced this firsthand reading this article. When I suggested at the beginning of this piece that this was a threat to democracy, you, reader, might have thought it was a bit hyperbolic.
But that’s exactly the problem: The slow degradation of institutions, the normalization of an authoritarian approach to politics, makes any warning about a particular development seem out of proportion to the immediate threat. But we need to be honest about the big picture: Donald Trump’s approach to politics, including his public flagellation and eventual firing of Jeff Sessions, really is damaging the foundations of American democracy.
Democracy is dying like a frog in gradually heating water, but it won’t be obvious that it has happened until it is too late. That is why Republicans need to coalesce support around Mike Pence for President in 2019. He is a true conservative rather than a hedonistic New Yorker who only opportunistically switched parties recently. Mike Pence has never blatently tried to sacrifice democracy to keep skeletons hidden in (Russian?) closets.
As Machieveli said, democracies die when partisans become so tribalistic that they excuse undemocratic behavior in their own party that they would never tolerate in the other party. Trump doesn’t care what non-Republicans think and the only way to check his behavior is for a majority of Republicans to decide that Pence is a better leader of their party because that is the only option for the next two years and the Republican-dominated Senate is the only institution that has the power and responsibility to do that. If our democratic institutions survive through the next election, Trump will undoubtedly lose a fair election given that he has NEVER had a majority of Americans that think favorably of him. No other president in the history of American polling has ever been so unpopular.
Republicans have to decide if they really want Trump weighing down the party for the next two years or whether Pence would be better for the nation and the party. It happened once before with Nixon. Nixon stayed in power until a Majority of Republicans turned against him and then he voluntarily stepped down because he knew that the Senate would remove him from office and he made a deal with his Vice President Ford to award him
a full and unconditional pardon for all crimes committed during his presidency in exchange for giving the presidency to Ford.
The party then reinvented itself and rebounded to achieve a landslide Reagan victory in 1980. The blue wave of the last election should be a wake-up call for Republicans. With the economy doing better than almost any time in living memory, the incumbent party should be sailing to victory, but instead of running on the strong economy, Trump is constantly seeking new ways to distract attention from his administration’s latest scandal and making up fake crises like a “caravan” of refugees walking across Guatemala.
Instead of sending the military to battle an ongoing crisis that is happening in America right now, that violently killed over seventy Americans and holding over a thousand hostage while destroying billions of dollars of American homes, Trump sent thousands of military troops to the Mexican border to wait for weeks in case the “caravan” ever makes it walking across Mexico. Meanwhile, the troops are doing a lot of photo ops in what Republicans on Fox News are describing as a “stunt”.
Pence couldn’t possibly do worse. Is this is our choice? Republicans?