Wednesday, November 30, 2016

American democracy: Taking a ride on the tiger?

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
1

John Cassidy (New Yorker) defines Trump’s challenge to American democracy. Here are snippets.

During the Presidential campaign, Trump casually incited violence; promised to “lock up” his Democratic opponent; refused to release his tax returns; gave a dystopian Convention speech in which he promised to restore “order”; proposed banning Muslims from entering the country and reinstituting the use of torture on terrorism suspects; and vilified his opponents and critics. And what of today? Trump is surrounding himself with sycophants, ranting on Twitter about how he really won the popular vote (he did not), and boasting that the federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to him.

Bad as it is, this doesn’t mean that Trump is Hitler, Mussolini, or even Putin. He’s Trump, but that, in itself, presents a real danger. Everything about him suggests that when he enters the White House he will continue gleefully transgressing democratic norms, berating his opponents, throwing out blatant falsehoods, and seeking to exploit his position for personal gain. That’s what he does. If anything, the isolation and pressures of the Oval Office might further warp his ego and exaggerate his dictatorial tendencies. Surrounded by yes-men, he could well be tempted to try to expand his powers, especially when things go wrong, as they inevitably do at some point in any Presidency.

The big unknown isn’t what Trump will do: his pattern of behavior is clear. It is whether the American political system will be able to deal with the unprecedented challenge his election presents, and rein him in. Especially with a single party controlling the executive and the legislative branches, there is no immediately reassuring answer to this question.

“Trump sailed to the presidency on … lies and exaggerations, and there’s no reason to think he’ll discover a new commitment to the truth as president,” Stephen Walt, the Harvard foreign-policy realist, writes in a new article in Foreign Policy. “The American people cannot properly judge his performance without accurate and independent information, and that’s where a free and adversarial press is indispensable.” Will the press be up to the challenge? The early signs are mixed.

… most urgently, there is a question of what to do about Trump’s business empire, and the glaring set of conflicts of interest that it represents. A couple of weeks ago, I argued that kleptocracy, rather than autocracy, is the most immediate threat. Since then, a number of ethics specialists and law professors from both parties have called on Trump to sell all of his businesses and place the proceeds in a blind trust. If he doesn’t do this, some of them say, he will be in violation of the emoluments clause in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 9), which bars Presidents from taking payments of any kind from foreign states.

But who will hold Trump to account if he fails to reduce his business entanglements? Richard Painter, a former counsel in the Bush Administration, has argued that the Electoral College, which will vote on December 19th, should refuse to choose Trump if he doesn’t agree to obey the Constitution. Right now, that seems unlikely to happen. Most likely, the task of persuading, or forcing, Trump to distance himself from his business interests will fall upon the next Congress, which will convene in early January. But, of course, both legislative chambers will be under the control of the Republicans. And so far the Grand Old Party, under the guidance of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, has shown no enthusiasm for standing up to Trump, instead intimating that, with its assistance, he will make a fine President.

Which brings us back to the darkest of histories. Referring to Franz von Papen, the conservative German politician who, in January, 1933, persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Hans-Joachim Voth, an economic historian at the University of Zurich, wrote recently, “the Republican leadership sounds awfully like former Vice Chancellor von Papen and friends. They famously thought of Hitler as the ‘drummer’—a populist whose appeal was useful to them but could be controlled easily.”

By their nature, populist authoritarians aren’t easily managed. “Autocracy is coming,” Voth went on to warn. “Something somewhere between Putin and Berlusconi, if we are lucky; something worse if we are unlucky.” That view, it should be acknowledged, represents a pessimistic reading of the situation. But proving Voth wrong will fall on American democracy, the institutions that claim to embody it, and the people who say they value it.

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