The column ready version follows this long one just below.. It is a condensation, update, and revision of this. A version of the column ready one was published in the Winter Park Times, February 21, 2020
This is a very critical time in the history of the oldest democracy in the world. What sort of a country do we want to become? Our founders saw the end of the government they invented coming in the form of a president who would be king. Afterall they just had a revolution against a king and feared a return, so they constructed the Constitution as they did. by dividing the government into competing for power centers with the ability of one branch to check the other two, and pitting the ambitions of each against the other. In their wisdom, they also attempted to keep foreign governments from making us their satellites through bribery or through manipulating the vote of the people. They hoped this would be able to keep a wannabe tyrant from seizing power. This was a hope, but it depended on voters who saw it was in their interest to support the vision, too,. They had faith the populace would also vote for representatives who were sworn to support the Constitution and the rule of law with which all would comply. Ultimately if the United States' democracy survives the Trump era, it will depend on its voting citizens. There are no guarantees.
This metamorphosis from democracy to dictatorship does not happen quickly. It happens before the governed realize it has happened and then it is too late because they have already given their power away. Losing democracy is an insidious process; it takes time, it happens bit by bit, and in the end, the governed can only blame themselves because most dictatorships arise through the ballot box. Even in the times in which many of us have lived, we have seen this happen time and time again. It was not just in Germany, Italy, or Spain, before World War II, but it is happening post-Cold War, in post-Communist Russia, post-Ataturk Turkey, and in Hungary.
We have a President who sees such countries who made the transition from democracy to dictatorship as a model of good governance he has often praised. With four more years of that, we can watch him consolidate his power and achieve his control of any check on his power until it is too late to turn back to a democracy we once knew and treasured.
Here is how democracy dies. If you see any of that happening now, raise your hand. Wannabe dictators use their power to ensure their re-election, by keeping those who disagree from voting and favoring with monetary contributions, using the fear of retaliation, and oratorical praise for those who vote for them. Most failures of democracy are engineered through the ballot box.
Dictatorships are led by those who decree how laws are interpreted, who use the reins of their power given them by those who put them in power to enforce and suppress those who would challenge them. Their tools are exploiting, intensifying, prompting fears and a sense of victimization by some racial, religious, or economic group. They use the fear of retaliation and purging non-loyalists. The longer they stay in power, the more powerful they become because they use the power they have to control the levers of justice and media so it becomes harder for any opposition to revolt via the ballot box.
Does Donald Trump have that body of such dedicated supporters and is he an autocratic leader? Estimates range to as much as 40% of voters. I have seen in postings reflecting the view that those who do not show loyalty to Donald Trump are traitors. The Constitution defines who is a traitor and it only can be charged when we are at war. It is not defined as those who betray a president, but those who betray our country. However, psychological profile studies of autocratic leaders and their followers defined autocratic tendencies. Studies noted that autocracies are not confined to one party, but autocratic attributes are particularly dominant among Trump and his dedicated followers. Given an autocratic kind of leader like Trump's personality profile, we should not be surprised. Support of autocracies is not a new human trait. Our country's founders were students of human nature and of what caused the failure of democracies in Greek and Roman history. They designed a government with checks, balances, the rule of law., and a bill of rights to make it difficult for autocrats to rise to power. It is not foolproof and ultimately depends on the governed to support the Constitution.
The rule of law is the first casualty of wannabe dictators who use once independent law enforcement systems to reward friends and punish enemies. They stack the deck by misusing the power the once guiding light of laws and constitution gave them, and claiming their interpretation is the only one. Furthermore, they surround themselves by the likeminded and bobble-headed yes people
A wannabe dictator uses his compliant legislature to fill the judiciary with those who are favored ideologically and will rule on the interpretations if action or laws were in compliance. with a constitution or laws. .It takes a willing legislature to make this happen. The Senate under control of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell worked for hand in glove with the White House in the impeachment trial to suppress witnesses and evidence. McConnell's legislature, charged with approving federal judiciary appointments, has passed little legislation, but it has given priority to the tasks of approving ideologically friendly judges to lifetime appointments. Appointments used to require a supermajority 60 vote, but in changing the rule to a simple majority, 50+1 in the Obama era made rocket approval of judges without the need to get a vote from the minority party.
Another way to weaken the rule of law is by a wannabe dictator abusing the powers of the executive branch. It is a technique that has also helped other wannabe dictators grab power. They politicize their justice departments to help them win elections, either by controlling the ballot box and access to it or by destroying potential challengers with trumped-up investigations. Trump just gave the power to his Attorney General Bill Barr. to be the gatekeeper of election violations laws and to decide which violations of campaign and election laws will be investigated. In addition Barr, following a tweet from Trump, tried to help a Trump close friend, Roger Stone get less jail time, even though his sentence met established guidelines. That was not the first time Barr had intervened to support Trump's interests. He has also opened the door for his loyal AG Bill Barr to carry on with where Guiliani left off in Ukraine., trying to dig dirt on the Bidens. Only Barr is doing it from the US side of the Atlantic, instead., .and drawing on Guiliani's information which so far had yielded nothing. Barr publicly chastised Trump for tweeting about the Roger Stone sentencing guidelines and the very next day, Feb. 14, Trump asserted he had a right to interfere in federal cases. Trump asserts he has a legal right to interfere in federal cases. Bye Bye rule of law; hello weaponizing Department of Justice to do his bidding; Help friends, punish enemies. Welcome to the corruption of justice and practices we used to criticize Ukraine for...being corrupt by using prosecution of enemies as a political weapon.
We have a choice this November. In which direction do we want our country to go to?. A Constitution is not worth the paper it is written on without the support of the governed. We still have a chance to do something about it while we still have power left to act.
COLUMN VERSION; CONDENSED AND EDITED