Boiling a Democracy Alive
There’s a well-known fable that if you put a frog in very hot water, it will immediately try to scramble free. But if you put it in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog won’t recognize what is happening, and thus won’t know, until it’s too late, that it’s being slowly boiled alive. The poor creature will, legend suggests, simply stay in place, unable to interpret the danger signals, as its life is slowly extinguished.
Go online and look the phenomenon up, and there’s a whole bunch of research out there suggesting that this is, in fact, a myth. Frogs do feel the pain as that water heats up, and they do fight for life as their blood starts to boil.
So, as the Trump regime goes down an increasingly extra-legal route, will Americans respond as the frogs-of-myth, or the frogs-of-reality? Will the great bulk of the population remain blissfully oblivious to the dangers as one constitutional safeguard against personal rule after another is assaulted and broken down, or will our warning signs start flashing bright red, forcing us into action to defend the country’s democracy?
When a pot of water heats up, at first the process is incremental; then, as the boiling point is neared, that kinetic energy goes wild, the water starts to bubble fiercely, steam begins to rise off of the surface. By the time 100 degree Celsius is reached, that roiling body of water looks starkly different to how it appeared just a few seconds earlier.
What Trump is now unleashing on the constitutional fabric of the country follows a similar pattern. In the first two years of his leadership, the exceptionalist nature of his rule was more about the bluster and the crudity than it was about the actual mechanism of governance. Trump was different because he swore in public, because he bullied enemies via Twitter, because he publicly mocked his own officials, because he didn’t shy away from crass, racist, rhetoric, because he insulted allies and so on. He was, in short, different because of the shock value of his public presence.
But now, he’s testing the boundaries of the rule of law in evermore open ways. His exceptionalism is becoming overtly dictatorial. There’s nothing subtle, nothing incremental about this process. We’re now at that point where things start to change very fast, where the momentum pushing the country into crisis becomes unstoppable.
Trump seems to be obstructing justice on a regular basis; and he is practically daring the legal and political system to intervene. He is testing the braking mechanisms to see if he can keep caroming along with impunity. He orders his Attorney General to withhold evidence from Congress, and goads Congress to try to do more than meet the deed with empty threats. He withholds all documents about his taxes and orders his Treasury Secretary to ignore Congressional subpoenas on them. He declares the entire Mueller Report to be protected by Executive privilege – as absurd an argument as if a drug dealer could simply decide that all law enforcement evidence of his activities were his personal property, and thus off-limits for anyone else to view. He announces a national emergency and quite literally steals billions of dollars, unapproved by Congress, to build a border wall that Congress, which controls the purse-strings of government, has specifically refused to fund. He all-but-openly threatens to call out biker gangs and other paramilitaries to protect his rule if Democrats start to hit home in their investigations.
At this point, Donald Trump’s behavior combines the worst elements of America’s worst previous presidents: the fetishization of violence of Andrew Jackson; the personal corruption of Harding, whose administration eventually imploded under the weight of numerous financial scandals; the political malpractice of Nixon; the deliberate and systematic use of misinformation of George W. Bush. Add into that mix the demagogic methods of Senator Joe McCarthy, and you have nightmare chimera that is Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s method of governance in 2019 is more along the lines of a Peron or a Mussolini than a leader bound by the codes of democracy. Yet America’s forty-fifth president is betting that a divided Congress has neither the will nor the enforcement mechanism to rein him in.
As I have written before, constitutional checks and balances only work to the extent that all parties basically buy into the basic rules. At the end of the day, any rules-based political system relies both on those with power agreeing to self-limit the absolute nature of that power; and also on secondary political figures being willing to pull the plug on a leader if he or she goes rogue. When a charismatic president abandons those rules, and when a political party in thrall to a personality cult backs him up in this abandonment, the road to tyranny lies open.
In 2019, Trump is truly going rogue; and despite attempts by Democrats in the House to hold him to account, the GOP-led Senate is supine in the face of his daily outrages.
What does Trump care if his cabinet officials are given a “contempt” warning by Pelosi’s House of Representatives? It means nothing if Congress can’t back up that warning with action. And for the Senate, whose Republican members fear the wrath of Trump’s base more than the corrosion of constitutional norms that his actions entail, there’s precious little incentive at this time to stand with the House in holding Trump to account.
A majority of the American public have, from the get-go, registered their sustained disapproval of Trump – of his methods and of his policy priorities. They have been scrambling to get out of the warming waters from the moment Trump won a majority of the electoral college back in November 2016. But a solid minority, somewhere between forty and forty five percent, are willing to stick with Trump no matter what. They are the frogs of mythology, happily oblivious of the dangers to constitutional governance that this aberrant presidency represents.
For those many tens of millions of us who realize how hot the waters are now getting, the questions now become: What do we do? How do we use the latent power of numbers to protect constitutional governance? And how do we convince those who have so far tolerated Trump’s scandalous actions that soon it will be too late to jump out of the pot?