I have just finished reading Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University where he founded its Program on Behavioral Economics. He is the author of, among many others, Impeachment, A Citizen’s Guide, which you are also not going to read, but should.
The contributors of the essays in this stunning book are mostly distinguished law professors from Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Columbia, NYU and Duke. These people know whereof they speak.
And speak they do, sometimes a bit turgidly as law professors are wont to do, but also brilliantly and incisively addressing the sources of risk that the United States could lose its hold on democracy. It’s important to understand that this is not an anti-Trump screed, although, as you might expect, Trump’s conduct as president figures prominently in many of the essays. The reason is that his behavior is in the classical line of actions taken by political strong men who have undermined democracy in their countries. It’s also important to remember the United States has some blood on its own hands from past episodes of authoritarian behavior induced by crises such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The threats to American democratic institutions, free press, elections and other features of a free and open society in which we have grown up are real and immediate. While some of the essays are guardedly optimistic about the resiliency of our Constitution and institutions to resist the imposition of an authoritarian regime, you will find cold comfort in most of the essays. They are, along with other recent works like Elaine May’s Fortress America – How We Embraced Fear & Abandoned Democracy, compelling, history- and fact-based accounts of how democracy can fail, and may actually be failing, under the relentless pressures of an autocratic president supported by a single-party Congress. These are conditions not contemplated by the Founding Fathers whose Constitution, as brilliant as it is, may lack sufficient safeguards against one-party rule that does not respect the values on which that document was based.
If you are serious about understanding what is happening in American politics today, this book is a must-read.
To give you a taste, the chapter entitled “Constitutional Rot” observes that “These four horsemen — polarization, loss of trust, economic inequality, and policy disaster — mutually reinforce each other.” Further, “In an oligarchical system, regardless of its formal legal characteristics, a relative small number of backers effective decide who stays in power.”
In the chapter entitled “Beyond Elections: Foreign Interference with American Democracy,” Samantha Power discusses how non-mediated social media opened the door to Russian influence in U.S. elections. The chapter “Paradoxes of the Deep State” addresses little-known history of the so-called “Deep State” with surprising observations about the “leaks” in the Trump administration. Then, the chapter “How We Lost Constitutional Democracy” sets out grave and chilling warnings about the erosion of democratic norms and the limits of the Constitution as an obstacle to the destruction of democracy as we know it.
As I said earlier, this book is serious stuff and not an easy read. Yet the issues analyzed in it are critical to a deep understanding of what is happening and the extent to which we can “count on the Constitution” as a defense against loss of freedom and democratic process.
When you are finished being frightened to death, I continue to urge everyone to read On Tyranny-Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, a measly 126 pages. Finally, if you want to dig deeply into some of the mysteries of the behaviors of voters whose conduct you consider self-defeating and borderline insane. I commend to you two tomes that I guarantee will open your eyes to ideas you never dreamed of: Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, and Behave – the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky [skip the details on endocrinology, unless you really dig that sort of stuff].
To conclude, for now, I believe the following to be more likely true than not:
1. Trump’s election was unlawfully procured through interference by, and his collusion with one or more foreign powers; the more he fumes and fulminates against this idea, the more likely it seems to be true;
2. Trump has violated Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed;”
3. Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Article I, Section 9;
4. Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice, which qualifies as a “high crime” or “misdemeanor” under the Constitution, Article 2, Section 4, and, in the specific circumstances, is guilty of treason as well;
5. Trump and members of his family and officials appointed by him, along with Republican members of Congress, have engaged in a conspiracy to conceal evidence of crimes by them and others and to prevent the full investigation and prosecution of such crimes by appropriate government authorities.
I also believe the following truths are now indisputable:
1. Democratic norms are under active siege by a president who neither understands nor cares about such norms;
2. While the prospect of indictment of the president as a result of Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation is highly appealing, there is little chance that such a move is going to occur soon and it will, in any case, provoke a lengthy constitutional crisis that will end up in the Supreme Court and therefore not afford a near-term solution to the governance crisis that confronts the nation;
3. The most immediate and most important defense against the oligarchical theocracy, or the theocratic oligarchy, if you prefer, that the president, vice president and Republican Congress want to establish, and to some degree have already established, is for the Democratic Party to take control of Congress in the 2018 elections;
4. Democratic control of both houses of Congress would immediately create an insurmountable bulwark against further destruction of democracy by the administration and lay the framework for removal and prosecution of the Trump gang and its enablers;
5. Trump’s sycophantic supporters are preparing to defend him with aggressive voter turnout and contributions of huge amounts of money. Nonetheless, Democrats must overwhelm them at the polls if we are to turn the tide against the fascist practices of this administration. If we fail, we will face two more years of entrenchment, destruction of the independence of the judiciary and undermining of the free press. The loss of those two elements of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances will make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, to turn back the tide. It’s 2018 or nothing.
6. Every American should view this situation as a grave threat to their well-being and the well-being of their families present and future. It is time for the Democratic Party leadership to start leading politically and for the personal ambitions and agendas of the old guard to yield the floor to the generations that will have the most to lose if the foundations of democracy are not restored. Remember that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
7. It is time for a game plan that does not repeat the same mistakes that led to the disastrous defeat in 2016. The Republicans know the same things we know about what happened. They have a keen understanding of their political base and how to stimulate it to action on behalf of their agenda. Trump’s base is uninterested in the truth about him or his policies; they have created their own truths in which they choose to believe and nothing is going to change most of them. It is therefore absolutely essential that every potential Democratic vote be cast in every district. There have been a few interim wins in replacement contests, but these are no laurels on which to rest. Democrats cannot afford to give up any seat that is potentially winnable. It’s now or never.