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Yes, Virginia, there is a Crisis of Democracy

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This morning’s tweets nicely encapsulate how the President of the United States is an authoritarian-minded demagogue.

First, the President fed conspiracy theories designed to discredit an investigation into wrongdoing by his campaign. Trump already explicitly obstructed this investigation when he fired James Comey.

Trump then retweeted an image implying that he squashed the lügenpresse like the untermensch cockroaches that presumably work in it.

Finally, he continued his efforts to brand any, and all, negative information as “fake” attacks on him and his supporters. As Jacob Levy has argued, the President’s documented dishonestly, and broad embrace of post-truth politics, both reflects his personal despotism and corrodes the body politic’s ability to resist authoritarianism.

These well-rehearsed themes of 2017 come on the day of Christmas Eve. Trump has fashioned himself as a warrior in the Sitzkrieg on Christmas; the latest entry in his permanent-campaign propaganda closes with a little girl thanking Trump for “letting us say ‘merry Christmas’ again.”

Of course, Trump is a rare animal: an American confidence artist who cannot convincingly fake religiosity. But the fact that his personal morality most closely resembles that of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Satan in The Devil’s Advocate matters not to the religious right, which remains content so long as they can discriminate against ‘sexual deviants’ and as Federalist Society members receive lifetime to the bench. Rather than, as some predicted, break fusionism, Trump has confirmed the enduring strength of the plutocracy-theocracy-resentment synthesis. Along the way, he’s proven that the modern GOP stands, at heart, for little else.

Indeed, as Charles Pierce writes, “The Republican Party Has Bowed, Completely, to the Mad King”:

I am sure that, among conservative intellectuals, there are some people sincerely and seriously opposed to the current president*. But among conservative Republican politicians of any influence, there are none. Bob Corker pretty much called the president* a lunatic, and now he’s profiting handsomely from being a performing seal like all the rest of them. Lindsey Graham is conceding putts at Bedminster and dreaming of being Secretary of State. Orrin Hatch may well be seen within the month, climbing up Mount Rushmore with a chisel between his teeth, ready to get to work. The Department of Justice is now acting as an adjunct to a Breitbart comment section.

Pierce leaves out how Mitch McConnell is now “warming” to the President’s tweets. Gorsuch wasn’t enough for everyone, I suppose. It also takes some pro-cyclical, budget-busting, inequality-exploding, self-dealing tax cuts to win the total love of the GOP.

2017 put the lie to any fantasies that mythical “principled” GOP officials would stand against Trump and for American democratic institutions. You cannot oppose an authoritarian and hand him political victories, even if it advances your policy preferences.

But, more broadly, GOP support for democratic backsliding is overdetermined by the intoxicating pull of power, a commitment to a range of policy goals that command limited popular support, the conditioning of the party base by long exposure to overt propaganda outlets, a decades-long retreat from commitments to democratic and institutional norms, and the feedback effects between negative partisanship and weak party institutions.

At this point, the fight for American democracy is partisan. It should not be that way, and this is a dangerous situation. There is no special sauce that keeps the Democrats from abusing political power. But, for now, the Democratic party’s political coalition necessitates a commitment to consolidating and expanding liberal democracy; its base has not yet succumbed to post-truth politics. No unqualified charlatan has ever led the race for, let alone captured, a spot on the Democratic party ticket. The GOP not only nominated Trump—and, before him, Palin—but toyed with the likes of Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson.

Maybe one day the modern Democrats will encounter the dilemma currently faced by GOP senators and representatives who privately acknowledge that their President is an autocratic lunatic—and even a “moron”. Perhaps they will acquit themselves poorly. For now, though, we face the nightmare scenario of an illiberal, anti-democratic party aligned against one committed to liberal democracy. Should the Democratic (and, indeed, democratic) party win, it will face the lose-lose scenario of adjudicating which norms—such as those against court-packing—are necessary evils and which need to be adjusted to fix our broken system.

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