U.S. Politics

How to stop an autocracy

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There is nothing about the Trump administration that should threaten America’s system of government. The Founding Fathers were realistic about the presence and popularity of demagogues. The tendency of political systems to slip into autocracy weighed heavily on their minds. That power corrupts, and that power can be leveraged to amass more power, was a familiar idea. The political system the founders built is designed to withstand these pressures, and to a large extent, it has.

So why, then, are we surrounded by articles worrying over America’s descent into fascism or autocracy? There are two reasons, and Trump is, by far, the less dangerous of them.

Trump has shown himself unconcerned with the norms of American democracy. He routinely proclaims elections rigged, facts false, the media crooked, and his opponents corrupt. During the campaign, he flouted basic traditions of transparency and threatened to jail his opponent. His tendencies toward nepotism, crony capitalism, and vengeance unnerve. His oft-stated admiration for authoritarians in other countries — including, but not limited to, Vladimir Putin — speaks to his yearning for power.

Amid all that, David Frum’s Atlantic cover story, “How to Build an Autocracy,” is a chilling read. “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” he writes. The argument works because its component parts are so plausible. Frum does not imagine a coup or a crisis. He does not lean on the deus ex machina of a terrorist attack or a failed assassination attempt. The picture he paints is not one in which everything is different, but one in which everything is the same.

He imagines a Trumpian autocracy built upon the most ordinary of foundations: a growing economy, a cynical public, a cowed media, a self-interested business community, and a compliant Republican Party. The picture resonates because it combines two forces many sense at work — Trump’s will to power and the fecklessness of the institutions meant to stop him — into one future everyone fears: autocracy in America.

But what Frum imagines is not an autocracy. It is what we might call a partyocracy — a quasi-strongman leader empowered only because the independently elected legislators from his party empower him. The crucial sentence in Frum’s account is this one: “As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party.”

I am a critic of America’s system of government. For all its genius, I believe it is more fragile, and less sensible, than civics textbooks admit. I think the profusion of veto points makes governance too difficult, the disproportionate power given to small states is indefensible, and the absence of any mechanism to resolve conflicts between different branches is dangerous.

But the danger of a demagogic, aspirational autocrat winning the White House is one problem the Madisonian constitutional order is exquisitely designed to handle. The founders feared charismatic populists, they worried over would-be monarchs, and so they designed a system of government meant to frustrate them.

Republican National Convention: Day Two

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The system showed its power this weekend, when Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington issued a temporary restraining order freezing enforcement of Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban. Trump raged before the ruling — “if something happens blame [Robart] and court system,” he tweeted — but his administration complied with it. The spectacle of the president of the United States seeing his signature program stopped by a district judge in Washington state ruled is a reminder of how many veto points the system contains.

The judiciary, however, is not the branch of government with the most power or the most responsibility to curb Trump’s worst instincts. That designation belongs to the US Congress.

The president can do little without Congress’s express permission. He cannot raise money. He cannot declare war. He cannot even staff his government. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to compel Trump to release his tax returns, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to impeach Trump unless he agreed to turn his assets over to a blind trust, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to take Trump’s power to choose who can and cannot enter the country, they could. As Frum writes, “Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.” He just thinks they won’t.

Frum offers a persuasive account of why congressional Republicans are likely to fall before Trump’s will, and he is probably right. But I want to make the argument that there is nothing inevitable about that: it is not the system envisioned by the Constitution and it is not the system we would have if voters took Congress’s enormous power seriously and were as interested in who ran it as in who ran the presidency.

And I want to shift the locus of responsibility a bit: if Trump builds an autocracy, his congressional enablers will, if anything, be more responsible than him. After all, in amassing power and breaking troublesome norms, Trump will be doing what the Founders expected. But in letting any president do that, Congress will be violating the role they were built to play. We need to stop talking so much about what Trump will do and begin speaking in terms of what Congress lets him do.

Donald Trump is a paper tiger. But the US Congress is a tiger that we pretend is made of paper. It is, at this point, taken for granted that congressional Republicans will protect their co-partisan at any cost. It is, at this point, expected that they will confirm Trump’s unqualified nominees, ignore his obvious conflicts of interest, overlook his dangerous comments, and rationalize his worst behavior.

That expectation — and the cowardice it permits — is the real danger to American democracy.

How the founders failed

The framers of the Constitution were not infallible, and they were particularly wrong about a core feature of the government they built: They designed the American political system believing it would, uniquely, resist the creation and influence of political parties. It did not.

In his farewell address, George Washington warned, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

But even there, the cracks in the system showed. Washington’s warning against the dangers of parties was, in truth, an argument for the supremacy of his chosen political party. Rather than the alternate domination of one faction over the other, he sought the sustained domination of his Federalist faction over all others. As historian Sean Wilentz has argued, it was a “highly partisan appeal delivered as an attack on partisanship and on the low demagogues who fomented it. Washington’s address never explicitly mentioned Jefferson or his supporters, but its unvarnished attack on organized political opposition was plainly directed against them.”

The framers’ mistaken belief that America’s political system would resist organized parties was consequential. Their vision of American government — a vision children are still taught in civics classes — was that it would be balanced by competition among branches. The president, the courts, and the Congress would compete for power and prestige. They would check each other naturally, as a byproduct of exerting and protecting their authority.

The reality of American government today is quite different. American politics is balanced by organized political parties competing across branches of government. The president is checked not by Congress, but by the opposition party in Congress. The courts remain more independent — Judge Robart, it’s worth noting, was appointed by President George W. Bush — but they are by no means untouched by partisan competition. Federal judges are selected through a political process driven by organized ideological groups that vet candidates with the goal of ensuring predictable, friendly rulings in the future.

Vice President Pence Addresses Republican Retreat In Philadelphia

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In normal times, this works well enough. These are not normal times. Congressional Republicans find themselves, or at least feel themselves, yoked to Donald Trump — an abnormal president who hijacked their primary system and mounted a hostile takeover of their party. Trump now holds them hostage: Their legislation requires his signature, their reelection requires his popularity, and he is willing to withhold both.

And so the institution meant to check the president now finds itself protecting him. As Frum perceptively writes:

A scandal involving the president could likewise wreck everything that Republican congressional leaders have waited years to accomplish. However deftly they manage everything else, they cannot prevent such a scandal. But there is one thing they can do: their utmost not to find out about it.

But an absence of incentive should not be confused with an absence of responsibility. Trump does not, himself, have the power to reinforce his rule with a web of corruption. Trump does not, himself, have the power to launch fraudulent investigations of nonexistent voter fraud and then use the results to disenfranchise voters. Trump does not, himself, have the power to confirm his Cabinet while refusing to put his assets into a blind trust. In these cases, and others, Trump’s power exists at the pleasure of Congress. He can only do what they let him do.

That Congress is not using its power is Congress’s fault, not Trump’s. Whatever danger Trump poses to the system is their fault as much or more than his — it is their job, after all, to check an out-of-control president.

To put it differently, Trump deserves a bit less attention, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz deserves a lot more.

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