The United States of America is at a critical moment in its history. The president is a demagogue with a contempt for democratic norms and the rule of law. The party that elected him is filled with his lackeys, extremists who want to use him to push their regressive ideas and long-serving politicians who seem to have given up the fight. The Republican Party is now the Trump Party, as exasperated former Republicans have made plain. And the Trump Party controls every aspect of the national government, most of the state governments and a huge media empire constantly pushing the president’s agenda. That agenda is the end of American democracy.
This didn’t start with Donald Trump. In one sense, it started shortly after the American Civil War. The defeated southern states created a mythology about the war, absolving themselves of the sin of slavery while simultaneously suggesting that slavery wasn’t that bad, anyway. The victorious northern states allowed and facilitated this lie in the hopes of reconciliation. This was the ‘civility’ of the late 19th century that saw institutional racism unchallenged and African-Americans deprived of real citizenship. Today, the Trump Party is revisiting this old southern strategy. They argue that gay couples can be denied service, immigrant children can be separated from their parents and detained, abortion can be made impossible to access – and then attack their opponents for being ‘uncivil.’ The same arguments are being deployed too: religious liberty, states’ rights and non-existent threats to white Americans.
But the modern slide towards autocracy began with the Bush administration. The ‘War on Terror’ was used to justify a wide array of crimes. Bush’s America tortured innocent people, interned others without charge, invaded Iraq based on a lie and accused all critics of being traitors and terrorist sympathisers. The Republican Party lurched to the right under Bush and its supporters became a pack of rabid dogs when a moderate Democrat became president. Barack Obama continued the ‘War on Terror,’ never trying to reduce his own authoritarian power, but Republicans built a web of conspiracy theories about him anyway. It was out of these conspiracy theories that Donald Trump’s political career grew.
Large sections of the American public became convinced that only authoritarian leadership could protect the country from its many enemies – an ever-growing list, now including military allies and trading partners. This group of Americans also accepted a wide array of conspiracies, invented during the Obama years to justify opposing a legitimately elected president. Mass voter fraud, ‘invasion’ by immigrants, plots to ban private ownership of guns, plans to cancel elections… Fear of an autocratic Obama had only one solution: an autocratic Republican. In this game of political mutually assured destruction, the Trump Party is winning.
Trump is not an anomaly in the Republican Party. He is the logical result of decades of Republican policies.
American democracy is already rife with cheating and dictatorial tactics. Both parties gerrymander, but the Republicans have elevated it to a fine art. The Republican majority in Congress is the product of gerrymandering – essentially stolen elections, while many states have created artificial Republican majorities through the same process. The non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud has allowed Republicans to purge voters, deny the vote to groups unfriendly to their party and disenfranchise minorities, especially African-Americans.
The Supreme Court is the only body that can end gerrymandering. The Republicans won’t end a system that keeps them in power, and Democrats can’t get into power to change it. But the court just ruled not to strike down gerrymandered districts, opening the door to more electoral skulduggery. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who occasionally voted with the court’s liberals, is retiring. Trump will replace him a hard-line conservative who will vote whatever way the Trump Party wants him to. If Trump decides to pardon himself for collusion with Russia, the Supreme Court will decide whether it’s legal. That court will soon have a Trump Party majority.
If Trump removes immigrants’ right to a fair trial before deportation, as he has suggested, will the Supreme Court overrule him? Will Congress resist him? The American government, in its present form, is pseudo-democratic at best. Universal suffrage is not a reality, gerrymandering is rampant and a consensus is forming among the country’s ruling class that the president is, indeed, above the law. What if Trump postpones the 2020 presidential election for ‘security reasons’? How will Trump Party treat democracy then?