On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, democracy fell in the United States.
Into what exactly, well, that’s not entirely clear. But then, that’s much the way these things go, I understand. In any event, our chosen form of government crossed over a line, and we are presently somewhere along the spectrum heading down towards autocracy and authoritarianism. Fascism and fascist dictatorships are somewhere further down along this path, as are totalitarian states.
To the near end of that spectrum – just across the line from democracy – are what Brian Klaas, in his book The Despot’s Accomplice (2016, Oxford University Press), calls “counterfeit democracies.” Klass, a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, uses the terms to describe what other political scientists have sometimes labeled “electoral authoritarianism.” Klass describes counterfeit democracies as those “countries that claim to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, but are really none of the above.”
If we’re being honest, that’s really a more apt depiction of where we are at, isn’t it? A counterfeit democracy? Functionally, we have a one-party government (with the GOP holding both houses of Congress and the presidency, plus a majority of state legislatures and governorships), and a president* who radiates authoritarian tendencies and dreams in noxious waves. We even have our own free-market-capitalism version of State TV in the FoxNews network.
Even if you agree that, when viewed through this lens, our democracy looks somewhat less… well, democratic than it did when we last checked in on it (last October?), you still might ask “Okay, but why Wednesday, why May 10?”
Experts on authoritarianism have been warning us for months that it doesn’t happen like in the movies, with tanks one day suddenly rolling through your neighborhood. Fascism has got a little creep to it. Instead, little things, little democratic norms, fall away over a period of months until one day you wake up to find it’s gone and you don’t even recognize your own government.
With that in mind, consider two “events” that bookended Wednesday’s news, and a third precursor event that set the stage. The confluence of those three events have led me to pinpoint Wednesday as Zero Day.
[Note: the specific day is relatively immaterial. It’s but a quibble, I believe, to dispute the date itself. I’ve chosen it, in part, for its jarring symbolic effect – to possibly spur someone, anyone, into a previously unconsidered realization of the perilous stakes. So maybe don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – the larger issue is the direction we’re heading. Rapidly. Of that there can be little doubt.]
The Precursor – The Die Is Cast
On Tuesday, the night before the Zero Day, we crossed a line of sorts when Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. “We’ve crossed that previously unthinkable Rubicon,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on her Thursday night’s broadcast, referring to that enduring metaphor for a “point no return.” In history, it refers to an actual river and sovereign boundary in northern Italy that Caesar crossed over to march on Rome, making inevitable armed conflict. The die is cast.
In a glaring and egregious violation of well-established notions of separation of powers in the U.S., Trump fired Comey plainly and simply because he wanted to shut down or hobble the FBI’s investigation into Trump/Russia. (See Part I – Firing James Comey). The position of Director of the FBI was made to be a 10-year term specifically to help prevent partisan politics from infecting the critical post.
Comey’s termination was ghastly in appearance (and substance, for that matter) – the “optics” terrible, to use today’s dreadful vernacular. Afterwards, the White House attempted to float a few tepid alternate justifications, before ultimately abandoning such pretenses altogether and flatly admitting Comey was fired to shut down the investigation, which had been gathering steam and dominating headlines of late. (We already know how much Trump loathes that – a narrative, not of his making, making headlines). A few days before, we’ve now learned, Comey had requested additional resources for the investigation, and was devoting a greater portion of his time and attention to it.
This was it then – our democracy’s Rubicon. An act so egregious, so outside the bounds of acceptable political conduct in our democratic government, that the time had finally come for Republicans to realize Trump had gone too far.
Bookend One – No Bridge Too Far
I knew by nightfall Tuesday that Comey’s termination created a justifiable opportunity for those (however many) remaining Republicans in Congress – those not so wrapped around Trump or utterly devoid of principle to even bother to look back – to get off the train, call for an independent investigation, and start taking this country back. I have long suspected that a number of congressional Republicans were uneasy with Trump (at least) but were otherwise steamrollered into silence and fearful of getting picked off one-by-one and primaried if they spoke out too soon.
But this? Firing Comey, surely, was a bridge too far.
By mid-morning Wednesday, we had our answer. The GOP had weighed in and enough was apparently not enough. There were a few sternly-worded expressions of concern over this “troubling” news, but no calls from Republicans for an independent investigation or prosecutor, or any actual condemnation at all. Zero. A few (e.g., McConnell, Grassley) were downright offensive in their dismissiveness of the issue.
In the face of prima facie obstruction of justice (!) the GOP hypocrisy in the lack of any congressional response was so thick you could choke on it or wish they would. Yet there it was. Not one Republican got off the Trump train.
All aboard the Trump Train. The GOP was all in, with no further stops scheduled. If the GOP wouldn’t abandon ship in the face of blatant obstruction of justice, then they were effectively complicit in the whole mess, with no turning back. Bookend One was fully constructed by mid-day.
Bookend Two – Hosting Spies in the Oval
The other bookend that sealed May 10 as the day democracy fell, was the White House hosting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and surprise guest star, Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
We return again to appearances, and the optics of this meeting were terrible. On Tuesday, Trump fired Comey to shut down an investigation into his ties to Russia and then the very next day he hosts a meeting with two high-level representatives of the Russian government? C’mon, man.
It’s worth noting the first Americans even knew that Kislyak (whose name somehow didn’t find its way onto the president’s schedule published the day before) was present in the Oval Office that morning was when the Russian Embassy published a photo on Twitter of Kislyak shaking hands with Trump. How on earth did they get it first? And what was Kislyak* doing there? He wasn’t on the schedule. Were we to understand this photo was taken that very day and was not some file photo? Of course, as we now know, the Russian Embassy had the photo first because they had the exclusive – all American press was banned from the room. Only the Russian State-run News Agency, Tass, was allowed inside during the event.
*Kislyak, of course, was the Russian whose contacts with Trump administration officials led to the firing of Mike Flynn and the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both for (purportedly) failing to disclose repeated contacts with Kislyak. Oopsies.
The brazenness of it all struck like a slap. Quite obviously, Trump didn’t care how it all looked, not to anyone. More than not caring how it looked, he was actually rubbing it in all our faces. Trump calls the Russia investigation fake news, then meets with two top Russian
spies diplomats, in the Oval Office no less, ignoring along the way the whole protocol optics of rank and locale.
Brazen, in a word. Brazen with a dash of arrogant power-swagger. Trump was strutting.
We now see that our president* is the kind of guy who, knowing he’s under investigation for improper ties to Russia, invites two Russian
spies diplomats into the Oval Office along with Russian State News organization Tass, while excluding the entire U.S. press corps.
Frankly, I don’t think that cocky, pseudo-clever little stunt has received sufficient news coverage in the days since. That was flat-out outrageous, six ways to Sunday. I’ve let that prickly little burr tumble around in my head for a couple of days now, and the galling affront still rankles. Yes, we heard right: State Russian News Tass was reporting from INSIDE OUR OVAL OFFICE (!), while the American press is excluded. All this taking place the day after he fired the agent in charge of the investigation looking into Russian ties. That should deeply offend all Americans.
We should be offended, yes. But we should also recognize that icy chill of fear running down our spine. Because here again, Trump appears to be blind to or willfully ignorant of how that will be perceived. It’s so over the top, though, that it would seem impossible not to recognize how it would look. Far more likely it was arranged specifically for the optics, because of how it would look.
(In fact, it has now been reported by the White House that no less than Putin himself made the request to have the meeting take place in the Oval Office, during a recent telephone call with Trump. Putin doubtlessly knew full well what kind of a message it would send. Putin intended to offend, and to demonstrate the extent of his reach. “America, I am in your inner sanctum, and I want you to know it.” To that extent, I suppose he may have been disappointed by the brief coverage it ultimately received.)
Americans saw their first images of Trump’s meeting in the Oval Office with two Russians widely reputed to have dual roles as Russian diplomats and spy-runners/intelligence officers from Tass. JFC. I’m not willing to pretend he was unaware of how that would look. Certainly not if you expand the circle to any of his close advisors who could have mentioned it when scheduling.
Brazen. It wasn’t casual disregard. It was sending a message. The message said: “Since I fired Comey, you now know without a doubt there’s teeth to Trump/Russia. I, Donald J. Trump, am inappropriately connected to a foreign sovereign, Russia. In fact, while I’m under investigation for my ties to Russia, I am going to meet a couple of high-level Russians (including at least one known target of the investigation, and a long-suspected intelligence officer) in the White House, in the Oval Office. Oh, and I’m going to exclude the American press from that meeting and let the Russian State News Agency handle the coverage. Now, what are you going to do about it?”
That’s the nub exactly: What are we going to do about it? One of an authoritarian’s go-to moves is to constantly press and test the boundaries of his authority, and to push those boundaries ever outward. (We saw Trump pull this several times during the campaign.) Each time the answer in response is “not much,” the authoritarian’s authority reaches a little further, his grip draws a little tighter.
So indeed, brazen. Donald Trump is brazenly hijacking our democracy right before our eyes.
What then is today’s GOP going to do about it? Holding the majority in both houses, they’re the only party with the power to actually do something concrete. Are they as bold in their patriotic outrage as Trump is brazen in his flagrant disregard for our democratic norms? Yes well, not so much.
Today’s GOP is so far gone – so tethered to the Trump train – that they’re all in for whatever depravity will allow them to retain power, be that colluding with a hostile foreign sovereign just recently confirmed as interfering with our democratic elections, or deeply cynical, bald-face lying to the American people, or treason. All of it.
The bookends of the GOP’s deafening morning silence and that Russian-Spies-in-the-Oval-Dog-and-Pony Show with Kislyak, et al. bracket the day Wednesday. Not just any day.
Mark your calendars. May 10, 2017: The day democracy fell.