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Democracy under threat — this is how it happens

The Hill logo The Hill 6/13/2020 James Pardew, opinion contributor
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Democracy under threat — this is how it happens © Getty Images Democracy under threat — this is how it happens

I do not think Donald Trump ran for president to become a tyrant. He just comes by it naturally.

He prefers, it seems, to live in the moment, reacting to events rather than planning ahead. In office, he has shown no capacity for producing an effective strategy, nor has he had the organizational competence or political skills to achieve his legislative agenda. It is his overbearing personal style (think Twitter insults) and his reliance on raw instinct that seem to get things done for him - and that seem to move him toward authoritarianism.

Regardless of his intention, Trump is gradually unwinding basic components of American democracy in plain sight.

Crises, conspiracy theories and designated enemies are useful for national leaders seeking to justify measures to limit freedoms and to increase presidential power. Today, the pandemic, its associated economic decline and national demonstrations for justice play into the hands of those who want to consolidate national power in the White House.

The rise of authoritarianism has a relatively consistent pattern:

  • Present the designated leader as the only choice to solve national problems;
  • Paralyze the legislature and staff the government with pliable sycophants;
  • Patronize the wealthy elite until they are no longer needed;
  • Politicize and control national law enforcement, the courts, the national security structure and the professional bureaucracy;
  • Use government resources to promote the leader's personal political agenda;
  • Dominate the media;
  • Discredit or manipulate elections.

In three and a half years, Trump has done enormous damage to the national political culture and has consistently moved the country away from the rule of law, checks and balances and objective truth in government.

Trump surrounds himself with loyalists, many with marginal qualifications. He leads through a combination of fear and blind loyalty. Those who cross him are removed and humiliated. The "deep state" opposition within a cautious bureaucracy is a myth promoted by Trump and his loyalists.

The president - with his tax cuts and deregulation - has insured tremendous financial support for his campaign from many businessmen and wealthy elites.

Attorney General William Barr, who speaks and acts as if presidential power were virtually absolute, has proven to be the president's ardent defender within the Justice Department. Barr, who directs federal investigations and prosecutions, is undermining a legitimate counterintelligence investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election and Russia's potential relationship to a presidential campaign.

Trump has refused to cooperate with virtually every congressional investigation into any aspect of his presidency. Further, the courts have been slow to reach judgments on cases involving the president's refusal, including his refusal to reveal his taxes and information on finances. If the president effectively stops congressional investigations and the courts fail to hold a president accountable, the American system of checks and balances is dead.

Trump has been effective in using national resources to get his way. The impeachment investigation that was defeated on a party-line vote in December showed that Trump used tax dollars to try to induce a foreign leader to get dirt - or at least announce that he was investigating potential dirt - on Trump's political opponent. Domestically, federal resource allocation is often conditioned, not by legitimate needs, but by the expectation that recipients will publicly praise Trump for his support.

The president's latest and most troubling autocratic maneuver was the politicization of the American military. Thankfully, former top military officials openly criticized his use of the U.S military to violate the freedom of speech by peaceful demonstrators outside the White House on June 1. Later, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly reaffirmed their commitments to the Constitutional use of the American military.

The one bright spot against Trump's attempt to consolidate power is the constant, intrusive investigations of the established American press into administration decisions and actions.

From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has conducted a non-stop campaign to discredit any media outlet that challenges him. This campaign to slander the professional media has amplified the atmosphere of division in the nation, but has not stopped the media from investigating and reporting on the actions of government and holding it accountable to public scrutiny.

If the media safeguard ever falls, democracy cannot survive.

Trump is already positioning himself to challenge the November election if it does not go his way; he will likely disavow any close election that does not favor him. Only an overwhelming defeat would assure he'll not contest the results.

The threat of authoritarianism in the United States is not as absurd as it might seem. Democracy is fragile if the rule of law, constitutional checks and balances and media scrutiny slip away.

Should the nation gradually shift toward strongman rule, the country's democracy becomes like the proverbial frog in the saucepot - everything seems alright until it's too late: You're cooked. Since 2016, that process has gone farther than most would have imagined. It will continue if Trump is given four more years to play out his one-man government fantasy.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."

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