Last week, my colleague Al Fonzi claimed that my questioning whether our constitutional democracy would survive President Trump’s authoritarianism was “absurd in the extreme.” Mr. Fonzi offered two points to try and substantiate his claim: 1) the Trump administration has largely obeyed a federal court’s rejection of his latest reformulation to limit immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and 2) we are not yet experiencing massive food shortages or knocks on the door from secret police in the middle of the night.
Of course, my question would be meaningless if we were already in a situation like Venezuela. We are not. My question is how far will we let it go? Perhaps Mr. Fonzi is under the delusion that constitutional democracy is a set of self-correcting mechanisms, but as conservative author David Frum articulated so clearly last January in his Atlantic essay, “How to Build an Autocracy,” the operation of our institutions “depends upon the competence and integrity of those charged with executing [the law].”
One need only look at what the president’s team has already done to undermine congressional checks on executive authority to see how he has diminished our democracy. White House staff revealed classified information to House Intelligence Committee Chair (and Cal Poly grad) Devin Nunes, who then publicly briefed the contents back to the White House, claiming that he had new information regarding the committee’s investigation into how cooperative Trump’s campaign team was with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Nunes eventually had to recuse himself, but not before attacking “left-wing activist groups” for filing complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics.
President Trump and congressional surrogates have thus already achieved their goal: They have corrupted the investigative process by framing it as partisan wrangling. This corruption feeds the president’s conspiratorial narrative, not just the outlandish claim (refuted by the FBI) that President Obama personally tapped his phones, but the very idea of truth and ethical judgment. “There is no truth here,” reads this narrative, “only competing attempts to grab power,” and, “everybody does it.” And as Frum goes on to say, “people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed.”
Perhaps Mr. Fonzi’s faith lies not in Congress, but with those exalted guardians of democracy, the free press? Nowhere have we seen President Trump’s authoritarian venom spew so pungently as when directed at the press. While he (jokingly?) promised, “I would never kill them,” in a monologue about how much he “hates” reporters at a December rally, this February, his corruption of their work reached a peak. “You are dishonest people,” he claimed at his longest press conference to date, reminding supporters that “the news is fake” and that reporters are “insulting.” He followed up with the notorious tweet that “The FAKE NEWS media (New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
Again, the president delegitimizes attempts by reporters to hold him accountable by blurring the line between professional journalism and partisan hackery. Perhaps Mr. Fonzi does not see that to achieve this, President Trump does not need to physically intimidate the press or censor them, rather he calls the entire institution into question, the very idea of independent judgment. Moreover, the president doesn’t need the rallies and supporters on the streets that autocrats of the past relied on; he has a smartphone and a Twitter handle. He has armies of trolls on the internet to do his intimidating, enough to compel some reporters, including Megyn Kelly, to quit Twitter or hire guards.
As I write on Easter morning, President Trump is using Twitter to call for investigations into protests across the country, reminding us that “The Election is Over!” He insists that protesters oppose the election results; it’s just partisan politics, and everybody is lying. In fact, protesters want to see his tax returns, as an act of integrity followed by every president since Jimmy Carter. But this president has no use for integrity.
Worse, this corruption from above inevitably leads to corruption within. Even thoughtful, good people like Al Fonzi find themselves unwitting surrogates of a president they did not initially support. Fonzi now parrots the same paranoia against “leftist” professors (can you think of a less politically relevant group?) and “leftist mobs” beating old women and children. He is joining Trump, and Nixon before him, with the motto: “The press is the enemy, the establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy.” This culture of cynicism, of questioning the existence of truth and public integrity, is slowly but surely replacing a democratic culture that has taken centuries to grow.
We must vigilantly resist authoritarianism at the national level, at the local level, and within our own sensibilities.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to the editor at email@example.com.