In a world rife with despotism and tyranny, the United States enjoys a democratic form of government. Laws apply equally to all; citizens are allowed active participation through free and fair elections; individual human rights are zealously protected; and, in contrast to a dictatorship, the people can control their leaders through a representative form of government and oust them without the need for a revolution.
Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the election results if he lost. He has proposed widening libel laws, deliberately curtailing the freedom of the press. He has vowed to ignore the First Amendment and ban Muslim immigrants, and to close mosques. He’s threatened to punish women and physicians who participate in abortions. He’s promised to turn the war on terror into an excuse to discriminate against people based on their religion, race and nationality. He’s refused to confront bigotry and violence perpetrated in his name. He threatened to “lock up” his opponent if elected, raising the possibility of using the office of the presidency to suppress reasonable dissent. And American foreign policy is already seen as a coming disaster throughout the free world.
We’ve never seen a president-elect who has shamelessly displayed so little interest in the workings of government; has no practical knowledge of our Constitution; and is indifferent toward the idea of equal protections under the law. He flouts political tradition and fervently rejects the role that common decency plays in our political systems. And, in the brief time that Trump has been president-elect, he’s already shown that he will mix his business affairs with his activities as president, giving foreign governments and commercial enterprises the opportunity to influence American policy by currying favor with him through his business empire.
There are relatively few means of stopping an authoritarian president like Donald Trump from violating the Constitution and getting away with it. The executive branch of government controls the two most strategic assets needed to run roughshod over the populace—the military and federalized law enforcement agencies, including these behemoths: The Department of Justice; the Internal Revenue Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Department of Homeland Security; Customs and Border Protection; the Secret Service; and the Central Intelligence Agency.
In our fragile democracy, the only brake on the tyrannical exercise of power is public opinion. Ominously, recent polls suggest that the American public has never been as skeptical of democracy or as open to authoritarian alternatives, like military rule, as it is right now. If President Trump challenged our system of checks and balances today, I believe that a large percentage of the public would probably stand behind him.
Many presidents throughout history have pushed the limits of their authority, and some have even overstepped it. But, until Trump, they all had a working knowledge of the Constitution and a willingness to embrace it. They were all willing to subordinate their immediate self-interests in favor of the rule of law. Even Richard Nixon, probably the biggest crook to occupy the White House, eventually resigned when Congress moved to impeach him. It is not certain that Donald Trump would do the same.
Sure, there have been conflicts between branches of government, particularly concerning the presidency and the Supreme Court. But Trump may now have the opportunity to pack the Court with like-minded devotees. What if a President Trump decided to punish the New York Times or the Washington Post, imposing harsh fines or threatening jail time for incalcitrant reporters who told truths he could not tolerate?
President-elect Trump is now in the process of filling over 4,000 strategic government jobs with loyalists. Knowing what you now know of his willingness to lie and deceive, would you consider it beyond him to pressure bureaucrats to engage in illegal activities? And what if President Trump ordered the Pentagon to kill the families of terrorists, or to engage in interrogation techniques that have unequivocally been defined as torture? Would senior officers refuse to carry out his illegal orders, forcing an unprecedented constitutional crisis?
As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Trump holds the cards. If military officers resign, he has the constitutional authority to promote his own cronies. Should they refuse to follow his orders, he could fire them. The military might be weakened and the public outraged, but his orders would eventually be carried out.
There is a very long tradition in this country of believing that a well-regulated system of checks and balances can ensure the stability of democracy and guarantee the rights of its citizens. I’m not so sure anymore.
Republicans have worked assiduously over the last decade to end the reality of free and fair elections. They have successfully contaminated the process to enable a demagogue such as Trump to be elected president.
Let’s not look back at the first 20 years of the 21st century as the time when our democracy died. And it surely will die unless we refuse to follow Trump’s lead indiscriminately; unless we speak out against injustice; and unless we reject his ideological fervor and combat his ignorance. Above all, we must not retreat into sheltered communities, fearful of taking a stand!
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