My Turn: Is our democracy approaching the tipping point?

For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 27, 2017

I am an optimist by nature. I favor scenarios that herald the better angels of our nature. I believe that we Americans must, sooner or later, find common ground on issues like the well-being of our children, the health of our planet, and the need for compromise in solving our problems. I stand in contrast to friends who fear the worst – a rapid descent from democracy into dictatorship, around the world and here at home.

Lately, as the narcissistic and irascible tendencies of President Trump continue to manifest, as those in his own party fall in behind him in slavish obeisance, I open my ears to voices whom I respect who call out that we are indeed in peril. It may be time to recalibrate, to prepare ourselves for the worst – an end to our democracy.

The basis of this nightmare scenario – one which I have hitherto recoiled against and still hope we can prevent, but which I feel we now must steel ourselves with vigilance to resist – is the blatant lying that surrounds so many of Trump’s actions. In this scenario:

Amid an unrelenting attack on so-called “fake news” by President Trump, the right-wing media, fearing new revelations by the Special Prosecutor, continues to smear Robert Mueller. Trump interprets this as proof of national loss of confidence and fires Mueller. But when only Democrats in Congress react, along with liberal citizen groups demanding impeachment, the country witnesses street clashes similar to last summer’s white supremacist confrontation in Charlottesville.

Trump trumpets on, alienating our closest allies (Britain, France, Germany and Japan, along with almost all nations, voted against his Jerusalem gambit in the U.N.). Such isolation stimulates his paranoia, the fear of being an international “loser.” He clings ever more tightly to a shrinking base of supporters who, like those who championed the pedophile Roy Moore in Alabama, are willing to sacrifice their deepest principles to “win.”

As Trump’s approval ratings continue to drift downward, despite (or because of) his much-heralded tax plan, it becomes clear that he has traded in his “populist” garb for the raiment of the titans of commerce and the ultra-rich. Fearing further loss of popularity, he decides to do something dramatic to swing the voters behind him: he prepares go to war with North Korea or Iran.

Such a disaster, or the threat of it, stimulates even more rallies in opposition to Trump. In the chaos that ensues, and leaning on the argument that he alone can guarantee public safety in a time of impending war, Trump declares martial law and suspends rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. All hell breaks loose, and in fear of a breakdown of society, Congress appoints a military general to rule alongside Trump.

Several months, even weeks, ago, I would have dismissed this scenario as far-fetched.

Today I’m not so sure. Yascha Mounk, writing an op-ed in the New York Times, reminds us that the Fox News host Jesse Watters recently charged that “Mr. Mueller’s investigation aims to ‘destroy’ the Trump presidency ‘for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters ... We have a coup on our hands in America’.”

Mounk continues, “This marks a new era in American politics. The Republican Party is no longer just obfuscating the truth or defending the president when he is accused of wrongdoing. Rather, Mr. Trump, Fox News and Republicans in Congress seem to be actively using falsehoods to prepare an assault on the institutions that allow American democracy to function. ... And it is increasingly becoming obvious that it will serve a clear purpose: to prepare the ground for egregious violations of basic democratic norms.

Masha Gessen, writing in the New Yorker, points out that the worst part of the new tax bill are the boldfaced lies that have been told by Trump and Mnuchin about the bill. “Trump has scored a legislative victory at staggering costs. The price of the tax bill has to be measured not only in the loss American society will face in the increase in inequality, in the impact on public health, and the growth of the deficit, but also in the damage to political culture inflicted by the spectacle of one powerful man after another telling lies of various sorts ... The President’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, maintained that his department had run the numbers and had shown that the tax bill would pay for itself. It appears that he lied, not so much about the result of the Treasury’s study but about the existence of the study itself: the Times reported last month that the analysis had not been done.”

The point here is that, while all politicians lie in one fashion or another, we have never before seen such a wholesale abandonment of the truth by our Chief Executive and his doting (or cowed) Republican colleagues, who come to the podium to praise him in obsequious tributes reserved for dictators or potentates. Trump seems to take his cue from the growing ranks of anti-democratic world leaders, in Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, Poland – and, of course, in Russia.

My question to we who shake our heads in bewilderment at the ever-worsening political climate that surrounds us is: Have we reached the tipping point, where our democracy hangs in the balance? And what can we do to prevent this? My question to all who continue to support President Trump is: What more will it take before you accept that this man is quite possibly – and perhaps gleefully – leading us into dictatorship?


(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at rob.fried@gmail.com.)