HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE
The Year of Living Dangerously is a 1982 film set in Indonesia in 1965, during the lead-up to a violent military coup. It stars Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver,
Welcome to 2018 and our democracy’s own, very different year of living dangerously. Congressional Republicans increasingly cave to Donald Trump, in ways political scientists identify with how democracies die. Our creeping institutional decay includes moves to potentially prosecute the president’s perceived enemies: the Clintons over a matter for which they were already exonerated and a respected former British intelligence officer who wrote a damaging dossier about Trump.
Against this backdrop, so much hinges on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and on whether the Democrats can stymie Trump by winning the House or Senate come November.
And so much can go so wrong in the meantime, including:
A SUCCESSFUL SATURDAY NIGHT MASSACRE
Given Mueller’s existential threat to Trump’s presidency, and to his and his family’s finances and even freedom, it’s increasingly likely that Trump could dump Mueller in a matter akin to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre”: On October 20, 1973, Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than obeying Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox; Solicitor General Robert Bork finally did the dirty work. Trump can similarly order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller (since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from matters pertaining to the Russia investigation), and fire Rosenstein and other Department of Justice officials until he finds one willing to do the deed.
Though the move backfired politically for Nixon, for Trump it could succeed: He has a Republican-controlled Congress that appears ready to dismiss Mueller’s alleged “witch hunt” and accept his dismissal.
DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
Dumping Mueller is not the only way to undermine him. If Trump fires Sessions or Rosenstein, he could appoint a subservient replacement to oversee and frustrate Mueller’s work and trigger any number of budgetary, political or bureaucratic obstacles for the investigation – death by a thousand cuts, if you will.
Trump could exercise his presidential pardon power for associates currently or potentially charged with any crimes. A key precedent here is President Gerald Ford’s preemptive 1974 pardon of Nixon.
This would not necessarily allow all Trump associates to skate away scot-free. Trump’s pardon power only embraces federal offenses. Given how much questionable activity took place in New York City, Trump’s corporate and campaign headquarters, (Democratic) New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman could charge them under state law for some offenses. There’s also the under-examined question of whether a pardon itself could constitute a criminal activity, if it were granted with the corrupt intent of obstructing justice. Still, at the very least such pardons could gum up the wheels of justice and free some associates of culpability for crimes lacking a New York link.
RALLY ROUND THE FLAG
Remember how George W. Bush’s popularity spiked after 9/11? Trump could benefit in the same way if there were another major attack on U.S. soil or interests, or if we went to war, or if he were able to exploit some unforeseen international crisis.
We need not assume that Trump would intentionally instigate such an incident – though neither need we assume that he’s above doing so. Regardless, given his bluster and blundering, an unintended war with North Korea could explode from a series of mutual missteps. Or a war with Iran would well fit into Trump’s narrative about the threat it supposedly constitutes for our country.
As we saw with Bush and Iraq, rallying around the flag does not necessarily last forever. But it could last long enough to help Republicans keep control of Congress in 2018 or to re-elect Trump in 2020. And it could help them sweep aside the Mueller probe.
Let’s say Mueller’s investigation, superb journalism or other favorable forces turn the political tide against Trump and the Republicans this November. Who’s to say that will translate into the Democrats winning either house of Congress? Ever heard of gerrymandering? Voter suppression? The 2016 presidential election? A party can win more overall votes and still lose under our electoral system.
TURNING THE CORNER
Fortunately, not all is doom and gloom. Several potentially converging paths could make 2018 the year we turn the corner on this national nightmare if: our judicial system steps up with independence and integrity; Mueller or press revelations drive some Republicans to take on Trump; an economic downturn or unforeseen development craters his support; massive protests reverse efforts to decapitate Mueller’s investigation; we unite to save our democracy rather than bitterly fight over otherwise important policy disputes; and, if some of these paths come to pass, an electoral tidal wave overwhelms Republicans’ electoral shenanigans.
In the alternative, our year of living dangerously could become our permanent state of affairs.