Not like we didn’t already know, but now it’s official. Matt Gaetz tried to get a blanket pardon out of Trump, not just for his role in the attempted coup and J-6 insurrection but for his sex crimes, ostensibly the investigation of sex trafficking charges but also the under-reported cases of his young “son”/lover, Nestor Galban, and, much earlier, of his murdered college roommate/lover. Not every Republican in Congress is exactly like Gaetz. But most of them are something like Gaetz in ways that transcend ideology and political alliances.
Trump didn’t grant him the pardon per se, but without Trump and his MAGA movement Gaetz would have been gone from Congress by now for sure and probably in prison. Is this the worst thing that has happened to this country since the Civil War? Worse than the Great Depression? Worst than World War II and the Cold War it spawned? Worse than the assassinations, riots, aggression is Southeast Asia and Richard Nixon? Many people think so. This morning David Leonhardt tried looking at it closely in an exhaustive NY Times piece about the threats to American Democracy. There is no context in which to put Trump and his ism; there is no precedent by which to examine what Leonhardt called the “most serious challenge to the country’s governing ideals in decades.”
Leonhardt examines two twin challenges that Trump poses. “The first threat is acute: a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties— the Republican Party— to refuse to accept defeat in an election… ‘There is the possibility, for the first time in American history, that a legitimately elected president will not be able to take office,’ said Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who studies democracy. The second threat to democracy is chronic but also growing: The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion. The run of recent Supreme Court decisions— both sweeping and, according to polls, unpopular— highlight this disconnect. Although the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees seems poised to shape American politics for years, if not decades. And the court is only one of the means through which policy outcomes are becoming less closely tied to the popular will. Two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote. Senators representing a majority of Americans are often unable to pass bills, partly because of the increasing use of the filibuster. Even the House, intended as the branch of the government that most reflects the popular will, does not always do so, because of the way districts are drawn. ‘We are far and away the most counter-majoritarian democracy in the world,’ said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University and a co-author of the book How Democracies Die.”
The acute threats to democracy— and the rise of authoritarian sentiment, or at least the acceptance of it, among many voters— have different causes. They partly reflect frustration over nearly a half-century of slow-growing living standards for the American working class and middle class. They also reflect cultural fears, especially among white people, that the United States is being transformed into a new country, more racially diverse and less religious, with rapidly changing attitudes toward gender, language and more.
The economic frustrations and cultural fears have combined to create a chasm in American political life, between prosperous, diverse major metropolitan areas and more traditional, religious and economically struggling smaller cities and rural areas. The first category is increasingly liberal and Democratic, the second increasingly conservative and Republican.
… ‘By any indication, the Republican Party— upper level, midlevel and grass roots— is a party that can only be described as not committed to democracy,” Levitsky said. He added that he was significantly more concerned about American democracy than when How Democracies Die came out in 2018.
Juan José Linz, a political scientist who died in 2013, coined the term “semi-loyal actors” to describe political officials who typically do not initiate attacks on democratic rules or institutions but who also do not attempt to stop these attacks. Through their complicity, these semi-loyal actors can cause a party, and a country, to slide toward authoritarianism.
That’s what happened in Europe in the 1930s and in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, it has happened in Hungary. Now there are similar signs in the United States.
Often, even Republicans who cast themselves as different from Trump include winking references to his conspiracy theories in their campaigns, saying that they, too, believe “election integrity” is a major problem. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, for example, have both recently campaigned on behalf of election deniers.
In Congress, Republican leaders have largely stopped criticizing the violent attack on the Capitol. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, has gone so far as to signal his support for colleagues— like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia— who have used violent imagery in public comments. Greene, before being elected to Congress, said that she supported the idea of executing prominent Democrats.
“When mainstream parties tolerate these guys, make excuses for them, protect them, that’s when democracy gets in trouble,” Levitsky said. “There have always been Marjorie Taylor Greenes. What I pay closer attention to is the behavior of the Kevin McCarthys.”
The party’s growing acceptance of election lies raises the question of what would happen if Trump or another future presidential nominee tried to replay his 2020 attempt to overturn the result.
…Trump’s most likely successors as party leader also make or tolerate false claims about election fraud. The movement is bigger than one person— and arguably always has been: Some of the efforts to make voting more onerous, which are generally justified with false suggestions of widespread voter fraud, predated Trump’s 2016 candidacy.
To believe that Republicans will not overturn a close presidential loss in coming years seems to depend on ignoring the public positions of many Republican politicians. “The scenarios by which we don’t have a major democracy crisis by the end of the decade seem rather narrow,” Mounk of Johns Hopkins said.
And Levitsky said, “It’s not clear how the crisis is going to manifest itself, but there is a crisis coming.” He added, “We should be very worried.”
… Over the sweep of history, the American government has tended to become more democratic, through women’s suffrage, civil rights laws, the direct election of senators and more. The exceptions, like the post-Reconstruction period, when Black Southerners lost rights, have been rare. The current period is so striking partly because it is one of those exceptions.
“The point is not that American democracy is worse than it was in the past,” Mounk said. “Throughout American history, the exclusion of minority groups, and African Americans in particular, was much worse than it is now.”
“But the nature of the threat is very different than in the past,” he said.
The makeup of the federal government reflects public opinion less closely than it once did. And the chance of a true constitutional crisis— in which the rightful winner of an election cannot take office— has risen substantially. That combination shows that American democracy has never faced a threat quite like the current one.