Reading "How Democracies Die" right now is akin to watching a scary movie at home by yourself, then hearing what sounds like footsteps in the kitchen. I'm terrified at what could happen, yet ignoring the danger isn't an option.
The authors of How Democracies Die, Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are Harvard professors who, according to the book jacket, "have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America."
They consider that our American democracy is in danger -- from President Trump and his willing Republican co-conspirators. I've only finished three chapters of their book, but what I've read so far is deeply disturbing.
This morning I read a chapter called "The Great Republican Abdication." It contains a table that lists four key indicators of authoritarian behavior, with specific examples of each behavior. The authors say:
With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century. As Table 2 shows, Donald Trump met them all. No other major presidential candidate in modern U.S. history, including Nixon, has demonstrated such a weak public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms. Trump was precisely the kind of figure that had haunted Hamilton and other founders when they created the American presidency.
Given everything that Trump has done during his first year in office, these indicators of authoritarian behavior have only gotten worse since Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote their book. Again, the example(s) following each indicator are criteria that the authors believe Trump has met.
1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from participation in the political arena?
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
Have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it?
Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of political violence, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?
4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media
Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic or political organizations?
Have they threatened to take legal or other punitive action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media?
Have they praised repressive measures taken by other governments, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?
The Trump scariness of the day is that he's authorized the release of the secret Republican Nunes memo over the objections of the FBI director and his deputy, both of whom are Trump appointees.
A Washington Post story talks about how unusual a move this is. But what's happening fits perfectly with the theme of Trump and his Republican cohorts being willing to trash our country's democratic institutions so they can hold on to power.
Just about everything around the release of the GOP memo alleging FBI wrongdoing in its Russia investigation is not normal.
It is not normal for a president to advocate for the release of classified information, nor is it normal for the FBI and the Justice Department to directly counter the president. It is definitely not normal for Congress to release classified information in the first place despite all this, especially about an investigation in the middle of said investigation.
That last part is the crux of the raging partisan fight behind this secret GOP memo that could be released as soon as Thursday. There are reasons to be skeptical of the memo, not the least of which is the FBI warning it is inaccurate. How the memo got put together behind closed doors could be another reason to question its motives. Former congressional staffers say Republicans are breaking with decades of tradition and common sense in how Congress handles classified information.
Conservative Post columnist Jennifer Rubin speaks even more bluntly about what's going on with the Nunes memo.
We cannot stress enough just how bizarre and outrageous is the Nunes scheme. FBI Director Christopher Wray, appointed by Trump, and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, also appointed by Trump, have warned the president that disclosure of the memo would do great damage to American national security. The FBI publicly has, in essence, said the Nunes memo is misleading.
And despite all that, the president plans to allow the release of the memo, which has one purpose only: to discredit and hobble the FBI and the Justice Department that are investigating the president. Bluntly put, Trump and Nunes surely seem to be acting with corrupt intent to taint the investigators in order to help Trump escape the legal and political consequences of possible wrongdoing.
So the time has passed for us to look upon Trump as a presidential eccentric, someone whose antics are annoying and despicable, but not genuinely dangerous. It seems increasingly clear that he's out to protect himself from Mueller's investigation, no matter what the cost is our democratic institutions.
We aren't headed for a dictatorship -- just something as close to this as is possible, given our system of government. I'm deeply worried, and I've still got six more chapters to read in How Democracies Die.