Oct 7th 2019

Our Democracy in Crisis?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

 

I don't know which metaphor to use to describe the current crisis in our politics because so many come to mind. Are we at a tipping point? The edge of a cliff? Or sitting on a volcano waiting for it to explode? You can choose one or all, because we are in a place we've never been before and it's dangerous.    

The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.  

When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  

They finally settled on Clinton's lying about an embarrassing sexual dalliance as the grounds for impeachment. What was most notable about this entire sordid affair was the total contempt demonstrated by this new breed of Republicans for Clinton. It wasn't political. It was personal. They weren't out to defeat his proposed legislation. They didn’t see him as a legitimate president and sought to destroy him.  

Later, during the months' long standoff that accompanied the 2000 election, culminating in the Supreme Court decision that George Bush should was the winner, my brother John Zogby conducted poll in which he asked Democratic and Republican voters whether or not, should the other side win, would they feel that new president be considered a "legitimate president." The results were disturbing; despite the fact that Al Gore had won the popular vote and the outcome was still being decided, a significant majority of Republicans said they would not accept Gore as a legitimate president. A majority of Democrats, on the other hand, said that should Bush be declared the winner, they would respect the outcome.  

Bush, unlike Clinton, did not face retribution from the Democratic controlled Senate.  They passed his tax cuts, compromised on a series of domestic initiatives, and rallied behind him after 9/11, giving him the authorization to make war and unprecedented powers of intrusive domestic surveillance. It wasn't Democrats who sunk Bush's presidency, it was his failed war in Iraq, his disastrous mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic collapse.  

Within weeks of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Republicans stepped up efforts to obstruct and delegitimize his presidency. The GOP's minority leadership in the House and Senate boldly declared that their intention was not to work with him but "to bring him down" by funding outside and organizing outside groups, like the Tea Party and the "birther movement." Never before had leaders in one major party been engaged in such a campaign to question whether the president was even a legal US citizen. And their efforts took a toll. In polling conducted back then, well over 60% of Republicans stated that they believed the Obama was not born in the US - and therefore was not a legitimate president (the same number also said they believed that Obama was secretly a Muslim, therefore lying about being a Christian). 

While Obama's presidency was above reproach in that he was never charged with any wrongdoing. His first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was hounded by Republican Congressional committees who accusing her of concealing and deleting her private email account hide it from investigators. She was subjected to hours of interrogated by Congressmen who charged that she failed to protect the US Ambassador to Libya, contributing to his death. While one might say that the email inquiry was a legitimate concern – despite the fact that several of Clinton’s predecessors also had such personal accounts – the contempt Congress demonstrated in charging her with contributing to the death of the Ambassador was clearly an effort to harass, humiliate, and degrade her service.     

This lack of respect and civility brought us to the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump.  

During the primary, Trump demeaned his opponents, railed against the media, insulted the courts, preyed on xenophobic fears, and incited his supporters to use violence against protesters. His behavior was so outrageous that pundits declared him to be "unpresidential" and unelectable. They failed to recognize that the political well had been so poisoned that what they found unacceptable was well received by many Republican voters were fed a steady diet of incivility and contempt for "the other" over two decades. The beast spawned by the GOP in the 1990s had come of age and was now devouring them.  

Those who thought that Trump would act presidential upon entering the Oval Office soon found they were in error. He had honed his skills as an entertainer along the lines of an insulting Don Rickles or a derisive Rodney Dangerfield. It served him well on the campaign trail, and he was, therefore, not inclined to change direction. Instead, he became Trump-the-performer on steroids.  

It has been a difficult two and a half years with this president. He delivered the tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judges the conservative and religious wings craved. And he kept his supporters agitated and entertained. The danger is that, on the fringes of his base, he energized white supremacy movements by inflaming passions of racism and xenophobia. Federal law enforcement now feels that the greatest threat to national security is not from foreign-inspired extremist movements, but domestic extremists.  

At the same time, President Trump has demonstrated contempt for Congress and the rule of law, leading some Democrats to call for his impeachment. His firing of officials who were investigating members of his administration, his refusal to cooperate with legitimate requests from Congress into his behavior in office, the lack of transparency surrounding his businesses’ profits made during his time in office, and violations of congressionally approved budget authorizations to fund his pet projects, have all been subjects of concern.  

In each instance, he has responded with insults, derision, and contempt, questioning the very legitimacy of those who oppose him – Congress, the FBI, the media, or the courts. And he has used Twitter and rallies to make his case and inflame his base. At times, it appeared that President Trump was even goading Democrats into taking steps to impeach him.  

While the base of the Democratic Party was clamoring for impeachment, the leadership hesitated, fearing that it was a trap that Trump wanted them to fall into in order to mobilize his supporters. With the release of a CIA whistleblower’s report claiming that the president sought to suborn Ukraine’s government into investigating the leading Democratic presidential candidate, thereby helping to advance his election prospects, and evidence that he had withheld aid to Ukraine to encourage their support for his request – the tide turned and the Democratic leadership had no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. All of this has only further inflamed Trump as his intense twitter rants and his shocking performance in the presence of the President of Finland made all too clear.  

When earlier this week, Trump tweeted a comment by a right-wing preacher saying that should he be impeached, it would provoke a civil war – it was a prediction/threat I believe should be taken seriously. President Trump’s behavior has mimicked that of authoritarian leaders. He has demonstrated that he will strike back with fury at opponents. And he has so agitated his base, that I believe there is a real concern for violence. I am even concerned that should he lose the election in 2020, neither he nor many of his most fervent followers will accept the outcome.  

Back to where I began. I’m don’t know which metaphor is most appropriate to describe the very real crisis facing our democracy, but what I do know is that it is, to be sure, a crisis.

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Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."