In a recent op ed in The Washington Post Hungarian scholar, Miklos Haraszti, has suggested that our United States Constitution, because it is hard to change, might provide a check against the rise of an authoritarian regime in this country. But Haraszti isn’t seriously hopeful. He rather means, I think, to warn Americans about what is at stake in the rise of the cult of Trump.
The world is looking at the United States now in a way that we never thought would be possible: fretting that the “deals” of its new president will make the world’s first democracy more similar to that of the others. I wish we onlookers could help the Americans in making the most out of their hard-to-change Constitution. We still are thankful for what they gave to the world, and we will be a bit envious if they can stop the fast-spreading plague of national populism.
But what if Trump is able simply to shrug off constitutional restraint as he seems to be doing now with the emoluments clause? Who will hold him accountable? His election and the associated takeover of much of the machinery of governance in this country by a newly authoritarian Republican party (and I speak here of state legislatures and governorships as well as the national congress, much of our system of courts, and perhaps the Supreme Court) threatens not only our multicultural democracy as I have argued elsewhere, but also threatens systematically to undermine our federal system. We should have seen this when Republicans repeatedly shut our government down. We should have seen it when they refused to fund necessary infrastructure spending, as our highways, bridges, waterways, and systems of land-management deteriorated, perhaps beyond repair. We should have seen it when Republicans refused to support our armed services and veterans, indeed privatized much of our military, all the while proclaiming their patriotism. We should have seen it when they refused to confirm President Obama’s nominees to key federal posts and when they refused even to consider the president’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
But if we didn’t see the threat to federalism in these things, we should certainly have seen it in the Republican destruction of New Orleans and much of the State of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. Naomi Klein provides an instructive window into that destruction in the opening section of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, as she describes the talk at a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
The news racing around the shelter that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a “smaller, safer city”— which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of “fresh starts” and “clean sheets,” you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.
Destruction of Louisiana was continued by Governor Bobby Jindal, who was ultimately defeated, but much of it remains. At the center of it was the economic gospel of Milton Friedman, whose devastation of both nature and culture Klein documents around the world. According to Friedman disaster provides economic opportunity, as in New Orleans whose school privatization Friedman praised at the end of his career. And sometimes, if God doesn’t clear the slate for Friedman-style entrepreneurship, it may be permissible or even necessary for humans to undertake the task. Autocracy will be a condition of necessary economic reform, since people will hardly vote to destroy their livelihoods in a democratic socialist state. Friedman’s complicity in the excesses of the Pinochet regime in Chile are among many things that have tarnished his reputation as a humanitarian.
We might have seen a threat to federalism in the Kansas Legislature’s attempt to destroy a state supreme court that thwarted its design to defund the state’s public schools. Ultimately the people of Kansas restrained Governor Brownback and the Legislature, whose attempt to subvert the law was made clear by public interest groups. But Kansas remains a state in which Republican rule seeks the destruction of the public sector and establishment of autocracy. So, with North Carolina, whose recently elected Democratic governor’s powers have been usurped by a Republican General Assembly, meeting in special session called before the former Republican governor left office. North Carolina’s voter suppression law was struck down in federal court and the decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. The State’s extreme gerrymandering was also struck down in federal court, but a recent Supreme Court order has suspended the special elections ordered by the lower court’s decision, pending appeal.
We might have seen a threat to federalism in the multiplication of voter suppression laws around the country designed to perpetuate Republican rule and support authoritarian regimes throughout the Midwest, and in the Supreme Court’s casuistic gutting of voting rights and campaign finance legislation. As I write this Republicans are designing total repeal of the Affordable Care Act which President Elect Trump, in defiance of fact, the medical profession, the majority of American voters, and even the insurance industry, claims to have been a disaster for too long. What is trending here is a state of affairs in which the governed are deprived of the constitutional means to withdraw consent from their governors. Some millions of citizens may be deprived of health insurance as well if the ACA is repealed, and that’s only the beginning if Republicans act on the intentions of some to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In some cases the Republicans’ determination to commit destruction and throttle dissent proceeds with desperate glee and an unabashed mean-spiritedness that borders on joy. An Iowa legislator terms an attempt to deprive college students of benefits he thinks are excessive the “suck it up buttercup” bill. A Missouri legislator gleefully introduces legislation to deprive university faculties of tenure claiming the practice is un-American, no matter its venerability. A former student tweets, “Liberal tears bring me so much joy.”
What seems to be driving the trend is a combination of toxic belief in certain fundamentalisms: the prosperity gospel, the economics of Hayek and Friedman, white supremacy, economic nationalism (which in some ways conflicts with Hayek and Friedman), the social pathologies we saw on display at the Trump rallies, hatred of liberalism and its institutions including schools and universities, nostalgia for a small-town or rural past with its ethnic inequities and tensions erased, etc., but the political dissolution of the modern liberal state is an international phenomenon that is only partly understood. I think Tony Judt made a good beginning in Ill Fares The Land, but he didn’t live to complete the work. Be that as it may, we Americans have legitimately elected a strongman. We may also have given him the means to perpetuate himself in office if he desires to do so. He isn’t Hitler, who was never elected, but he already exhibits many of the inclinations of other authoritarians who have become well-nigh unimpeachable dictators. I’ve mentioned Pinochet. The Italian, Berlusconi, comes to mind as well. Berlusconi was finally unsuccessful as a politician, and he wasn’t the mass murderer Pinochet was. But he did a good deal of damage, and he is often mentioned as a parallel to Trump, particularly with respect to his corruption, his fights with media, and his flamboyant style. The constitution cannot protect us if Trump decides to shrug it off and the congress does not intervene. Given Both Trump and the present congress’s thuggish predilections, it seems far more likely to me that Trump will shrug off the constitution than that congress will act to restrain him.
I conclude at the end of these thoughts that regardless of the strength our constitution has exhibited over the past 227 years we may be facing a crisis that puts our system at peril as it has never before been imperiled. In the final analysis that system rests as much upon good will as it does upon law and tradition. By good will I don’t mean what political fashion sometimes terms Kumbaya-ism. I mean rather the ability to determine the right thing on the basis of established norms and practices—and then to do it. I mean the ability to discern and preserve the good of the whole community. These are things we stand to lose, may already have lost, in the age of Trump.