Democracy often doesn’t die in a big bang, instead it dies because of the breaking of norms and a slippery slope. In the past few years in the US, we have been witnesses to this degradation of norms. Many of the ways of doing things that used to be considered standard practice have been swept away by the Trump administration, and many more are in the danger of falling.
The US now has a president who is not above blackmailing a foreign leader in order to promote his own personal interest, something that would have been shocking to any observer of American politics just a few years ago. Donald Trump’s actions in that infamous phone call with the president of Ukraine have gone so far, that the US House of Representatives decided to start impeachment proceedings against the sitting US president. This has happened only 4 times in history.
At the end of 2019, Donald Trump became only the 3rd president to be impeached. This will forever stain his legacy, however more dangers are lurking ahead. The impeachment proceedings have passed onto the US Senate, which is controlled by the Republican Party, a party which in the past few years has become completely dominated by Donald Trump.
So far, the Senate leadership has refused to call any witnesses to testify. This despite bombshell evidence coming to light in recent days. Lev Parnas, one of Rudi Giuliani’s henchmen, not only produced detailed plans of what he was up to in Ukraine, but he directly implicated Donald Trump in all of this, including releasing the recordings of a tape where the president calls for the then US ambassador to Ukraine to be gotten rid of.
Trump’s defense team has been all over place, arguing that it was a perfect phone call, then that maybe that it wasn’t perfect, but no quid pro quo happened, and now it has changed its tune again. Apparently, even if what Trump did happened as described by the prosecution, it doesn’t matter. The president can do whatever he wants!
This statement came from none other than Alan Dershowitz, Harvard professor, and a prominent constitutional lawyer who had joined Trump’s defense team in the Senate only recently. Dershowitz went out on the Senate floor, and argued that a politician who is seeking re-election is acting in the national interest and can do whatever he wants in order to win.
These are his actual words:
“Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And mostly you’re right. Your election is in the public interest. And if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
Every authoritarian or dictator believes that they are acting in the national interest
In 2016, the Democracy Index, which is a democracy ranking run by the Economist Intelligence Unit, downgraded the US from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”. When words like this are pronounced on the floor of the country’s highest legislative body, there is no wondering why. What Dershowitz stated is what Vladimir Putin believes, what Nicolas Maduro believes, and what Kim Jung-Un, the former “rocket man” turned buddy, believes as well.
If this statement is legitimate, then any person seeking to get elected can cheat, steal, even murder. Frank Underwood from “The House of Cards” has been vindicated at last. All he did was in the national interest! If this argument flies, then we are headed for a slippery slope. Every authoritarian or dictator believes that whatever they do is in the national interest. After all, the state, that’s them!
This is how a Republic dies
The Founding Fathers of the United States were all men educated in the classics and studied history in order to learn from past wrong-doings. They tried to set up a Constitution that would be able to withstand the pressures of mob-rule, but also the rise of corrupt, power-hungry individuals. One of their main inspirations was what happened in ancient Rome, when the Roman Republic, a state that withstood the test of time for 500 years, slowly unraveled and finally collapsed in the last 100 years of its existence.
The writers of the Constitution put in place a complex system of checks and balances, as well as mechanisms in order to prevent worst case scenarios from happening. One of these was the procedure of impeachment. It was meant as an emergency break to stop a corrupt individual from damaging the democratic institutions of the American republic.
When guys like Jefferson and Hamilton were studying the end of the Roman Republic, they noticed several things that were instrumental in its fall. The masses got fooled by ambitious demagogues. These power-hungry individuals took advantage of the tough economic situation, and started chipping away at the norms. First it was simple things, like going around the Senate, but it ended up with the attitude that “the state is me” and I can do whatever I want.
At the end of the Roman Republic, you saw the conditions deteriorate. Looking at the complex interplay of factors, the Founding Fathers took away these key lessons:
- People who put their personal ambitions above the common good are dangerous.
- When those in power start going around the norms, you could be headed for a slippery slope.
- The people are easily fooled.
These lessons were further hammered in by their reading of the thoughts of some of the ancient world’s greatest thinkers. Cicero, argued that a republic is only as strong as the values that its leaders hold dear.
“Rome’s Republic in its morals and people stands.” This verse, both for its precision and its verity, appears to me as if it had issued from an oracle. It justly couples men and manners together, for neither the men, unless the state had adopted certain manners, nor the manners, unless illustrated by the men, could ever have established or maintained, for so many ages, so vast a dominion.”
The paradox was that in Cicero’s age, the leaders in Rome were all self-interested pompous men, who were thirsty for ultimate power. Guys like Pompey and Caesar thought that the laws did not apply to them, that they could do whatever they wanted. After all, it was in the national interest that they do.
Plutarch in his biography of Pompey has a quote of what this leader thought of the old Roman constitutional process.
“ Cease quoting laws to us that have swords!”
Now compare this to the attitude that Dershowitz portrays in his statement:
“A complex middle case is ‘I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was and if I’m not elected, the national interest will suffer greatly.’ That cannot be an impeachable offense.”
What we are witnessing now is akin to what was happening in the dying days of the Roman Republic. Not only has the Republican Party and its supporters fused with Trump, basically becoming the same entity, some advocates of the current US president are actually trying to create the equation that Trump is the United States. Following this argument, he can do no wrong, because whatever is in his interest is also in the interest of the country.
This has now become beyond Republican versus Democrat, the future of the country itself is at stake
This has now become an issue beyond Republicans and Democrats. The future of the United States of America as a republic and a democracy is at stake. When Richard Nixon stated that a President cannot commit a crime, he was laughed out of the room, and both parties united in their resolve to kick him out of office.
The situation is no different now. In fact, it might be even worse. Nixon’s crimes and acts in office pale in comparison to what we have witnessed from Donald Trump. Yet, the Republicans in the Senate are more concerned about keeping their seat than doing what is right.
This type of attitude also characterized the Roman Senate in the chaotic days of the last century of the Roman Republic. The senators of different factions would routinely try to block their rivals, not out of a sense of duty, but just because they wanted to keep their own influence.
At that time, certain individuals arose who tried to maximize their power at the expense of their rivals. First it was Marius and Sulla, then later it was Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and it ended when Octavian defeated Marc Antony and declared himself the first Emperor of Rome. All these individuals believed that they could do whatever they wanted.
This is what Donald Trump believes as well and what he has stated on numerous occasions. Trump has argued that Article II gives him the right to do whatever he wants:
“I have the right to do whatever I want.”
Donald Trump has not been hesitant in pushing the boundaries of what he can do further and further. Egged on by a rabid media, and adoring fans, he has become more and more unhinged. Now, not even the officials of the so-called “steady state” that Anonymous described in his book “A Warning” can keep him in check.
Countries have been destroyed by the ambitions of a few
The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal noticed that countries have been destroyed by the ambitions of a few, ones whose thirst for glory and a title were paramount:
“Nations have been destroyed by the ambition of a few, by their desire for fame and a title.”
Yet, the problem is not only these ambitious individuals. The problem also lies in the people who let these demagogues do whatever they want. Donald Trump is an individual whose desire for fame and title takes precedence over any common good. However, what is worse is that the Republican Party is letting him walk all over the American Constitution, destroying the traditions that have helped keep the country a democratic republic.
The US is slowly slipping from being a democracy and gaining the trappings of a banana republic, where disingenuous sycophants can be seen praising the narcissistic wanna-be dictator at every turn. This needs to end before it becomes too late: the future of the United States as a democracy is at stake.