Threatening Accountable Democracy
President Trump is conducting a concerted and calculated campaign to undermine every institution in the American political system that can hold him and his political allies accountable for their actions. His list of targets is long: judges and journalists, intelligence analysts and inspectors general, career prosecutors and diplomats, the director of the FBI and the chair of the Federal Reserve.
If this were happening in another country, we’d be decrying the rise of a “strongman” -- even a “dictator” -- who was subverting democratic norms. Now, even some brave Republicans are starting to describe Trump’s strategy in such apocalyptic terms.
After Trump fired four inspectors general whose investigations displeased him, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah warned, “Doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”
Attorney General William Barr reversed the decisions of career prosecutors to favor two presidential allies, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. That caused a former Barr aide, Stuart Gerson, to call the actions “remarkable and unique and unprecedented” in the Washington Post, adding: “It’s a political coup; there really can be no question about it.”
A core principle of democracy is majority rule, and winning a presidential election confers vast powers: from appointing judges to lifetime tenures to placing allies in key government jobs. But majority rule is not absolute. James Madison warned about the “tyranny of the majority,” and his fellow Founding Fathers created a complex web of institutions to check and balance any elected chief executive.
It is this system of “accountable democracy” that this president refuses to respect or understand.
One key element of accountability is congressional oversight: the ability to hold hearings, question witnesses and subpoena documents. But Trump has stonewalled the entire process, refusing to cooperate with congressional investigators at every turn.
Or take the federal judiciary. The president has lambasted jurists who rule against him as “so-called” judges and called their decisions a “complete and total disaster.” In return, he’s earned a rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee, who said, “The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms in order to insulate them from political pressure. But Trump fired James Comey four years into his tenure and is constantly berating Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray, for insufficient loyalty.
A similar situation exists with the head of the Federal Reserve, who is appointed by the president to a four-year term -- again, to provide political independence. Trump, however, has repeatedly assailed his own choice, Jerome Powell, for not boosting the economy -- and therefore Trump’s reelection chances -- vigorously enough.
There are 74 inspectors general throughout the federal government, and while they are appointed by the president, history and tradition say they should be insulated from partisan pressures so they can document mistakes and misdeeds. Trump has totally defied that tradition, firing four of the inspectors who pursued probes Trump didn’t like.
“Some people are scared. Others are outraged. We all recognize how bad this is for our country,” one inspector general told the Post.
Trump has never understood that the Justice Department always has two missions: to serve both the president and the rule of law. He mercilessly demeaned his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not doing his bidding, finally replacing him with Barr -- an unabashed political ally who has stocked the top ranks of the Justice Department with loyal Trumpsters.
More than 1,900 former Justice Department lawyers, from both Republican and Democratic administrations, have signed an extraordinary letter demanding that Barr resign. “Our democracy depends on a Department of Justice that acts as an independent arbiter of equal justice, not as an arm of the president’s political apparatus,” they wrote.
The press plays a pivotal role in holding any president to account, which is why Trump has made the media a prime target of his tirades. This week, he even lacerated Fox News after one host, Neil Cavuto, derided the president for taking an unproven medical treatment. Trump retweeted comments calling Cavuto an “idiot” (and worse), and said he was “looking for a new outlet” to replace Fox in his affections.
The pattern is clear: Any individual or institution that stands in Trump’s way has to go. And if he wins a second term, his deference to accountable democracy will continue to diminish.
As Barack Obama put it, there’s only one way to stop this march toward lawlessness: “Vote!”
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)