America’s worrisome step by step slide toward authoritarianism continues with each news cycle. Trump’s paranoia and mendacity are reasons, as is Americans’ vulnerability to any frog-in-heating-water gradualism. There is plenty of blame to go around, as my reading the entire Mueller Report confirmed. Trump’s employees protect him, lie for him, and ludicrously “testify” for him, but they are adults. Each top level appointment, as a hopeful mini-Trump, mouths lies and preposterous arguments to cover for him. Republicans—at least those in the Senate—prostrate themselves for his approval. And voters by the millions choose blithely to risk the republic, neither noticing nor caring.
From my teens, to military service, through decades of working for improvements at the board level in the country’s companies and institutions, I’ve considered myself a patriotic citizen. That includes recognizing that our nation needs many improvements, which is simply realism in calling for more work to be done. Changes must continue, even while differing about what is to be done. That is not a stain on democracy or patriotism, but a sign of it. To be sure, it is crucial that we distinguish among various paths toward a “more perfect union,” guarding against changes that make us less democratic, less humane, less valuing of competence, and less courageous in honoring truth and truthfulness. We need not suppose that our Founders’ product was perfect, only that it is a precious gift to be honored, not squandered.
From the end of the 18th century to yesterday’s news, America has done enough of each to call for both celebration and shame. Unparalleled economic and military power have given us cover to shout our achievements to the point of pomposity, while on our dark side espousing racial mistreatment, devising gerrymandering to defeat democratic elections, and adding the prefix crony to our potent capitalism. For over two centuries, we have both built on and wasted the inheritance handed us from the Age of Enlightenment.
Much of the electorate has come not only to accept Donald Trump, despite his characterological dishonesty and proto-despot qualities, along with his challenged intellect and narcissism-driven ambition. Almost all Republican Senators are ready, even happy to do his bidding, often in opposition to political positions they’ve vehemently held for years. It is no secret that his actions and plans are nakedly for his personal benefit and only secondarily for the nation’s. Trump has been consistent about that since he arrived on the scene with one surprise after another that violated hard-won norms.
Now we are confronted with the precursors of what history may well later define as a massive deterioration in the American story. The president expresses and pursues undisguised authoritarian characteristics: Organs of government are increasingly adjusted to the president’s egotistic version of reality. The rule of law shows signs of deterioration. The Constitutionally prescribed function and potency of the Congress have declined. The free press has been under constant attack and is squelched further daily. For news and opinion, an increasing proportion of the electorate has been drawn to White House tweets and to the president’s “captive” television company. The frequency and boldness of White House pronouncements overflow with audacity.
Going on, the central bank’s independence is under attack, thereby to enable Trump’s boasts of presidential performance. The country can scarcely brag as it once proudly did that it is a “nation of laws not of men.” More and more, voices contrary to the president’s are silenced, even those publishing scientific findings. Compared to most of the past, America’s international behavior is shameful. His word means little or nothing, for his norm is lying, not honesty. The country’s face to the world leans increasingly toward despots and away from liberal democracies that once expected and still deserve our waning leadership. This is not just a president with different policies from his predecessors—that would be merely the ebb and flow of honest political discourse—but one whose lack of character and his disrespect for American civic values and norms differs not just in degree, but in kind.
Of America’s 45 presidents, some have been not so bright, some have been not so honest. Some have been poor students of the art of governing. They have differed in extreme ways, often taking the country through great political struggles, ones in which you and I have had some hand during our adult lives. As implied above, I’m not speaking here of mere political differences like health care, immigration, military budgets, national debt, and the host of policy choices about normal, ongoing political issues. I am speaking of the Constitutionality, excellence, and fairness of America as a moral force as well as an economic and military one.
Among the 45, there’s been no shortage of flaws, faults, and extensive political strife in our 203 years. Our country has undergone depressions, wars both internal and international, issues of suffrage, and boundaries of liberty. Presidents’ records are a mixture of helping and harming that painful and costly process. Some have brought out the worst in us, some the best. Most disliked Constitutional constraints, fought with the press, and exhausted themselves dealing with Congress. Each wished to alter these aspects of government, but they were duty-bound not only to respect, but to obey the Constitution. They faithfully did so with almost no system-devastating exceptions, including even Richard Nixon.
Normally, American patriots who’ve been entrusted with the presidency would almost certainly take care that the Constitution is as strong when they leave as when they arrived. It is an obligation that exceeds partisan victories that this be so. Because an enduring, Constitutionally sound America is of grave consequence, not just marginal. No risk of losing it can responsibly be tolerated. The calculus to guide us is that overkill in our concern is acceptable; even if it risks being criticized as exaggeration. Underkill, on the other hand, risks too much even to contemplate. A small degree of this kind of damage to America is not the sort easily turned around after once lost in even partial devastation. In fact, there is some possibility that restoring it to former health and strength would be impossible.
It is my sincere and careful judgment that not one of our 45 presidents since April 30, 1789 has been so great a threat to the nature, excellence, civic morality, and fairness of the republic as Donald Trump. Even escaping so thorough a debacle as I’ve intimated, there is still the lesser risk that Donald Trump—with the aid of his party and approaching half the electorate—will leave America indefinitely harsh, base, and dishonorable.