Ezra Klein spells out how Congressional Republicans enable Donald Trump's openly corrupt and incompetent administration on vox.com.
Trump has shown himself unconcerned with the norms of American democracy. He routinely proclaims elections rigged, facts false, the media crooked, and his opponents corrupt. During the campaign, he flouted basic traditions of transparency and threatened to jail his opponent. His tendencies toward nepotism, crony capitalism, and vengeance unnerve. His oft-stated admiration for authoritarians in other countries — including, but not limited to, Vladimir Putin — speaks to his yearning for power.
Amid all that, David Frum’s Atlantic cover story, “How to Build an Autocracy,” is a chilling read. “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” he writes. The argument works because its component parts are so plausible. Frum does not imagine a coup or a crisis. He does not lean on the deus ex machina of a terrorist attack or a failed assassination attempt. The picture he paints is not one in which everything is different, but one in which everything is the same.
He imagines a Trumpian autocracy built upon the most ordinary of foundations: a growing economy, a cynical public, a cowed media, a self-interested business community, and a compliant Republican Party. The picture resonates because it combines two forces many sense at work — Trump’s will to power and the fecklessness of the institutions meant to stop him — into one future everyone fears: autocracy in America.
But what Frum imagines is not an autocracy. It is what we might call a partyocracy — a quasi-strongman leader empowered only because the independently elected legislators from his party empower him. The crucial sentence in Frum’s account is this one: "As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party."
Donald Trump is a paper tiger. But the US Congress is a tiger that we pretend is made of paper. It is, at this point, taken for granted that congressional Republicans will protect their co-partisan at any cost. It is, at this point, expected that they will confirm Trump’s unqualified nominees, ignore his obvious conflicts of interest, overlook his dangerous comments, and rationalize his worst behavior.
That expectation — and the cowardice it permits — is the real danger to American democracy.
Given Trump’s inexperience in government, it matters greatly what rules he believes himself to be operating under. If he can’t act unethically at an acceptable cost, he won’t. If he can’t confirm unqualified nominees, he will instead be forced to surround himself with qualified nominees. If he can’t govern without actually cutting himself off from his businesses, he will cut himself off from his businesses or hand the presidency over to Mike Pence, whom Republicans prefer anyway. If Trump’s worst instincts are curbed early, it makes it more likely that Republicans will pass their policies, and less likely they are eventually engulfed by scandal or incompetence emanating from the White House.
But if Republicans in Congress abandon their constitutional role to protect their partisan interests, then they must be held no less accountable than Trump.
There is much talk of the resistance to the Trump administration, and many protests happening outside the White House. But it is in Congress members’ districts — at their town halls, in their offices, at their coffee shops — where this fight will be won or lost. This is why it matters that the anti-Trump movement has begun adopting the tactics the Tea Party used to great success against President Obama in 2010: Those tactics focused on congressional offices, and that’s why they worked.
But this is the beginning, not the end, of Trump’s opposition seeing Congress as the core battleground. The real test will be in 2018 — Democratic turnout tends to plummet in midterm elections, and overall turnout was historically low in 2014. The result, as political scientist Seth Masket writes, is that Republicans are more afraid of their primary voters than general election voters. Their behavior will change if and when that changes.
And that should change. It should change in 2018, and it should change thereafter. Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.
But for now, the crucial question — the question on which much of American democracy hinges — is not what Trump does. It is what Congress does. The danger posed by Trump is one that America’s political system is built to protect against. But the officials charged with its protection need to take their role seriously.
In the end, it is as simple as this: The way to stop an autocracy is to have Congress do its damn job.
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