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Columnists

A Republic, If We Can Keep It

Benjamin Franklin’s answer to a question about what the Constitutional Convention created has never been more pertinent. Democrats claim Donald Trump will undermine democracy if elected to a second term. Trump’s campaign rhetoric seems to validate the accusations. He has announced he will use the powers of the Presidency to wreak vengeance on his enemies, real and imagined, and perhaps even extend his term of office beyond its constitutional limits. He told Sean Hannity that “I’ll not be a dictator except on Day One.” (That’s what all dictators say!)

Trump’s supporters excuse those statements as his typical harmless bombast. They add, when Trump isn’t listening, that Donald is too scatterbrained to pull it off, so don’t worry. Others make the more sophisticated argument that, even if Trump wanted to become a dictator (all the while insisting he doesn’t), our ‘checks and balances’ will protect the Republic.

Having spent two thirds of my professional life living in authoritarian countries I can claim some expertise on the subject. I believe the Trump apologists are dead wrong. Democracy survives only if an alert citizenry wants to keep it alive. Unfortunately, too many Americans have told pollsters that they would welcome a dictator to solve our problems. In October 2020, the Public Religion Research Institute published polling that about four out of ten Americans believed that “it was time for a leader who would break the rules to fix the system.” Among registered Republicans, the number was even higher.

Do the ‘checks and balances’ of the American political system guarantee the survival of democracy? A recent article, ‘Democracy is Harder to Keep than You Think’ in the respected British magazine Economist, argues that American ‘checks and balances’ are vulnerable; they preserve freedom only when those entrusted with power stay within the rules. If the public loses faith in those institutions, they no longer serve their purpose. Several Latin American countries virtually copy/pasted the American constitution into their founding documents and then slid into dictatorship. I served in one of those countries: Nicaragua. Other democratic countries, even countries with a strong democratic tradition in their DNA, such as Greece, have often fallen under dictatorships. In 1936 and again in 1967 dictators took power in Greece because the major political parties produced chaos rather than governance.

By contrast, two countries whose political systems lack constitutional guardrails, the United Kingdom and Israel, have gone in different directions. In Britain a majority in the House of Commons can, literally, do anything it wants; the House of Lords can only slow it down. That Britain has never turned towards dictatorship, even in crises, is a credit to a people loyal to their institutions. Israel also has no Constitution. The Israeli Supreme Court took upon itself the power to overturn ‘unreasonable’ legislation. Before the Hamas attack last October, Israel’s current majority government had brought the country to the brink of civil war over its attempts to sideline the Supreme Court and concentrate all power in the Knesset.

The Economist article explores the fragility of American democracy, arguing that confidence in the American model may be overly optimistic. It argues that maintaining democracy requires more than written constitutional safeguards; it depends on the dedication and integrity of individuals upholding democratic principles. The article concentrates on the fact that from the very beginning the U.S. has granted significant emergency powers to the president, which can be exploited to threaten democracy. Examples include the Insurrection Act, which has been invoked multiple times to address domestic crises, and the broad range of powers a president can claim during a national emergency. Both Trump and Biden have utilized these emergency powers, highlighting the potential for abuse.

Complacency poses risks. The article notes that even revered presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt exercised extraordinary powers during crises. The 22nd Amendment, limiting presidential terms, is a significant barrier against dictatorship but an autocratic leader could undermine it by consolidating power and refusing to step down.

The strength of American democracy lies in the dedication of its citizens to its preservation. To function properly, the protections in our constitutional structure need the active protection of the American people. America does have some unique safeguards such as perhaps the most apolitical military in the world, a vast and resilient civil service, and a free press. However, Trump has made it clear that he expects ‘his’ generals to put personal loyalty above loyalty to the institutions. If MAGA Republicans take the Senate, Trump would be able to fire and promote senior officers until he gets the loyalty he wants. Trump has also declared that, if elected, he will give himself the power to decapitate the vast American civil service and install persons owing him personal loyalty to run the bureaucracy. He has already convinced large swathes of the population that our free press is not trustworthy,

Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in 2020 and his statement that he might reject the results of the upcoming elections raise reasonable concerns; in fact, it appears that he will only choose a running mate who rejected the 2020 results.

The Economist argues that Trump’s character flaws and chaotic personality make him unlikely to become a dictator, but admits his actions have damaged public trust in government. The article overlooks the fact that Trump seems to have recruited the Heritage Foundation, a well-financed right wing think tank, to provide the organization chart for authoritarian rule.

As elections approach, the challenge question posed to Benjamin Franklin – whether Americans can keep their republic – remains pertinent.

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