The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him.
The third week of October 2019 will go down in history as the moment when Donald Trump made his final, most essential demand on the American people who’d somehow bumbled our way into making him our make-or-break 45th president.
For exactly 1,000 days, Trump and his RICO Act of an administration had been ramming against the guardrails of American democracy — sparks flying into the air and then quickly fading from view — every time his emolument-fueled motorcade ran the gold credit card of the latest emir or sheikh to book more rooms in a Trump resort, or his team defied the latest congressional subpoena, or each corrupt dictator his government has bowed down to.
On the 1,001st day, Trump’s convoy of corruption finally careened out over the cliff, as we all knew it would. On this particular Thursday, the president’s top aide — acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — strutted out into the normally vacant White House press briefing room to announce that Trump was essentially awarding a massive government contract to himself, with a plan to host the massive G-7 global summit at the Trump Organization’s Doral resort in South Florida.
The news should have stunned the nation, but only seconds later Mulvaney reached for a higher level of brazenness — admitting in response to a question that Trump had indeed held up critical military aid for our supposed ally Ukraine in a quid pro quo to force that nation to investigate Dear Leader’s loopy conspiracy theories about the 2016 election (despite the fact that — last time I checked, anyway — he’d won in the Electoral College).
The Mulvaney moment was the low point of the defining week of Trump’s presidency, with another erstwhile U.S. ally, the Kurds who’d briefly established an autonomous zone in northern Syria with American military backing, either on the run or facing slaughter from the troops of Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose war crimes had been green-lighted by Trump. The rest of America fumbled in the dark to figure out if Trump’s lethal betrayal was the result of corruption, blackmail, or just an American president’s fawning admiration for a murderous strongman.
This was, quite simply, the day that Trump himself had warned all of us about back on Jan. 23, 2016 — which already feels like a quaint, bygone era. This was the time in Iowa when the future president famously boasted that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” The pundits didn’t know whether to laugh or scratch their heads — which in hindsight shows how much America still had to learn about how autocracy works.
It’s only decades later that we can better understand how Watergate took down Richard Nixon, because that plotline played out like every episode of Law and Order and matched our deeply held and perhaps naive notions of how justice works in democracy. There was a mysterious crime (the Watergate break-in), whistle-blowers (James McCord, John Dean), the suspect’s predictable professions of innocence and efforts to shield the evidence, and the ensuing hunt for a “smoking gun.” And — when it was indeed found — Nixon essentially said “You got me!” and left the White House with his hands up.
Dictators — or wannabe despots, anyway — don’t watch Law and Order, and they write their own script. The increasingly essential Yale historian and author Timothy Snyder wrote recently that a tyrant successfully rules his country through "lies so enormous that they could not be doubted, because doubting them would mean doubting everything.” Snyder was actually referring to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, yet it’s not hard to see how the Russian autocrat’s biggest American fanboy has tailored those lessons to his own White House.
For 1,000 days in the presidency, every lie that Trump has told — and there’s been 12,000 or maybe 13,000 because who can even keep track at this point? — and gotten away with, and every time another U.S. or foreign government dollar gets pocketed at a Trump property, and every day the president hides his tax returns, and every time a request from Congress for some oversight is simply ignored, here’s what he’s actually doing: He’s walking down the center median of Fifth Avenue during rush hour, taunting us with his AK-47.
On Oct. 17, the president of the United States and his Party told Americans to reject the evidence of our eyes and ears. Mick Mulvaney didn’t say what he said, and even if he did, so what? … because when the president does it, that means it is not illegal. Trump can even award a contract to himself and tell everyone that it’s perfectly normal. You see, Nixon set himself up by telling the world “I’m not a crook” when it was easy to prove otherwise. Trump, Mulvaney, and the others around them just announced that, yeah, sure, the president is a crook, but there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it.
It’s a horrible spot for America, but over the last 100 years or so, democracy has been threatened by dictatorship in scores of other countries. How come some faltered and others did not? In their groundbreaking book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt found that one thing — and one thing alone — typically stopped rising authoritarianism in a country. Key figures made decisions that were, in the short run, and sometimes personally, politically disadvantageous for the greater good of the country.
In the current crisis in America, key players like the Democratic Party and the media have a role to play, and too often they have been too timid in grasping the gravity of Trumpian authoritarianism. But Trump’s movement is largely based on pure hatred for liberals and the media, regardless of how they react. There is really only one thing left standing between democracy and dictatorship: The Party. Trump’s Republican Party.
My rough estimate is that it will ultimately take the involvement of about 50 GOP members of Congress to turn things around and bring this national nightmare to its rightful climax. Right now, a narrow majority of Americans support the president’s impeachment and removal from office, but a real sense of justice and momentum would come from gaining a sliver of Republican votes for impeachment in the House — maybe 30 or so.
Those 30 votes would mean a solid majority for charging Trump — say 260-175 or so — but more importantly that would certainly persuade some Senate Republicans to support removal. How many? If every Democrat backed Trump’s ouster, it would still take 20 Republican senators to reach the necessary 67 votes. That would mean the group that’s so far made only measured critiques of our unworthy president (Romney, Sasse, Murkowski) would need to team up with the politically vulnerable in 2020 (Collins, Ernst, etc.) to oppose the president. But only 66 votes out of 100 and Trump can coolly put the smoking gun back in its holster and strut down Fifth Avenue knowing he got away with it.
Right now, the glass of freedom is half-empty and half-full. On one hand, despite just-OK condemnations from the likes of Mitt Romney, not a single congressional Republican has responded to the fairly open-and-shut case in the Ukraine matter by supporting impeachment … yet. Even more embarrassing was the number of Republicans toadies — especially Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott — who basically said that presidential bribery doesn’t matter if a few extra dollars get spent in their state.
It was therefore encouraging to see a Florida Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney, concede that the Ukraine matter was a clear quid pro quo and that “might be the end of things for me" regarding Trump’s impeachment. It was less encouraging that Rooney announced his looming retirement the next day, or that the only Republicans willing to speak candidly about impeachment are still the ones with no power to do anything about it, like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
And yet even these very tiny cracks in the great wall of Trump-era Republicanism can make a huge difference. Late Saturday night, with signs that at least a few disgusted Republicans might join a Democratic effort to legally block the government from hosting the G-7 conference at the Trump golf club, the president actually backed down from the scheme in a series of tweets. The episode has to make you wonder how quickly this bully can crumble if just a few more of the formerly cowed stand up to him.
In 1974, it took just a small band of Republicans — including Pennsylvania’s Sen. Hugh Scott and Sen. Barry Goldwater — to convince Nixon that his time was up. In today’s diminished democracy, it’s been hard to imagine a similar scene. Yet the fate of the Republic depends very much on history repeating. The alternative scenario is almost too awful to contemplate.