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Democracy deathwatch: North Carolina goes coup-coup

It sounds like something from a faraway 'banana republic' -- when the GOP governor was defeated for re-election in North Carolina, lawmakers simply took away the new governor's power. Anatomy of a coup in Donald Trump's new America.

Remember that annoying comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, and his trailer-park shtick, "You might be a redneck if..."? Anyway, if there were a comedian who based his routine on the world's often laugh-worthy nations, you could envision this set-up, "You might be a 'banana republic' if...."

Indeed, it's situations like the crisis in Gambia that -- historically, anyway -- have caused Americans to cluck their tongues and to boast, "It can't happen here."

Except that it is happening here, in the state of North Carolina. You may be a banana republic if you behave like the Republican-led Tarheel State, which is responding to an upset win in November by the Democratic candidate for governor by working with the lame-duck GOP governor to strip the newcomer and also the state supreme court, which was also captured by the Democrats, of much of their power.

OK, so there weren't tanks rolling through the streets of Raleigh, but this was an American-fried coup in every other sense of the word, right up to the arrests of dissidents and a journalist. The Republican establishment of North Carolina is stomping on the will of the state's voters with a giant boot, in an effort to undo the results of a fair election.

A very short, recent history lesson of North Carolina is in order. Although the Southern state has certainly tilted right and produced the occasional right-wing firebrand like Jesse Helms, North Carolina -- perhaps in part because of its universities and early success as a high-tech center -- has also had a moderate streak. In 2012, however, voters turned the keys to all of the branches of government to the GOP, including a new governor, Pat McCrory, who ran on his centrist record as mayor of Charlotte but governed to the extreme right. Under McCrory and its Republican lawmakers, aided by financial support from a reclusive billionaire, North Carolina enacted arguably the most extreme political agenda in the nation -- curbing voting rights, slashing social services and clamping down on reproductive rights and gay rights.

But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The unexpected ultra-conservatism of McCrory's government led to arguably to most creative protest movement in the country, Moral Mondays, as conceived by a brilliant civil rights leader, Rev. William Barber. When musicians, athletes and high-tech companies boycotted North Carolina over its transgender bathroom law and crackdown on LGBTQ rights, many moderate voters paid heed. On November 8, the state's Democtratic attorney general, Roy Cooper, upset McCrory by a narrow margin, and Democrats also gained a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court.

That's when McCrory started to go all Yayah Jammeh on us. First, he fought the election results tooth and nail -- claiming without any evidence, that Cooper had won through massive voter fraud. When that strategy went nowhere, lawmakers developed a plan to dramatically minimize the impact of the people's vote during the last month that a Republican was still in the governor's chair.

In other words, a coup.

One bill slashed the number of political appointments that the new governor can make from 1,500 down to 425, which would not only thwart Cooper's policy initiatives but keep a lot of Republicans working in the administration. And it took away the governor's right to name trustees to state universities. Now, for the first time, Cooper's Cabinet nominees must be confirmed by the heavily Republican state senate. A second measure took control of the state board of elections away from the governor and placed limits on what kind of cases can be referred to the high court -- now that it's Democrat-controlled.

The Republicans offered some incredible rationales for all of this. They said they had expanded McCrory's power to make appointments four years ago because North Carolina government was a mess, but now things were going so swimmingly there was no reason for mass firings and hirings. This despite the fact that a democratic majority of North Carolinians actually said the exact opposite, that it wanted a new direction.

What's more, the powers that be are showing no qualms about using brute force to get their way. When angry voters thronged the statehouse chanting, "All political power comes from the people," 15 of them were arrested. So was veteran North Carolina journalist Joe Killian as he tried to cover the proceedings. This is absolutely not what democracy looks like.

Yet it may be a sign of the times. The Republican Party across America has increasingly adopted a stance of total non-compliance when their power is threatened. Thus, we watched had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies in Congress impose total gridlock on Washington in their (unsuccessful) effort to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Here in Pennsylvania, GOP lawmakers let the state wither for months with no budget rather than negotiate in good faith with a Democratic governor who'd won his office in a landslide.

But the election of Donald Trump as president on November 8 seems to have helped take things to a new and dangerous level. The connection I see is this: Trump rose toward the White House making it clear that no rules -- about telling the truth, about sexual assault, about massive conflicts of interest -- apply to him. I believe that's emboldened politicians like the ones in North Carolina to now think they can literally get away with anything,

The handful of you who've read this far may be wondering about the elephant -- or is the donkey? -- in the room, which is Monday's vote of the Electoral College. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens are pleading with electors to reject Trump even if he won their state's popular vote. This is a grassroots movement, not supported by the always-timid leaders of the Democratic Party. And while I've argued repeatedly that Trump is a unique threat to the American Experiment who should be resisted by any means necessary, I don't think this is the means. Trump got more votes in the right states under the current rules of engagement. The notion that electors -- generally rich party donors and other elites -- know better than the will of the people is about the most undemocratic idea I've ever heard. And America desperately needs more democracy, not less.

And recent events have made one thing clear: The idea that all political power comes from the people is under attack in this country, more so than any time in the last 150 years. Even if you live hundreds of miles from North Carolina, you should be outraged by the coup that's currently taking place there. Because this is almost certainly coming your way.