We shall not let democracy die

Bloodied but unbowed

Yesterday, Walter Shaub resigned as the head of the Office of Government Ethics. I can’t blame him. The OGE has no enforcement power; Trump and his cronies freely ignore it, and the President is effectively above the law.

It turns out that if you have every single enforcement power other than impeachment, every federal agent and every prosecutor, roll up to one person, you have problems. Who would have guessed?

This was not always the case. It’s the product of a slow decay that I would trace back to 1994, when Newt Gingrich shut down the government as a show of power. Congress began to see its power as coming through obstruction rather than legislation; presidents, in turn, turned to executive orders and other mechanisms to keep the lights on. This led Congressional parties to more and more see themselves as a supporting cast, whose primary objective is to bolster or block their party leader — that is, the President. Congress transformed itself from a ruling body into an accessory of the Executive, both unable and unwilling to meaningfully act against it. This reached its present zenith in 2008, when Congressional Republicans famously declared that their principal objective was to ensure that Obama was not re-elected; for the next eight years, with the one exception of the ACA, Congress became almost entirely unable to legislate.

(The problems of the ACA trace back to this as well. Every successful major government program has required tweaking after its first passage; in the ACA’s case, most obviously to close the hole between where subsidies kick in and where people are fined for non-compliance. But a vote on this was always out of the question; the only vote Republicans would countenance on the subject was to repeal it outright. This is unusual by historical standards.)

With Congress turned into a supporting cast, the idea of acting against their party leader has become almost unimaginable. And with this vanished the key checks on the President: there is nothing I can imagine Trump doing which would cause Ryan or McConnell to vote to impeach or remove him. And because the checks on the Presidency are surprisingly weak, and are mostly matters of custom (like ethics regulations “enforced” by people who report to him) rather than law… well, when you elect someone who boasts of not being bound by any custom or morality to an office restrained by only those, you get what you asked for.

It turns out that these customs — civilian control of the military, the Executive branch obeying court orders, the power of censure or shame —were the only things maintaining the rule of law. The only enforcement action American law allows which the President cannot unilaterally ignore or overrule is impeachment; all else, even Congressional investigations, is just custom and public pressure.

So now, when Trump flagrantly violates ethics rules, breaks laws on a daily basis, and even conspires against his own country, there is sweet fuck-all to be done. We have turned the Presidency into a dictatorship for anyone who wants it to be one — then elected someone who did.

When I described Trump’s behavior as a “trial balloon for a coup,” I meant it: he wanted to see what he could get away with. And having learned that, he took what he could, and continues to work at the boundaries of the rest. He is far from the sole perpetrator of this: we have been eroding our own democracy for decades. But he is putting the final nail in its coffin — and in grand American style, is doing so in the name of white supremacy.

I believe there is a chance that America will reconstitute its democracy in the future. It will have differences, but it will return. America will no longer be a foremost world power; it has already lost too much of that. But the end of empire can be healthy for a people. We will be in a much more multipolar world, with the EU and China as potential major powers — but no more superpowers for a long time.

But between now and the restoration, the human cost will be immense, because Trump and his coterie do not care about anyone. They are here for power and for corruption, nothing more or less. They would happily destroy local economies, take away millions of people’s health care, and legitimize violence against any people they dislike — and there are many people they dislike.

This final illness now upon our first Republic was not Trump’s creation; he is merely its acute symptom. He was supported by millions of people, driven — we are told — by cultural alienation and marginalization, to push back by any means they could against “those elites.” And indeed, this is alienation in its purest form — being so little invested in America that they would destroy it rather than no longer be considered its heart, the “real Americans.”

To his supporters, I can only offer you the grim lesson of the history of destroyers. Your names will be cursed by future generations. Your children will cover their faces in shame at your mention and the reminder of what you did. And this is no more than you have bought with your petty vindictiveness: May all remembrance of you be erased. Your works have turned our nation to dust; to the dust you shall go as well.

Our nation will be reborn. We may descend far, but we shall rise again. Wiser, perhaps, for the experience, and for the cost which will surely be paid in blood — for no such destruction is without it.

The grown-ups in the room already knew this; this is why we fought, and fight, so hard to preserve the mechanisms of democracy. We know the cost of failure. But those who forget history are condemned to repeat it; those who remember are condemned to watch as others repeat it.

We will not go gently into the night. There is a kernel of immense value in the American experiment, and we will keep it through this. Democracy, plurality, and toleration remain among the greatest achievements of humanity. We will not let them die.

And for the swine who would rather see them die than face a changing world — we’ll see you bastards in Hell.