Two events, almost a week apart, are serious symptoms of an ailing U.S. democracy. The first is President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in order to build a border wall. This heinous, phony crisis was rightfully covered and opposed by the press and Congress. The other is the voter fraud and a new election being held in North Carolina’s ninth district. In that case, the Republican candidate Mark Harris had a campaign employee who operated an illegal absentee voting practice in the run-up to the election.
Both of these examples show a concerted effort by GOP lawmakers to undermine the principles of American democracy, one from above and the other from below. Each is a dire warning of the dangers of unchecked power and the degradation of democratic norms in the United States.
First, the largest threat to democracy comes from the top. President Trump has frequently acted above the law and without regard for democratic norms. However, with the declaration of a national emergency, he has entered into territory only charted by authoritarian leaders. Manufacturing a crisis in order to circumvent the actions of the elected legislature and thus the will of the people is undemocratic. It sets a dangerous precedent for future crises, as one can only imagine the authority the president would claim in the face of a genuine crisis. Given the Trump administration’s frequent attacks on Muslims, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the denial of civil liberties to Muslim citizens following a terrorist attack.
The legal precedent for such an act was set in Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court justified the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II due to national security claims by President Franklin Roosevelt. Generally, the Supreme Court will side with the president on national security purposes. However, during World War II, the threat from Japan was informally declared in Pearl Harbor and formally declared via declaration of war. No Central or South American country has declared war on the United States, and there is no widespread trend of violence from citizens of those countries on American citizens. There is no crisis at the border, and to believe otherwise is to deny observable facts. Nevertheless, President Trump has chosen to ignore facts in order to circumvent democracy. It is yet to be seen whether the Supreme Court will accept this distortion, but given that two of the nine justices are Trump appointees, the situation is precarious at best.
Further, undemocratic threads are already woven within the Supreme Court. The Roberts Court’s record on defending voting rights is spotted, at times favoring fair elections and at others approving gerrymandering and gutting the Voting Rights Act. Recently, Justice Clarence Thomas came out in support of repealing the 1964 decision of Sullivan vs. New York Times, which set a tougher standard for libel. The case arose after an ad for donations to support Martin Luther King Jr.’s defense fund was challenged in Alabama due to factual inaccuracies. The Supreme Court defended The New York Times, saying that factual inaccuracy isn’t enough to declare libel. In order for speech to be considered libel, it must prove to have “actual malice” that is intended to harm the individual's reputation. Repealing this decision would empower government officials to bankrupt news agencies that oppose them by suing for potential factual inaccuracies. This threatens the heart of a free press in America, and would likely pressure organizations like The Washington Post and, ironically, The New York Times to scale back their reporting on the Trump administration.
Combined with the threats to the democratic process by the president, this is a dangerous turn for American democracy. It is also worth noting that Justice Thomas was accused of assault in his confirmation process, and both Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were elevated to the Supreme Court by circumventing democratic process and principles. Kavanaugh, in particular, has a record of permissibility for executive power and protecting the president from investigation. In summary, questionable justices are threatening the principles of democracy at the behest of a president with a disregard for facts, who is currently under investigation for a potential fraudulent path to power.
If all of this sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, or the history of a South American dictatorship, that’s because it rings surprisingly true to prior democratic devolution. However, this devolution wasn’t purely from the top down. It also required the erosion of democracy on the ground. This is why the race in North Carolina is so worrisome. Voter fraud has been a consistent dog whistle for the disenfranchisement of minority and low-income communities.
However, in North Carolina, voter fraud is not being committed by actual voters, but rather by a campaign. A staffer for Republican candidate Mark Harris ran an illegal absentee voting operation which filled out and forged ballots in two rural areas. After discovering this, the state began an investigation of the election, which Harris unofficially won by 905 votes. Harris, acknowledging the undermining of democracy and mistrust in the results, has called for a new election. This is a refreshing defense of democratic principles, but it’s on the heels of a massive threat to those same principles. The basis of democracy is that each person votes and is heard. Both voting laws in response to manufactured fraud crises and actual fraud at the hands of campaigns threaten this basic principle. If voters don’t believe in this, then their trust of government erodes. The climate would make it more acceptable for presidents to circumvent democratic processes. This is the breeding grounds for the rise of authoritarianism and fascism. If these words seem too inflammatory, it’s only because it’s necessary to recognize things for what they are.
A popular novel in the 1930s was Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, in which a populist leader rises to power and converts America into a fascist nation. Coup after coup leads to a manufactured invasion of Mexico and power vacuum, with civil war breaking out. The novel has powerful lessons to be remembered in this precarious time, especially given the populist nature of President Trump’s ascendancy to power.
Unfortunately, many Americans have the same perspective as those in Lewis’ novel, that fascism “can’t happen here.” The fact of the matter is, it can. American democracy has survived not simply by laws, but also by the willingness of the government to accept and adhere to those laws. Acknowledging Congress' action as the will of the governed, adhering to observable fact, defending a free press, and protecting the right to vote are all ideas that must be defended, as they are clearly not simply self-evident anymore. Democracy is an active process, not a passive state. It requires fervent defense and continued improvement.
The Constitution declares the formation of a “more perfect union,” accepting that America is always able to make itself better and more just. On the other hand, it also indirectly accepts that America can devolve. If Americans value civil liberties and the right of citizens to exist in a democracy, then they must acknowledge the national emergency and North Carolina elections as what they are: severe threats to democracy and liberty. Democrats, and especially Republicans, can no longer remain silent on the authoritarian tendencies by President Trump and members of the Republican party that are happening in America.
It can happen here, and it will unless the citizens that give the government their consent to be governed vehemently defend the principles of democracy that have made America a model of liberty for over two centuries.