Democracy Smolders as Nero Plucks His Lyre

By KEVIN M. ROONEY | May 10, 2017

In his essay titled “Why Rome Fell,” historian Will Durant sounded a powerful warning for all who value civilization: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” Add to this sobering principle the Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and you are now armed with two essential historical ideas that should inspire you to speak, act and rescue American democracy from our own American Nero, Donald J. Trump. And make no mistake, American democracy needs a rescue mission. 

American democracy is under siege “big league” right now, and right now is the time for all those who value American democracy to come to its defense. It’s time to fill your water buckets and douse the fire President Nero has set to the basic democratic fabric of our society.

The historical record is replete with examples of democracies devolving into authoritarianism, often at the hands of a charismatic charlatan who grasps power under questionable circumstances. These tragedies come in all shapes and sizes, but they typically share three features. First is an express disregard for the rule of law and for the role of morality in government. For authoritarians, law exists solely to serve the state, not to constrain it, and moral considerations have no place in determining the national interest. Ultimately, law is reduced to a pliable tool for governmental discrimination, repression, retribution and worse. Authoritarian rulers increasingly see themselves as above the law.

Second, authoritarians are determined to rid executive authority of the pesky intrusions of democratic institutions. Acting under the color of “legality,” these governments steal from a nation the essential elements of democracy – the separation of executive and legislative power, constitutional governance, judicial independence, a free press and universal civil rights – and thereby simultaneously obliterate the people’s ability to resist the regime. The theft is often incremental and typically accomplished by formal legal procedure, but the final result is nothing short of devastating for democracy.

The third indicator is the constant use of fear and deception. Any student of history knows that authoritarian governments thrive on stereotyping, scapegoating and outright lies. Authoritarians seem to know inherently that prompting large segments of society to join with the government in a mutual fear/hatred pact against particularly helpless minorities will bolster their popularity, pave the way for harsh new measures and, ultimately, inure the nation to the idea of treating a portion of the citizenry unequally. Undergirding this entire process, of course, are the government’s lies, both big and small. Using these techniques of fear and deception, authoritarians eventually establish an “alternative reality” that the people may have no choice but to embrace.

So, how does the Trump administration fare in terms of this list of authoritarian indicators in its first 100 days? Well, it scores pretty high, and things are likely to get worse. Of course, I am not arguing that Trump is on the verge of suspending the Constitution or that American democracy will necessarily vanish. But the drift toward authoritarianism is often slow and subtle, and there is no doubt that Trump is inclined toward that path. Give this man-child a little more time and a few more confrontations with democracy, and we may find ourselves in a place we do not recognize.

Trump’s Muslim ban, his debasement of federal judges, his deportation force, his stigmatization of well-vetted and desperate refugees, his willingness to deprive millions of Americans of affordable health care and his rejection of the idea that the courts are the exclusive arbiters of constitutional questions are all indicators that the Trump administration lacks respect for the rule of law and for morality. In Trump’s view, he, as president, should have the final say on important constitutional questions and he should be free to inflict suffering upon minorities, so long as his policies “make America great again” in the eyes of his most atavistic supporters. In short, as with all tyrants and want-to-be-tyrants, Mr. Trump believes not that the law is king, but that the king is the law.      

The signs that American democratic institutions are currently under purposeful executive branch assault are many and frightening. The recent debacle that duped Rep. Devin Nunes into acting as a White House operative, the deluge of executive orders and the recent strike on Syria without congressional approval or even consultation all indicate that Trump is anxious to blur the lines between the executive and legislative branches. As to fundamental constitutional guarantees, national embarrassments like the Muslim ban, the deportation force, the border wall and Trump’s many ethnic slurs appear designed to serve as the first steps in weaning America off the notion of equality, thus setting the stage for the alt-right’s vision of a divided and tiered nation, consisting of “real Americans” and “others.”

The cause of judicial independence has been assailed by Trump in a disturbingly malicious way. As he ignorantly opines on carefully considered judicial decisions, the man whom the Electoral College installed as our president continues to sound more like a drunk jeering at a pro wrestling match. But do not be fooled by this. Trump’s catcalls are actually an attempt, pure and simple, to intimidate those who are constitutionally obliged to oversee his stewardship. As to civil rights, the Trump administration’s assault has thus far chiefly taken the form of loud support for the Republican Party’s primary legislative goal of disenfranchising as many Democratic-leaning constituencies as possible and for its legislative war on women, minorities and the LGBT community.

Finally, and perhaps most un-American of all, is the White House’s chilling attempt to mute the press. From outrageously branding trusted media outlets “enemies of the people” to calling out individual reporters as “liars” in front of large, hostile audiences surrounding them, to hectoring reporters on what issues to cover, Trump is blatantly attempting to undermine the press. These are the petty actions of a tin-pot dictator of some throwback banana republic – you know, the kind who concentrates obscene amounts of power into the hands of his inexperienced children – and not the mature leadership one might expect from our president.

Fear and deception have been staples of Trump’s approach from Day 1. This should be clear to anyone who has had the fortitude to listen to more than just a moment of Trump’s mendacious blather. From “Mexican rapists” to the undocumented (black) “crime wave” that is headed to your neighborhood soon, to “terrorist” Syrian refugees, to the “lying media,” Trump has managed to whip many of his supporters into a frenzy of hatred. Familiarly, this administration has underwritten its particular form of alternative reality with the currency of lies and deception. The administration has made clear that there is no limit to what it is willing to lie about, to the number of lies it is willing to tell, or to the absurdity of the lies themselves. From wildly exaggerating the size of the inaugural audience to fabricating 5 million illegal voters, to fevered dreams of government surveillance of Trump Towers, to falsely crediting Trump’s TV-friendly Syrian airstrike to his newfound humanitarianism as opposed to his falling poll numbers, the list of lies goes on and on. Surreal? Yes, indeed. But this is not a dream.

Trump’s unrelenting stream of lies, monumental ignorance, lack of intellectual curiosity and impulse toward authoritarianism are threatening the integrity of our political system. If Congress does not remove Trump from office for colluding with Russian espionage, he must be politically gelded by direct political action. Direct action is needed because Republican elected officials have proven their slavish dedication to Republican, as opposed to American, interests will not permit them to serve as anything more than Trump’s co-conspirators. Republicans are poised to allow Trump to run this country into the ditch, so long as a Republican driver steers the bus. It is time for the American people to act.

So, what can we do? Well, as you might expect from a historian, my advice is to go back. Go back to the 1960s and take some instruction from the Beatles generation, a generation that knows how to show up and make a difference. Organize, call, protest, write, speak out, donate time and money, join, keep up on the facts, be the adult in the room, register to vote, help register others to vote, keep the discussion going, and reach out to those with whom you disagree. Finally, do not get discouraged.

We have an emotionally disturbed huckster in the White House, a veritable encyclopedia of personality disorders, operating out of the emotional architecture of a poorly behaved 6-year-old, with no core beliefs, no knowledge of history, politics, economics or policy, and no vision for America in the 21st century that can survive the glare of his own ego. He is our own version of Nero, an immature, immoral, narcissistic fool, who put his own capital to flame simply to indulge his own self-obsession and insatiable need for public adulation. We must do everything in our power to resist Trump’s ham-handed attempt to reduce American tolerance, diversity and kindness to ashes. Before it’s too late, find a way to tell President Nero that Rome is not his to burn!

Kevin M. Rooney of Ship Bottom spent 25 years as a litigation partner in Washington, D.C., law firms and was general counsel to a Fortune 500 multinational corporation. In retirement, he is now an adjunct professor of history at Monmouth University.



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