The election is just five days away, and something truly frightening is happening, something with far-reaching implications for the immediate future of American politics. Republicans, led by Donald Trump but by no means limited to him, are engaging in kind of termite-level assault on American democracy, one that looks on the surface as though it’s just aimed at Hillary Clinton, but in fact is undermining our entire system.
I know, my conservative friends will say that this kind of talk is just fear-mongering and exaggeration. But there is something deeply troubling happening right now, and it goes beyond the ordinary trading of blows in a campaign season. Consider these recent developments:
- There appears to be a war going on inside the FBI, and from what we can tell, a group of rogue agents, mostly in New York, may be in such a fervor to destroy Hillary Clinton that they may be aggressively leaking damaging innuendo to the press against her in the waning days of the campaign. They succeeded in their apparent goal of making FBI director James Comey a tool of their campaign — and the basis for their investigation is an anti-Clinton book written under the auspices of an organization of which the CEO of the Trump campaign is co-founder and chairman. Pro-Trump FBI agents now seem to be coordinating with Trump surrogates to do maximal possible damage to Clinton.
- Republicans continue to cheer the fact that the electronic systems of American political groups were illegally hacked, and then private communications were selectively released in order to do damage to one side in this election. The Republican nominee has explicitly asked a hostile foreign power to hack into his opponent’s electronic systems.
- High-ranking Republican officeholders are now suggesting that they may impeach Clinton as soon as she takes office. These are not just backbench nutbars of the Louie Gohmert variety, but people with genuine power, including Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and veteran legislators like James Sensenbrenner and Peter King. The message is being echoed by top Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani.
- There is a growing movement among Republicans in the Senate to simply refuse to approve any nominee appointed by a Democratic president to the Supreme Court, leaving open any and all vacancies until a Republican can be elected to fill them.
- State and local Republican officials are engaged in widespread and systematic efforts to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other groups likely to vote disproportionately Democratic; in many cases officials have been ordered by courts to stop their suppression efforts and they have simply ignored the court orders.
- Republican elected officials increasingly feel emboldened to openly suggest violence against Clinton should she be elected.
It is important to understand that is not normal. This is not just bare-knuckle politics. Something extraordinary is happening.
Let’s take the FBI case as just one example. You have a situation where a group of FBI agents is in direct conflict with prosecutors who believe the agents have a weak case in their attempt to find evidence of corruption that can be used against Clinton. The agents, in an atrocious violation of FBI policy against injecting the Bureau into an election, begin leaking dark innuendo to reporters. That convinces the FBI director that he has no choice but to go public with the fact that the Bureau is looking at some emails that might or might not have something to do with Clinton, though no one has actually read them. That news lands like a bombshell, despite its complete lack of substance.
And then it turns out that these agents are basing their investigation on a book called “Clinton Cash” by Peter Schweizer. Schweizer is the president of the Government Accountability Institute, an organization co-founded and chaired by Steve Bannon. Who is the CEO of the Trump campaign.
While the “imagine if the other side was doing this” argument can sometimes sound trite, in this case it’s more than apt. Imagine if a group of FBI agents were leaking damaging information on Donald Trump in violation of longstanding departmental policy, and it turned out that they were basing their innuendo on a book published by the Center for American Progress, which Clinton campaign chair John Podesta founded and used to run. Republicans would be crying bloody murder, and I’m pretty sure the entire news media would be backing them up every step of the way.
It’s not that this kind of thing is completely unprecedented. When Bill Clinton was impeached, people talked about “the criminalization of politics” — the idea that Republicans were trying to use the levers of the justice system as a means to prevail in what should be just ordinary political competition. George W. Bush’s administration fired a group of U.S. Attorneys because they were unwilling to pursue bogus voter fraud cases against Democrats or were too willing to investigate genuine corruption among Republican officials. There are cases like the absurd prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, who has been in jail for years because he reappointed to a state health care board a man who had donated money to a lottery initiative Siegelman favored. And there was this guy named J. Edgar Hoover.
But as he has in so many ways, Donald Trump takes every ugly impulse Republicans have and turns it up to 11, and just about the entire party follows him down. So now they are making it very clear that from literally the day Hillary Clinton is inaugurated, they will wage total war on her. There will be no rule or norm or standard of decency they won’t flout if it gets them a step closer to destroying her, no matter what the collateral damage.
It’s important to understand that strong institutions are what separate strong democracies from weak ones. In a strong democracy, one party can’t come into power and just lock up its opponents. It can’t turn the country’s law enforcement agencies into a partisan tool to destroy the other party. It can’t say that the courts will function only at its pleasure. We have the world’s most stable system not just because there aren’t tanks in the streets on election day, but because we have institutions that are strong enough to restrain the venality of individual men and women. And now, Republicans are not even pretending that those institutions should be impartial and transcend partisanship. They’re saying, if we can use them to destroy our opponents, we will. Something is seriously breaking down.
And please, spare me any explanations for this phenomenon that rely on how “divided” Americans are. Are we divided? Sure. But there’s only one party that is so vigorously undermining core democratic institutions in this way. You may not like what Democrats stand for, but they aren’t engaging in widespread official vote suppression, chanting that should their candidate win her opponent should be tossed in jail, promising to prevent any Republican president from filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, suggesting that they’ll try to impeach their opponent as soon as he takes office, cheering when a hostile foreign power hacks into American electronic systems, and trying to use the FBI to win the election.
Only one party is doing all of that. And we should all be very worried about what Republicans will do after November 8, whether they win or lose.