American democracy is now considerably safer than it was before Tuesday, but we’re not out of the woods by a long shot.
For the first time in American history, a president with authoritarian instincts occupies the White House. By now, President Trump’s mimicry of the world’s despots and dictators is well-established. He attacks the press, pardons political allies while calling for the jailing of political enemies, and scapegoats minorities while wrapping himself in a symbolic flag of xenophobic nationalism. His administration is plagued with blatant corruption and ethics violations and nepotism. And his rhetoric is a constant stream of Orwellian lies, punctuated by routine incitements to political violence, and endless praise for dictatorial monsters that he doesn’t just tolerate but actually loves.
But this week, a new chapter begins in the fight to protect American democracy. The battle lines are clear: Democrats can now constrain Trump in new and crucial ways. The Trump wrecking ball — the one that he gleefully smashed into democratic institutions while Republicans in Congress watched the rubble fall — is now on a much shorter chain. Now Trump will face constraints from Democrats exercising their formal powers. But a cornered fighter can be even more dangerous. Trump might lash out against his newfound political confinement, becoming more mercurial, more willing to take risks and more authoritarian.
There’s evidence to suggest that this is already happening. Since Democrats reclaimed the House, Trump has already launched four new lines of attack on democracy itself.
First, Trump finally crossed the Rubicon and fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump’s humiliating and aggressive criticisms of Sessions relate to just one issue: the fact that Sessions followed the rules and properly recused himself from overseeing an investigation into Trump’s campaign. That was objectively the right thing to do. Sessions was part of the campaign that is being investigated by the Justice Department that he oversaw, so the conflict of interest was obvious and disqualifying. But Trump sees politics through a personalist prism, mistakenly believing that his staff serves him, not the country. He is incapable of understanding that some democratic principles, like rule of law, are bigger than one man — because nothing is bigger in Trump’s mind than himself.
Trump firing Sessions is reminiscent of how he fired James B. Comey as FBI director. In both instances, Trump said the quiet part out loud. He told Lester Holt that he fired Comey because he was investigating Trump (which is a blatant abuse of power). And on Twitter, he told the world that he loathed Sessions because he upheld basic principles of rule of law rather than acting as a loyalist hack to “protect” the president from investigations.
Second, Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker to take the place of Sessions as acting attorney general, despite the fact that Whitaker has not been confirmed by the Senate. Some legal analysts argue that Trump’s move was illegal and unconstitutional. But even if Whitaker had been confirmed by the Senate, it’s inescapably obvious that he was chosen because Trump liked the way he bashed the Mueller investigation on television, on Twitter and in op-eds. In Whitaker, Trump has found an anti-Mueller puppet. Together, they can pull strings to interfere in the investigation that threatens Trump’s presidency, his family’s interests and his business interests.
Third, Trump’s attack on the press went from rhetoric to action this week when the White House withdrew credentials from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who persistently asked tough questions of Trump during a rare news conference. Authoritarian regimes frequently dangle the threat of lost access to journalists who challenge the president; Trump’s White House has just joined that club.
Fourth, in deflecting criticism from that blatant attack on press freedom, the White House engaged in a propaganda tactic straight out of an Orwellian dystopia. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the decision to ban Acosta by sharing a doctored video that was edited to make Acosta’s behavior look worse than it was in reality. That video was originally manipulated by a crackpot Twitter troll at Infowars, the lunatic conspiracy theory outlet that has falsely claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked and that John Kerry split a hurricane in half by shooting it with an energy beam from Antarctica. (Trump appeared on Infowars during the 2016 campaign and praised the reputation of its unhinged host.) In a normal world, Sanders would lose her job over such an incident. But she’s more likely to receive glowing praise from Trump.
Each of these behaviors is dangerously authoritarian. Crucially, though, Democrats in the House will soon provide reinforcements in the fight to bolster the nonpartisan forces of democracy and rule of law. Trump, for the first time, will learn the meaning of genuine checks and balances. American democracy is therefore much more likely to survive Trump — but he has made it clear this week that he’s prepared to burn democratic institutions to the ground if it means saving himself. That calculation is likely to define the next two years in American politics. Get ready for a wild ride.