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2018 is the year that will decide if Trumpocracy replaces American democracy

Loyalty to Donald Trump is the new principle of Republican Party politics.

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If Republicans hold on to both houses of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, the American system of government could very well collapse into Donald Trump’s distinctive — and disturbing — vision of a personalized, authoritarian state.

Dozens of Republicans in Congress started out skeptical of Trump but have fallen in line behind him as he signed their top initiatives into law, like a trillion-dollar giveaway to the very rich. In exchange they’ve turned a blind eye to Trump’s significant financial conflicts of interest, repeated efforts to undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process, and more. The few remaining critics plan to leave Washington.

This is one of Trump’s most underappreciated political achievements of the year: consolidation of power over a party to which he had scant personal or institutional ties. And all signs are that if Republicans win in 2018, slavish loyalty to Trump will only grow more ingrained, especially because Trump himself makes no secret that loyalty to him is the key to access, and access is the key to policy influence.

In their new book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt flag this as a key threat to democratic stability. Institutions don’t typically collapse under sudden attack. Rather, “if a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order, it is tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him.” From Mussolini to Hugo Chávez, authoritarians end up winning because these “fateful alliances” end up leading establishment politicians to collaborate with the demagogue not just on their points of policy agreement but on the demagogue’s desire to dismantle critical institutions.

Public opinion polling suggests that the merged Trump-establishment party is hideously unpopular and headed for electoral defeat. If that happens and Democrats gain control of at least one house of Congress, then the system of checks and balances will begin to operate as designed, and the various institutions of the American state will have their independence secured.

But if Republicans manage to hold the majority, the Trumpocracy will be upon us.

“Ideological collusion” threatens American democracy

The relationship between Republicans on Capitol Hill and Trump is to an extent partisan politics as usual — the majority party is backing their president, who supports their core policy agenda. But there’s something much more worrisome at play.

Congressional Republicans — including ones who said they didn’t vote for him, and ones like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake who’ve pronounced him to be a danger to the Republic — have done more than stick with Trump on policy. They’ve also decided to stick with Trump on topics like whether it’s appropriate for the president to have large secret income streams or berate the Justice Department for declining to indict his political enemies.

Right now congressional Republicans, who control investigative committees that can send subpoenas for documents and can compel witnesses to come in and testify, are both completely ignoring Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and, worse, using their oversight powers to push Trump’s narrative that the FBI is biased against him.

This is what Levitsky and Ziblatt term “ideological collusion,” when “the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.”

That’s not an inevitable political outcome. In the Austrian presidential election of 2016 and then again in the French presidential election of 2017, mainstream center-right party leaders backed a center-left candidate over his far-right opponents. And the core underlying premise of America’s Madisonian system of separation of powers is that congressional leaders of either party will play a role in safeguarding America’s institutional framework.

But in the United States right now, the Republican Party isn’t following suit. Instead, Republicans are playing the ideological collusion game. “Leading national Republican politicians such as Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz endorsed Donald Trump,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write, and since his victory Republicans who didn’t endorse him have fallen in line.

What’s particularly striking about this consolidation is that Trump has only become less popular over time. One might expect basic political prudence to start pushing some congressional Republicans to distance themselves from him in order to save their own necks. Instead, the GOP has drawn itself closer to him. This is disturbing. But it also raises the prospect that Republicans will simply be beaten in the midterms and the balance of oversight will flip.

Trump has consolidated power inside the GOP

Last winter, Donald Trump found himself in a peculiar position.

He’d won the election, but he had the weakest personal ties to the party he nominally led of any president in decades.

A couple dozen GOP members of Congress declined to endorse his presidential campaign, and dozens more were openly skeptical of him throughout 2016. That left him with a core cadre of personal retainers like his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Breitbart founder Steve Bannon, rather than people in a position to really help him run the government.

The hostility to Trump generally took two prongs, exemplified by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s quip that nominating Trump would lead to certain electoral disaster — disaster that the GOP deserved.

Two consequences flowed from this.

One was that Trump was essentially forced to appoint a government composed overwhelmingly of GOP establishment types, many of whom were not particularly loyal to him on a personal level. Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary, once called him a “cancer” on the conservative movement, and some of Trump’s White House staff jobs even went to GOP staffers who’d quietly voted for Hillary Clinton.

The other was that Trump at least potentially faced an unusually high level of scrutiny for a president whose party controlled Congress. Senate Republicans who’d pronounced candidate Trump unfit for office would surely hold his actual conduct to a high bar. And there was at least a glimmer of this in the early move by GOP Russia hawks to launch a bipartisan inquiry into election meddling and ultimately prevent Trump from implementing the kind of pro-Russian foreign policy he’d talked about on the campaign trail.

Those days are long gone. Graham, far from thinking that the GOP deserves destruction, now does unpaid product placement work for Trump’s businesses.

There has been no oversight forthcoming from either house of Congress into the ways Trump sells access to the presidency via his private clubs or the ways foreign governments are doing favors for Trump-owned businesses. These days, when congressional Republicans speak about the Russia investigation, it’s typically to insinuate that the FBI is a hotbed of anti-Trump sentiment, with some Republican lawmakers even explicitly calling for a “purge” of the Justice Department.

2019 could show us Trump unleashed

So far, Trump has been extremely long on demagogic bluster but rather conventional — if extremely right-wing in some respects — on policy. But Levitsky and Ziblatt note that this is entirely typical. Even Adolf Hitler was dismissed by many as a buffoon. But they argue that demagogues typically do “eventually cross the line from words to action,” because “a demagogue’s rise to power tends to polarize society.”

You can see this in action in the shifting balance of power between Trump’s fealty to congressional Republicans’ ideological agenda and their fealty to Trump’s demands for loyalty.

Back in February, when Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to a Supreme Court seat was pending, Gorsuch offered senators reassurances of his independence from Trump and denounced Trump’s attacks on the judiciary as “demoralizing.” Trump was privately furious about this disloyalty — the Washington Post reported that he even mused behind closed doors about rescinding the nomination — but he kept his doubts to himself, and Senate Republicans were elated with Gorsuch’s responses.

In May, Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey out of anger at his disloyalty. Republicans allowed that this was within his legal authority, but generally endorsed calls for the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation, and at Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearings they were all at pains to emphasize their support for the FBI’s independence from the West Wing.

But by December, the fundamental basis of partisan politics in America had been rewritten around attitudes toward Trump. Congressional Republicans were eagerly piling on with conspiracy theories about Robert Mueller and dedicating their oversight hearings to the FBI.

And when the Post’s story came out last month, there was no backlash at all. The notion that federal judges should be evaluated based on their loyalty to Trump was no longer a scandalous thought in Republican Party circles. And every Republican district court judge who might be interested in a promotion to the appeals court knows it. By the same token, every field office chief in the FBI and every assistant US attorney in America has seen the entire congressional Republican Party stand by the notion that personal loyalty to Trump is the right benchmark for public service.

That doesn’t mean professionals will immediately start corrupting themselves to serve Trump. But it does mean that whatever minority of judges and officials are genuinely Trump enthusiasts will know that they have the green light to politicize their work. And whoever doesn’t want to work like that will know it might make sense to quietly head for the doors. Mere careerists will just see what it takes to go along to get along.

Democratic majorities could bury Trump in subpoenas

Trump often acts as if he is unaware of exactly how vulnerable he is on the investigative front in the event that Democrats win a majority in the House or Senate. He has, for example, warned special counsel Robert Mueller not to go poking around in his family’s finances — arguing that should be off limits for an inquiry that’s supposed to be about Russia and the 2016 election.

But congressional committees can investigate whatever they want, and the finances of the Trump Organization and the extended Trump family certainly fit the bill.

Everything from Trump’s secret tax returns to the secret membership rosters at Trump’s various clubs will likely come to light in the event Democrats gain hold of the subpoena power. Democrats will also want to look into the sexual assault allegations against Trump, giving his victims the ability to offer sworn testimony on the matter and forcing congressional Republicans into the awkward position of explicitly defending the alleged groper-in-chief rather than simply ignoring the charges.

This would all spell trouble for Trump, both politically and financially, but it could also be paralyzing to his government. The Trump White House has already seen unprecedented levels of turnover, which would only be accelerated by the legal bills that would follow from a Democratic majority.

Last and by no means least, congressional oversight would allow career government officials — whether in law enforcement, the intelligence community, or the civil service — to bring forward complaints of bias, abuse of power, and politicization of work that should be nonpartisan. Sunlight per se is no guarantee against abuses of power, but it’s certainly a potent check on them. Conversely, if the newly Trumpified GOP holds power, the gloves will really be off in terms of asserting control over the bureaucracy.

This is, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, often a slower process than one might imagine — “the erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps,” composed of “quietly firing civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replacing them with loyalists” while packing the courts over time and eventually turning the intelligence and security services into arms of partisan politics. Thomas Honan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday morning on Fox News that elected officials in “sanctuary cities” should be arrested and held personally responsible if undocumented immigrants in their jurisdiction commit crimes. That’s not actually going to happen, at least not in the near term.

But Honan isn’t going to be fired for his clearly inappropriate proposal. Nor will he be attacked in conservative media, presidential tweets, or GOP congressional hearings the way Wray has been. And as more jobs open up and are consistently filled with Honans rather than Wrays, the unthinkable steadily becomes the inevitable.

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