The key to establishing an authoritarian regime is executive control over the judiciary.
Power corrupts. No office or institution or individual can totally and forever be trusted with unlimited power, and to impose the burden of such mindless trust upon any human or institution would constitute an unfair temptation. It follows that freedom is a plant that will wither in the political desert lacking transparency. Transparency is the bright sunlight that allows the political garden of freedom to grow. But transparency–officials acting openly so citizens can monitor their behavior–is not enough to cultivate freedom any more than plants can grow, even in sunlight, without roots to transfer nutrients, and the taproot of freedom is the independence of the judiciary.
Power is radioactive. Just as uranium is a bountiful source of electricity, so is political power a bountiful dynamo for generating social development. But just as uranium can either slowly pollute or devastating explode and destroy the physical environment, so can political power slowly pollute or suddenly devastate the social environment and the system of government.
To minimize the threat of political power turning malignant, modern societies employ both illumination from outside the government and portioning out of power within the government. The former facilitates public monitoring of the public’s chosen representatives; the latter balances different groups of power-holders off against each other. Awarding some powers to states, some to the center, those unspecified to the people; awarding some powers to the executive branch, some to the legislative; and–most importantly, ensuring that no one and no institution is above the law by protecting the independence of the judiciary from the rest of the executive branch are the control rods that enable the radioactive fuel of social development to be consumed without a political explosion.
If control over the judiciary is the key to dictatorship, then the independence of the judiciary is the key to liberty. Liberty requires much more: an informed and committed populace, a marketplace of ideas in which media and individuals may safely criticize leaders, elections not for sale and open to reform movements…but the internal ability of the government to discipline itself by protecting the judicial professionals from corruption by officials is the most crucial weapon for the defense of the people’s liberty.
Senator Jeff Flake:
A lot of people are concerned about where we’re going … the vitriol that we now see daily, the kind of behavior that the President has exhibited, saying over the weekend, or on Friday, saying the FBI should go after the President’s political adversaries….To have a President say that, that is not normal and we shouldn’t accept it as normal.
Senator Lindsay Graham:
The president of the United States is in charge of the executive branch, it’s not his job to be telling the attorney general to be prosecuting a particular individual or group. It is the attorney general’s job to do that….We have a rule of law that is independent of political influence, and when you call on your attorney general to prosecute your former opponent, that is crossing the line…
Senator John McCain:
We are asleep in our echo chambers, where our views are always affirmed and information that contradicts them is always fake. We are asleep in our polarized politics, which exaggerates our differences, looks for scapegoats instead of answers, and insists we get all our way all the time from a system of government based on compromise, principled cooperation and restraint.
All the while the associations, rules, values and aspirations that comprise the international order we have superintended for three-quarters of a century are under gathering attack from regimes that desire a world less just and less free and more corrupt. And they are under attack from forces within liberal democracies themselves, parties that preach resentful nationalism rather than enlightened self-interest, nativism rather than equal justice.
Senator Elizabeth Warren:
Slurs, lies & trash talk won’t stop the FBI from doing its job. This isn’t a dictatorship. It’s our democracy. And it’s stronger than you.
Senator Bob Corker:
President Trump’s pressuring of the Justice Department and FBI to pursue cases against his adversaries and calling for punishment before trials take place are totally inappropriate and not only undermine our justice system but erode the American people’s confidence in our institutions.
Former Attorney General Sally Yates:
DOJ not a tool for POTUS to use to go after his enemies and protect his friends. Respect rule of law and DOJ professionals. This must stop.
When high officials who have been accused of endangering the nation can simply sneer, toss out a couple childish insults, and change the subject, the concept “democracy” no longer has much meaning. It doesn’t take a dictatorship; it just takes a majority of top officials looking the other way.
Given the extremely serious nature of the charges against Trump made in recent days by three GOP Senators—Corker, McCain, and Flake, the lack of substance in Trump’s meeting with GOP Senators on Oct. 24 (as described by The Hill) was shamefully unprofessional, to the point of Senatorial dereliction of duty. Trump stands charged some of the most prominent leaders in his own party of irresponsible, reckless, immature behavior threatening domestic unity and national security.
Senator Corker: Trump’s recklessness threatens to put the nation “on the path to World War III” [New York Times.]
Senator McCain: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.” [The Hill.]
Senator Flake: “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons.” [CNN.]
But apparently not a single Senator bothered asking the President to respond substantively to these charges…charges representing some of the most thoughtful, substantive remarks on the state of the union and U.S. national security heard this century from a Republican politician.
Charges of provoking World War III or debasing the union are not charges to tossed out and dropped. That Trump chooses to evade the charges and instead respond with insults says much about the accuracy of these Senators’ verbal arrows. That they could make such charges, which—if accurate—surely merit impeachment, and then simply walk away, is almost unthinkable. That the whole rest of the Republican Senate majority could smile inanely and eat lunch with the accused speaks volumes about the pathetic poll numbers of a Congress broadly perceived as inept.
Senator Cruz’ remark is among the most blatant examples:
“We’ve got a job to do, damn it, and so all of this nonsense, I got [sic] nothing to say on it. Everyone shut up and do your job, is my view.” [The Hill.]
One can only wonder why Senator Cruz evidently does not think “abandoning our ideals” or “degrading” the country or risking nuclear war might be a threat meriting Senate attention.
As immature and distorted as a tweet is likely to be, the tweets of a master can nonetheless be highly informative.
Donald Trump tweeted, “The Democrats only want to increase taxes and obstruct.” If I tweeted back, I might ask, “Which is worse – lying or deceiving by omission?” Well, the answer depends on the thoughtfulness of the reader.
Trump is absolutely correct that Democrats want to increase some taxes:
Democrats (at least the progressive ones) want to increase taxes on Wall St. moguls who gamble with other people’s money. When you get rich off the money of others, you should behave responsibly with it. Derivatives and all the even more risky financial instruments derived from derivatives are not exactly rational ways of investing or developing the economy.
Democrats want to increase taxes on socially harmful behavior: taxes are a much more effective and humane way of encouraging good behavior than jail.
Democrats want to increase taxes on the super-rich, who don’t even begin to compensate society for their extravagant privileges.
Democrats want to increase taxes on corporations that cheat on their taxes.
And we could easily propose some additional tax increases – raising taxes on war profiteers, for example.
Trump is also correct that the Democrats want to obstruct some forms of behavior:
Democrats want to obstruct financial corruption.
Democrats want to obstruct neo-Nazi, white supremacist, racist violence.
Democrats want to obstruct political repression of the media and attacks on responsible free speech. [Urging a mob to burn down your neighbor’s house, for example, would not be “responsible free speech.”]
Democrats want to obstruct divisive behavior.
Democrats want to obstruct efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary.
Democrats want to obstruct attacks on Constitutionally mandated civil liberties.
Democrats want to obstruct tax policies that further enrich the super-rich at the expense of everyone else.
Democrats want to obstruct the twisting of the health care system into a system to coddle the rich and leave the poor behind.
Democrats want to obstruct war for profit.
Yes, Democrats want to increase some taxes and obstruct some nefarious plots. Democrats should thank Donald Trump for shining the spotlight on the fundamental divide separating progressive Democrats from regressive Republicans…and persist.
Reality is of course not quite that simple. Not only are there one or two cases of Democrats still grossly beholden to Big Finance and Big Pharma and Big Oil, but shocking evidence of progressive attitudes among certain Republicans has recently come to light. Progressive Democrats would be well advised to extend their hands in friendship…
Words matter, e.g., crying fire in a crowded theater. If public personalities with particular influence over society–e.g., a CEO, a newspaperman, a politician, a government official–were knowingly to tell a lie with serious implications for justice, national security, or social stability, surely we can all agree that the guilty person should be held accountable. In the current case of alleged White House desires to enormously enhance the size of the U.S. nuclear bomb force, the danger of misinformation is equally enormous: for reporter or politician to lie about such a crucial national security issue would indeed constitute “disgusting irresponsibility” and–in a democracy–the public has a need to know.
Congress should immediately launch a bipartisan House and Senate ethnics, intelligence, or foreign policy committee investigation to review the evidence and hold responsible anyone who lied. Be it lies about nuclear policy or efforts to censor the media, inflammatory speech by public personalities constitutes a metaphorical dropping of matches that can light real fires.
The term in office of Presidents who lie should be “challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.”
Words matter. The word of the President matters the most of all. Pay heed.
Dear White House:
Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, addressing cadets, speaking to us all, especially you…
If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
Imagine two leaders, each with the power to start a war, each grasping desperately for some way to gain domestic legitimacy despite obvious lack of leadership skills, and each terminally immature. Now, imagine that one of these bullies happens to be old and leading a status-quo superpower while the other is young and leading a tiny, poverty-stricken state focused on altering the status quo. So, the two bullies do what bullies do: they snarl at each other, dare each other, scornfully reject “talk” even though talking is exactly what they do. Neither (in this idiotic and obviously imaginary scenario) has a clue of how to implement a rational national security strategy, but each is highly skilled at winning personal battles by very loud, public talking backed up by life-long determination never, ever to let facts get in the way and never, ever backing down.
The paragraph above can be viewed as a model, highly simplified for the purpose of permitting easy analysis of the core issue. Do not read into this psychological model any implied reference to any real-life situation. Read the first paragraph again. Forget reality; just think about the facts in this little “model,” i.e., “simplification.” It is not reality. It is not meant to be reality. It is a toy, if you like that word, a scenario designed to facilitate thinking about the following question:
The aged leader of a status quo superpower clinging to global supremacy puts his personal prestige on the line against the little, backwater, isolated, marginalized tough guy. Suppose they draw? Who emerges from a draw in a better position?
A “draw” in this scenario is nothing subtle. It simply means that after all the mutual mouthing-off, nothing happens…except that they each get hoarse and move on to other activities. Sound levels decline, and the world sighs in relief. So…who has won?
Phrased differently, which one can walk away smirking? The most powerful man on earth has just achieved a “draw” against some “punk.” The result is that the two bullies sneered, yelled, refused to “talk” or bow down yet neither threw a punch, and then they both stalked off.
Does the “king” now have greater international prestige? Are the citizens of the king’s country now proud of how “tough” their king is? Do they feel more secure? However they feel, in fact are they more secure?
Does the “punk” feel less personally secure in his position of leadership? Will he still be marginalized and ignored by the rest of the world after facing down the vastly more powerful “king”?
In sum, given a draw, “Who wins?”
Now, return to the model, but this time assume that war breaks out, with the predictable outcome that the weak state is crushed and surrenders. Now, who wins?
Has the “king” enhanced his reputation by provoking and winning a one-sided war that “he cannot lose?” If the “punk” lives and his state continues to exist, albeit soundly defeated, does he feel humiliated by have challenged Goliath and lost…or will he now brag that he faced down a bully, consolidate domestic power, and plan for a new confrontation?
In sum, given victory by the stronger, “Who wins?”
It hardly seems necessary to continue this analysis by considering who wins if, following a war, the weak leader manages to extract some concession despite losing.