David LeonhardtOp-Ed Columnist
Two quick thoughts on the Steve Bannon-President Trump feud:
One, it’s a sign of the apparent seriousness of the Russia investigation for Trump’s family and inner circle. The insults got the attention, but the more significant part of Bannon’s remarks may be the “logical, cold-eyed recognition” that prosecutors are building a powerful case, notes Errol Louis at CNN.
Two, the feud is a reminder that Bannon has failed to accomplish his biggest ambition: Expanding the Republican coalition to include many more middle-class and working-class voters. “Steve Bannon had a chance to be a genuinely significant figure in American politics and he blew it,” my colleague Ross Douthat wrote on Twitter.
Democracy. Later this month, an alarmingly titled book, “How Democracies Die,” written by two political scientists, will be published. It is, as the book’s promotional material states, “a bracing, revelatory look at the demise of liberal democracies around the world — and a road map for rescuing our own.”
That last part seems the most important. I remain optimistic that the Trump presidency will turn out to be a phase rather than a turning point in American history. But it would be foolish to dismiss the threats to our system of government. They’re greater than I ever expected to see.
One recent example: In his interview with The Times last week, President Trump spoke admiringly of obviously autocratic tactics, such as using law enforcement as a raw exercise of power. “The president,” as Jonathan Chait points out, “explained his belief that the Department of Justice on principle ought to cover up crimes by the president and his administration.” Trump clearly believes that he deserves to be above the rule of law.
So what does “How Democracies Die” — by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both of Harvard — say about how the country should respond to an aspiring autocrat?
The first and most important line of defense, they say, is Trump’s own party. In other countries, would-be authoritarians have often been stopped (or further empowered) by their own party. “Most Republican leaders seem to know that Trump is grossly unfit for office,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write (in a joint Q&A at the bottom of this web page). Yet “few Republicans have been willing to state publicly what most of them surely know: the Emperor has no clothes. Fear and opportunism have prevailed over the defense of our country and its democratic institutions.”
Unless the Republican Party becomes more willing to stand up to Trump — and I deeply hope it will if he tries to obstruct the Russia investigation further — the next best hope lies with electing more Democrats. Doing so will require energizing liberals, of course. But it will also mean realizing that the current situation is too important for ideological purity.
Levitsky and Ziblatt write: “Mobilizing the vote in 2018 and 2020 is essential. But there is something else that ordinary Americans must do: Try to build broader coalitions in defense of democracy. To ensure democracy’s survival, we must build alliances that extend beyond traditional party lines. For liberals, this means forging perhaps uncomfortable alliances — with right-of-center businesspeople, evangelical Christians, and dissident conservatives, among others. A blue-state coalition is simply not enough. This is often hard work, and it involves compromise. But an awful lot is at stake.”