The United States is the oldest democracy in the world. More than 15% of the Thirteen Colonies’ population sacrificed their lives to secure independence and pave the way for a constitution that guarantees our current freedoms. Americans may take our liberties for granted because we’ve always lived with them–the right to vote, protest, and a trial by jury; freedom of speech and the press, to name a few. But billions of people live without these basic rights.
The U.S. Constitution has endured world wars, civil war, foreign invasions, the Great Depression, presidential assassinations, and a presidential resignation. It survived the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and domestic terrorism. But today, 244 years after the country’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence, American democracy is in jeopardy.
When Donald Trump watches the world’s most ruthless dictators–Putin, Erdogan, Un, Jinping, and Duterte–he salivates. If left unchecked, he would suit up and join their ranks. His aspirations are well-documented. Surrounded by fawning acolytes and grifting relatives, he allows his cronies to break the law and defends their guilt, steals with impunity, conspires with foreign governments, enriches himself through his office, and uses the military as a prop. The President of the United States writes love letters to and provides cover for dictators who execute innocent people, build concentration camps, poison opponents, and dismember reporters. He engages in these unAmerican, unpatriotic, and unconstitutional activities while openly degrading our allies, attacking distinguished civil servants, and gutting the integrity of our institutions.
If re-elected by a minority of Americans because of a senseless Electoral College system that fails to render the people’s will, Trump will claim a mandate and reiterate his belief that he has “total authority” under Article II of the Constitution. He will ratchet up his abuse of our laws, justice system, and military. Although Article II limits his powers, Trump has never allowed the Constitution to dictate his actions. He proudly declares that Article II “gives me the right to do whatever the hell I want.” Although congressional Republicans have not yet located the “Do Whatever the Hell I Want” clause in their pocket constitutions, they have established that they will not stop him. They put the preservation of their wealth, fame, and power ahead of the country’s best interests.
James Madison and the framers of the Constitution distributed power among three government branches to preserve our democracy. But Madison didn’t account for one branch exerting so much influence over the others through threats, corruption, and propaganda as to render them near obsolete. Trump has shown us that our democracy’s guardrails are not strong enough to withstand the rise of a fascist. If Madison had given the American people the ability to recall a president by popular vote, as 20 states give their citizens the right to recall their governor, it likely would have been enough to contain Trump, given that he lost the 2016 election by millions of votes. But Madison didn’t envision the other branches would sacrifice American democracy to advance their self-interest.
The cooling system that Madison designed to uphold democracy has failed. Trump’s supporters have become obsessed with what Madison warned against–a pursuit of short-term gratification at the expense of the nation’s long-term interests. Trump’s irresponsible tax cuts for billionaires ballooned the annual budget deficit and national debt (Trump has increased it 40% during his time in office despite absurdly promising to take it to zero during the 2016 campaign) during a time of prosperity. His reckless fiscal mismanagement threatens the sustainability of social security, medicare, and long-term economic prosperity. He failed to manage the pandemic, so that he could prop up the stock market. Trump’s deregulation of the country’s worst polluters at the expense of the well-being of people, animals, and the planet and his refusal to tackle climate change also provides evidence of a presidency built on dangerous shortcuts that will hobble Americans for generations.
The Bush presidency was a disaster–eight years of torture, lies, unjustified war, skyrocketing budget deficits, failed banking oversight, harmful deregulation, economic collapse, gross incompetence, and dirty politics. The nation agreed when it ended that it couldn’t get worse than Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. The fact that some Democrats reminisce about Bush now provides tragic insight into how far we’ve fallen as a nation. But there’s some truth in their nostalgia–even though Bush was a war criminal, he didn’t fawn over dictators, and we never feared he would become a fascist. And when his term ended, we never doubted he would leave.
Before Trump’s election, I wrongly operated on the belief that despite our political differences over public education, tax policy, or healthcare, for example, Americans shared a set of democratic principles that bind our nation together. I believed that we agreed that every president, regardless of party, must not trample the Constitution, abuse their power as commander-in-chief of the military, pathologically lie, solicit foreign interference to cheat in an election, promote insane conspiracy theories, appoint unqualified lackeys to head institutions, invite a quid pro quo, claim total authority, brazenly violate the Emoluments Clause and Hatch Act, and take steps to prevent people from voting. We now know that no such bond exists.
If Trump is re-elected, democracy is dead. It’s hard for most people to fathom that reality given our prior role in the world as a beacon of freedom, but the Republicans in Congress will not block his rise. If Americans allow democracy to end, they will lose their right to free speech, a free press that holds our government accountable, fair elections, truth, and justice. Hong Kong provides a frightening present-day example of how the transition unfolds. These are the choices on the ballot in this election: democracy versus Donald Trump. Nazi Germany, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea were democracies before they fell to dictators. If you think it can’t happen in the United States, think again because the fall of American democracy is already underway.
To the Americans who wish to preserve democracy–as imperfect as it may be, ask yourself what you will do in the final days before the election. Will you donate $5 to the Biden-Harris campaign? Register people to vote by mail? Sign up to be a poll worker? Volunteer to send text messages or make phone calls to inspire people to vote? Call your legislators to express your views? Vote? Because if democracy dies, it will be too late to wish you could’ve done more. Madison is counting on us.