Can the American People Be Trusted with Democracy?
Should Americans re-elect Trump, they will have forfeited any right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
In their book, Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa relate how Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley feared that an unstable President Trump was about to order a nuclear strike on China around the time of the November 2020 election. Milley directed military commanders to refuse to carry out such an order by the commander in chief unless they also consulted Milley.
“General Milley and people in the Pentagon were…apoplectic about Trump and his mental state,” Woodward stated.
Prominent Republican attorney George Conway dubbed it, “The Caine Mutiny with plutonium.”
Pause a moment and think about how crazy it is. A scene that would have gone to the cutting room floor of Dr. Strangelove is reality in 2020. Unprecedented in American history. And we hardly bat an eye, so used to lunacy in our politics as we are.
Both as a military intelligence officer and as a Foreign Service officer, I worked on programs involving preparations for nuclear war. Granted the vaunted “Q” (since purloined by the QAnon crowd) clearance, I had a ringside seat at the arena of oblivion, and, believe me, it’s not a pretty sight. But we public servants who were entrusted with managing our nuclear offensive and defensive capabilities never had to worry that our commander in chief would go rogue. That was grist for Hollywood, not Washington.
But what we could not foresee was that decades of meticulously devised protocols overseen by sane and sober political officials could be swept away by a moron in chief through the whimsical powers of democracy. As H.L. Mencken said,
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
During those tense autumn days of 2020, debate turned to the 25th amendment — that which lays down procedures for removing a president who is deemed by at least half the cabinet and the vice president to be unable to carry out the duties of his office. Audio recordings coming out now reveal House minority leader Kevin McCarthy expressing to colleagues his disgust with Trump and the need to remove him from office either through impeachment or the 25th amendment. Yet they did nothing. Worse, McCarthy, a shining exemplar of hypocrisy, traveled to Mar-a-Loco to prostrate himself before the Mad Hatter.
I’ve made the case for Trump being either a witting or unwitting asset of Moscow since the 2016 campaign in Trump is a Russian Asset & Here’s Why, Tinker, Tailor, Mogul, Spy? and The Case for Treason — citing the following:
If I were Trump’s SVR or GRU case officer, I would instruct him to 1) destroy NATO and insult our allies, 2) attack and undercut the CIA, FBI, Justice Department, State Department, 3) do away with Russia sanctions and not aid Ukraine, 4) take no actions to counter Russian cyber-attacks, 5) wreck liberal democracy.
To the point, Trump and Trumpism pose an existential danger to our national security, not to mention our democracy. YET — there is a good chance he will be re-elected in 2024. Which leads me to the central question:
What is Wrong with the American People?
We have experienced and overcome some terribly aberrant periods in our history: slavery, anti-immigrant Know Nothingism and a surging Ku Klux Klan, the pre-World War II MAGA movement, McCarthyism. But we managed a national reset, rejected the fringe and tacked back to center. It was only the Civil War that required massive bloodshed to eliminate an evil institution and reunite the nation.
I attribute our current malaise and polarization to the rise of populism:
History has shown that unconstrained capitalism and a growing wealth gap leads to an unhealthy concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. When the gap between the haves and the have-nots goes unchecked, populism takes hold, leading to the election of dangerous demagogues like Trump, and the disastrous politics they bring with them. It is not too late to reverse course. But first, we need re-learn the lessons from our first Gilded Age if we are going to get out of the current one.
The men who midwifed the United States were too aware of the dangers that populism could wreak, as noted by historian Akim Reinhardt:
Many of the founders believed that, generally speaking, the mass of citizens are corruptible and easily swayed. This makes them susceptible to charismatic leaders, or even chaotic mob rule. So if you let the people decide what to do, it won’t be long before they either hand the reins of government over to some charming rapscallion who will quickly establish himself as a brutal despot, or the whole thing will simply devolve into anarchy and bloodshed.
I believe the founders had it right. The American people, occupying a continent-sized, prosperous nation buffered from the “Old World” by two oceans, have not, since the Civil War, experienced invasion or menacing neighbors. Admittedly, the nuclear age has largely changed that. The vast majority of Americans, however, go about their daily lives fairly oblivious of what is happening in the rest of the world. Compared with many nations, life is good. Perhaps they take too much for granted.
Yet the U.S. ranks 36 among 79 nations in math test scores, and 13 in reading. One survey has found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution;” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” I would wager that most Americans would flunk the civics exam immigrants must pass to become a citizen.
With just over half of eligible Americans exercising their right to vote in general elections, the U.S. ranks 30 out of 39 (OECD) nations in voter turnout.
Add to this dismal data the structural distortions in our electoral system centering on the Electoral College and efforts by Republicans in recent years to suppress the vote and pack the courts with right-wing judges, not to mention launch a coup, and things don’t look pretty for the United States going forward.
So, then, what’s my point? That the American people have forfeited the sacrosanct responsibility passed onto them by the Founding Fathers to uphold democracy, and to enjoy the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
If they make Donald Trump, or someone like him, president again, my answer is Yes.
And should that calamity happen, I can reassume my position at the arena of oblivion, sadly ponder the end of the American Experiment, and concur with H.L. Mencken that “Democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses.”