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Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, Contemplating an Unfounding Father

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You should know that things are already not going well in your country when a majority of the Electoral College, if not of Americans, elects a con man as president, a "businessman" whose greatest success was landing on his feet, money in hand, after his five casinos went up in flames. You should know that things are already not going well in your country when you vote in a guy who never had an opinion (except about himself) or a political position he couldn't change to his advantage, depending on the moment. You should know that things are already not going well when the man you put in the Oval Office was previously best known for having his name in giant gold letters on hotels, for starring in a reality show called The Celebrity Apprentice, and for picking up and promoting a racist conspiracy theory in which the birth certificate of your previous president was promoted as fraudulent. You should know that things are already not going well when, once in office, that same man uses the power of the presidency to pardon a crew of rich white guys convicted of tax fraud and other financial shenanigans (or put another way, he essentially pre-pardoned himself).

And if the fact that things aren't going well in this American world of ours wasn't apparent to you, given that fellow in the White House now running a vigorous campaign for reelection, then check out the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, on our disintegrating democracy. Tom

How Democracy Ends
Not With a Bang But With a Whimper
By Karen J. Greenberg

In this fast-paced century, rife with technological innovation, we've grown accustomed to the impermanence of things. Whatever is here now will likely someday vanish, possibly sooner than we imagine. Movies and music that once played on our VCRs and stereos have given way to infinite choices in the cloud. Cash currency is fast becoming a thing of the past. Cars will soon enough be self-driving. Stores where you could touch and feel your purchases now lie empty as online shopping sucks up our retail attention.

The ever-more-fleeting nature of our physical world has been propelled in the name of efficiency, access to ever more information, and improvement in the quality of life. Lately, however, a new form of impermanence has entered our American world, this time in the political realm, and it has arrived not gift-wrapped as progress but unpackaged as a profound setback for all to see. Longstanding democratic institutions, processes, and ideals are falling by the wayside at a daunting rate and what's happening is often barely noticed or disparaged as nothing but a set of passing problems. Viewed as a whole, however, such changes suggest that we're watching democracy disappear, bit by bit.

Plenty of Checks But No Balances

A recent sign of our eroding democratic world was on display earlier this month with the eradication of trust in the impeachment process. Impeachment, of course, was the Constitution's protection against the misuse of power by a president. When all was said and done and the Senate had let Donald Trump off the hook, it was clear enough that the power, the threat, of impeachment had itself been thoroughly hollowed out and made ineffectual.

On both sides of the aisle, senators agreed that the president had erred. Republican Lamar Alexander, for example, thought his actions were "wrong" and "inappropriate"; Republican Joni Ernst believed that he had "mishandled" things; while Rob Portman and Susan Collins, echoing Alexander's sentiments, also labeled his actions "wrong." It made no difference. The four of them like all the other Republican senators except Utah's Mitt Romney had, to say the least, no appetite for removing their party's president from office.

But the real lesson the country should have taken home was this: in the future, it would be foolish to place the slightest hope for protecting democracy in the process that Founding Father James Monroe once described as "the main spring of the great machine of government." Today, no matter the facts, impeachment is dead in the partisan waters, an historical anomaly that's long outlived its time.

The failure of impeachment also brought to light the weakness of the constitutional principle of checks and balances. In theory, when it comes to presidential behavior, Congress and the courts have the power to rein in the chief executive. But in this century, both congressional and judicial restraints have proven anemic. One of the many obvious things highlighted by the recent impeachment acquittal in the Senate is Congress's ultimate ineffectuality when it comes to presidential power.

Donald Trump's unabashed willingness to use his veto power in a fulsome, even autocratic, fashion only underscores this presidential reality. Recently, for instance, he confirmed that he will veto any bill passed by Congress requiring that he consult that body before launching military attacks on Iran. If recent history holds any lesson for us, it's that Trump will do no such consulting, especially given the historic weakness of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Congress passed it to emphasize the necessity of getting its consent for war, but ever since its inception Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all found ways around it.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the courts, Attorney General William Barr has boldly stated his belief that the president's power dwarfs that of the other branches of government. "In recent years," he claimed late in 2019, "both the legislative and judicial branches have been responsible for encroaching on the presidency's constitutional authority." True to his word, Barr has worked to ensure that the Justice Department has barely a scintilla of independence from the president, even as he lamented Trump's public display via tweet of controlling the attorney general and that very department.

Of course, Barr's modest protest about that tweeting rang hollow, given his actions. He played the central role in taking the sting out of the Mueller Report by publicly misrepresenting its conclusions before it was released. His Justice Department endeavored to give blanket immunity from testifying to Congress to individuals close to the president, decreeing that they were not compelled to appear, even when subpoenaed to do so -- an assertion overruled by a federal judge but left unresolved in the courts to date.

Barr has also publicly rewritten history to contest, as he put it, the "grammar school civics class version of our Revolution... [as] a rebellion against monarchial tyranny." Instead, he claimed, in making their new system, what the founders really feared was the tyranny of the "prime antagonist," the British legislative body or parliament. And within days of the Senate's acquittal of the president, Barr was once again on the march against obstacles to any presidential assertion of power. He even overruled his own prosecutors in the wake of a tweet by the president, and called for a reduction in the seven-to-nine year sentencing recommendations they were planning to make for presidential pal Roger Stone.

Like the impeachment process, the theory and practice of checks and balances now lies in ruin in a country whose billionaire president has written plenty of checks without balances of any sort. Think of him, in fact, as our very own unfounding father.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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