The Cost of Freedom is Worth It & Why We Need Each Other to Defeat Autocracy

February 12th, 2017

Please bear with me. I’m not writing this to be popular (it may do the opposite), but because I have never been so afraid in my life and this is the best way I can think of to try to do something about it. I ask you to please consider this argument for what we need to do to save our Democracy from unprecedented crisis.

America has never faced an internal threat like the Presidency of Donald J. Trump. It will take courage, understanding, empathy and respect to fight back the unprecedented threat. The threat I am talking about isn’t the obvious attempt by the regime to destroy liberalism and civil rights, setting back the incremental progress we’ve been making since our country’s founding. No. The threat is much more serious and lasting than that. I can’t be more clear and unambiguous than this: President Trump, backed by white nationalists and Russia, is at this very moment, working day and night to complete an autocratic takeover of the United States – not a temporary one that will be over in 4-8 years, but one that will last forever.

I am greatly encouraged by both the tremendous increase in civic involvement as well as the principled stand made by the Judiciary in opposing the President’s illegal Muslim ban executive order. At the same time, Trump continues to push the boundaries of our Democratic institutions – testing them – and it has only been 3 weeks. 3 WEEKS.

Please follow my logic here, because I think it’s REALLY important. If you believe (like I do) that Trump is compromised by Russia and deeply conflicted to the point where if we knew all the details, Congress would be forced to immediately remove him, then the following MUST be true: Trump CAN’T let the details be known. He MUST keep them secret or his regime (and his life) will collapse. The closer we get to the truth, the more radical (and potentially violent) the pushback and encroachment on civil liberties from the administration will be. Leading experts in political science, autocracy, intelligence and democratization, like Sarah Kendzior, Jasmin Mujanović and John Schindler have been giving VERY ominous signals about where this is headed.

The warning signs are here right now and if we don’t do something extraordinary, our Constitution, our liberties and the balance of power among the three branches of government will be a quaint memory. I’ve heard a lot of excuses on all sides about how Trump will inevitably implode so there isn’t any need to work together. This is flawed and dangerous reasoning. The closer Trump gets to imploding, the more dangerous he becomes to our Democracy. The normal political process is on the verge of failure and that is PRECISELY the moment when autocracy can thrive.

What can we do about this?

  1. Recognize that in a nation of 320 million people, only a small fraction hold views that are exactly like yours.
  2. Recognize that the vast majority do NOT want an autocratic government that does not respect democratic norms.
  3. Recognize that Trump benefits from political divisions (tribalism) among us. Progressives, moderates, libertarians & conservatives aren’t going to agree on many (in some cases most) things.
  4. This is the key to saving America: Recognize that tribalism doesn’t have to get in the way of all of us banding together around what we DO agree on; defending democratic institutions, norms and the Constitution as our PRIMARY immediate goal.

Let me be even more explicit. Focus all your energy on opposing the specific threat that Trump poses to our Democracy. Do NOT take for granted that we will win this fight. Put aside (just until the imminent threat has passed) your concerns about the size of our government, progressive economics, aggressive vs. passive foreign policy, the 2-party system and other policy differences that reasonable people can debate. I’m not downplaying the importance of these differences. They exist and America is at its best when we can have civil debate and compromise. But that is not possible right now. In fact, it will NEVER be possible again if we don’t stop Trump from completing his autocratic takeover.

So instead, focus your outrage on these three things that will bring down Trump and allows us all to live freely to fight policy battles with one another when our Democracy is no longer in imminent peril.

  1. Defend the free press and Judiciary – The Press and the Courts are the last line of defense between Trump and autocratic control. If he can neutralize them, he wins and we lose. When Trump demonizes either, regardless of whether you agree with a court’s decision or support a specific news outlet, be outraged! Contact (by any and all means) your members of Congress and tell them you are AFRAID for our Republic and that you EXPECT that they publicly push back on the President’s undemocratic rhetoric.
  2. Demand a government that is verifiably not corrupt, including the release of all information relating to Trump’s conflicts. Leading Constitutional scholars are in near unanimous agreement that Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Corruption is corrosive to democracy and is a crucial ingredient necessary for the growth of autocracy. Contact (by any and all means) your members of Congress and tell them you won’t support them unless they publicly demand Trump divest all assets that create a conflict of interest and release his tax returns to prove compliance to the American people.
  3. Demand an independent investigation into the role Russia played in the U.S. election including cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence. At this very moment, the Russian government, our geopolitical foe for 70+ years, very likely has eyes and ears in the White House. Our own intelligence services do not trust the President and his advisers. Foreign intelligence services have been advised not to share intelligence information with the Trump administration because everyone knows it will end up in Russia. Contact (by any and all means) your members of Congress and demand they publicly support an independent investigation that is NOT overseen by the Attorney General.

Right now, you may be saying to yourself, yes Matt, but the GOP controls Congress. Why would they rein in anything that a GOP President does? The answer is that they won’t unless their gerrymandered constituencies force them to. The question then becomes, how do we get GOP constituencies to force the GOP Congress to rein in Trump and ultimately get rid of him? The answer is complicated, strategic and humbling.

A lot of people in the GOP are already very wary of Trump. The Never Trump movement is growing under the banner of Evan McMullin and others. These constituents aren’t happy with Trump’s disrespect for the Constitution, corruption, closeness to Russia and proclivity to increase spending and the size of government. Less than 9 percent of GOP House Members and only 3 GOP senators would have to agree with Democrats on Trump in order to create a simple majority in both houses of Congress. We can make that happen by giving incentives to constituents in those districts. Perhaps we negotiate dropping the filibuster on Judge Gorsuch in return for an independent Russia and conflicts of interest investigation. Perhaps we agree to some spending cuts and priority shifts with the explicit understanding that it is in return for legally deposing Trump. In other words, make them an offer they can’t refuse. As unpalatable as this may sound, the alternative is literally autocracy. There is value in living to fight another day. Elections have consequences and if we don’t deal with those consequences honestly, we will lose everything. The next election may not be as fair or as soon as you expect it to be.

If you’re angry at me for laying out a case for why we shouldn’t prioritize some of our most precious issues, I understand. I get it. Politics is passion. But Donald Trump isn’t a politician; he’s an autocratic strongman whose regime is now in its infancy, hence vulnerable. History is riddled with examples of autocratic strongmen who were only able to consolidate power because of infighting among their opponents. The most powerful and recognizable example was Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party won just 43.91% of the vote in the German Federal Election of 1933. It took Hitler only 4 months to consolidate autocratic control into a de facto dictatorship. You all know the rest of the story.

The place is here and the time is now. We need a united front against Trump or we stand a significant risk of losing everything. America stands, precariously balanced on a razor’s edge, between liberty and autocracy. I implore you to band together with all real American patriots to ensure our children and our children’s children can experience the same freedoms that we have been privileged with. We have more in common with many of our political opponents than we realize and it just happens to be the key to saving America.

By Matt Scharfstein