My Turn: Nothing guarantees a democracy’s continued existence


Published: 6/12/2018 10:44:46 AM

Do you recall the scene in “Cool Hand Luke” where Luke (Paul Newman) is smashed in the head by the truncheon-wielding prison captain (Strother Douglas Martin Jr.) who then memorably drawls, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

That line resonates in our political life today. Many Americans — for good reasons — believe that President Donald Trump is an inveterate liar. According to Fact Checker, Trump during his presidency has lied over 3,000 times, an average of more than a half dozen false or misleading statements or outright fabrications per day.

But for some 40 percent of Americans, Trump’s tweets and utterances ring true. For his supporters, the president either transforms lies into believable-enough truths or his lying doesn’t matter much, if at all. Whatever Trump says or does — it’s all good.

Give Trump his due. He intuited this phenomenon. In 2016 when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn’t lose votes,” liberal commentators mocked him for his bluster and arrogance. But those pundits got it wrong. Trump had it right — an example of his genius at exploiting the meanness of the mob.

Trump’s ability to manipulate and control that minority of voters who believe him and believe in him and who put him in power has put the American democratic experiment at great risk. To be sure, this president cannot destroy democracy on his own. Congress and the courts would need to be complicit.

And they are being exactly that. Witness the sycophantic Republican Congressional majority. And although some courts still exhibit independence, the Senate is busy stacking the federal judiciary with Trump loyalists.

Throughout our history there have been other centers of power in America — corporations, for example. But you’ll find no solace in that sector. You need look no farther than the most recent edition of The Economist magazine with its cover story “The affair: Why corporate America loves Donald Trump.”

Another counterpoint historically has been the power of workers. No longer. Federal and state courts decisions and legislative actions, exacerbated by overt attacks by the president and governors on public sector unions, have stripped them of much of their economic and political power.

Place little faith in the Fourth Estate. Much of the media — Fox, Sinclair, and Russian bots, for example — is devoted to Trumpism. And Trump has neutered much of the effectiveness of the independent press with his mantra of fake news, repetition that has programmed his cadre of followers to ignore or disbelieve quality journalism.

Here’s how this confluence of factors recently played out in the big business of big-time sports: The National Football League team owners, bowing to pressure from Trump, issued an edict that forbids players from kneeling during the national anthem. Trump in turn received adulation from his (let’s note, 98 percent white) base.

The players by kneeling were protesting police brutality, but Trump redefined the protest. He accused the players of being disloyal to America and its flag. His frame prevailed — at least with the corporate owners and his base.

The NFL’s mandate violates union-management law, which prohibits a unilateral change of working conditions without negotiation. The prohibition also guts freedom of speech. Perhaps worst of all, the order rewards Trump’s white supremacist values, which have been on full display in this vendetta against the 70-percent black NFL players and their union.

Let’s be clear: This fight in the NFL is a proxy race war that Trump declared: “Make America White Again.” Keep those black and brown people in their place and out of sight, except when they’re providing entertainment. That subtext is not subtle. Trump has called on the team owners to fire players who protest and for the country to deport them. His bellicosity and venality in this fight has animated, indeed thrilled, his base.

Trump, of course, is not the first president to jawbone a business. I still remember, for example, what President John Kennedy did in 1962.

The issue then was inflation, and the U.S. Steel Company promised to hold its prices steady if the steelworkers union would drop its demand for a pay increase. The union indeed gave up its wage demand but the company raised its prices anyway, and other steel manufacturers followed suit.

Kennedy was outraged at this corporate double-cross and publicly lambasted “the tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.” Kennedy’s public recriminations succeeded. The companies rolled back their price increases.

Can we agree that a president’s use of the bully pulpit has changed?

Trump’s attack on the NFL players has not surprised most Americans. Recent polls reveal that 57 percent believe that Trump is a racist.

But 40 percent think he isn’t. And that 40 percent plus a little elected him — and could re-elect him — thanks to the Electoral College, which was designed to enhance the political power of the slave states. Those former slave states now constitute Trump’s base.

Nothing guarantees a democracy’s continued existence, and what we’ve got here — is failure to appreciate the existential threat.

Consider the blueprint. A leader, elected by a minority of voters, upon taking power exploits and inflames racial or religious differences. He effectively pulls levers of power and efficiently utilizes his propaganda apparatus. Elections become largely pre-determined; legislatures and courts are relegated to window dressing; and opposition is silenced. This is how an authoritarian gains power. This is how a democracy dies.

William Newman is the director
of the Western Massachusetts Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.


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