Preserving Our American Democracy in an Era of Repression and Regression
Part One: The Areas of Repression
[This is the first blog of a three-part series focused on what is happening in our democratic republic today in terms of repression and regression and what should be done in response to these conditions. In this blog, we examine the areas of repression. In the second, we will examine the areas of regression. And, in the third we will present and discuss plans for protecting and preserving our democracy.]
No man is an island…. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. — John Donne
In the early stages of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, economists were speculating whether it would result in a recession or even depression for the United States. As the crisis continued, that speculation ended and there was almost universal agreement that the economic impact was already substantial and could grow even worse.
On April 6, Robert J. Samuelson, in his Washington Post article, stated that for the “first time in his life” he thought that a depression was “conceivable.” Samuelson went on to state that if that happened, “It implies permanently higher levels of unemployment…, greater economic instability and a collision between democracy and the economic system.”
This “collision” becomes more problematic given the current nature of American society. We Americans are living in an era of repression and regression.
The repression has been going on for some time but intensified with the presidential political campaign of 2016, and has intensified even more-so under the Trump administration.
In the United States today, President Donald Trump is the Repressor-in-chief. (We commented on the manner in which he personally behaves and discharges his responsibilities in this role in our blog preceding this one)
The Coronavirus Response
Trump is aided and abetted in his repression by those in his administration, key advisors, and allies. In his mishandling, and belated response, to the coronavirus pandemic, however, it appears that he chose to ignore the early warnings and advice of those around him and to act independently.
An April 12 New York Times article reveals that Trump was informed of the nature and the potential consequences of the pandemic nearly two months before he chose to acknowledge and communicate its seriousness, and initiate a national response to it.
Trump tried to respond and repress this article unsuccessfully through revisionist history in his marathon coronavirus briefing on April 13.
In that briefing, he had Dr. Anthony Fauci apologize for telling the truth, in an interview with Jake Tapper, in which he said that earlier actions at the federal level would have reduced the effect of the virus; showed a political campaign style video designed to prove that Trump had acted early on and masterfully to handle the virus; and engaged in a full-throated, abusive assault on those in the press at the briefing who were asking him serious questions regarding his intervention against the virus.
Calling the part of these sessions with Trump in them briefings is a misnomer. They should better be labeled unreality shows, therapy sessions, or isolation chambers. That’s because they are about Donald Trump’s psyche alone and have nothing do to with facts or useful information on the status of the coronavirus pandemic and what to do about it.
Nothing speaks better to Trump’s ego-centric perspective than his statement during the April 13 briefing, “When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be.” These words were sadly reminiscent of Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 2016 in which he said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Neither of these statements is accurate. That’s not the way it’s got be and he alone cannot fix it. The American people are paying a heavy price for Trump’s faulty mindset and failed leadership.
One of Trump’s justifications — or a rationalization — for his actions or inaction in downplaying the potential of the coronavirus early on was that he was cheerleading. What he was really doing was misleading. That misleading has cost American lives and dollars.
While Trump’s repressing performance on the coronavirus has been more solitary, he has had substantial collaboration in numerous other areas of repression. They include but are not limited to: the three branches of government; federal agencies; the Republican Party; free press and media; voting; immigration; and civic life.
The Branches of Government
Our founding fathers brilliantly established three branches of government- executive, legislative, and judicial — to create a system of checks and balances that would promote democracy, prevent authoritarianism and ensure accountability.
Trump as President has no conception or acceptance of that system. He believes he as the executive should have all power, all others should be subservient to him, and he should be accountable to no one but himself. He is the government and the government is him.
Acting upon that belief, after his first years in the White House, he has eliminated anyone in the White House or Executive Branch who does not agree with that construction of reality. Since his arrival on the job, Attorney General William Barr has been an enabler, consistently reinforcing Trump’s perception and advocating for the President to be the Supreme Being.
When the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate for his first two years, Trump got little to no pushback on his unidimensional view of government from the Legislative Branch. With the Democrats gaining control of the House and Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker, things changed.
What that has meant is that Trump has had to use others as part of the repression team. In the House, this has required relying on members such as Jim Jordan (OH), Doug Collins (GA) and Devin Nunes (CA) to avoid any bipartisan legislation and to minimize the threat of meaningful proceedings on the Trump impeachment trial.
In the Senate, it has required Senator Mitch McConnell to do what he has always done, which is to make what was at one time considered the greatest deliberative and bipartisan body in the world into an instrument of his bidding on behalf of himself and/or the President.
While Trump’s effect on repressing the executive and legislative branches has been substantial, his impact on the Judicial Branch has been monumental. This impact is both in terms of numbers and the conservative backgrounds of the judges.
As of April 1, 2020, the U.S. Senate had confirmed 193 Article III judges nominated by President Trump: 2 associate judges of the Supreme Court; 51 judges for Courts of Appeals; 138 judges for District Courts; and 2 judges for the Court of International Trade. Trump’s appointments to the federal appeals courts have come at a record setting pace and already constitute more than 25% of the judges at that level.
The conservative Federalist Society selects the judges for Trump to nominate. And, unlike in most past administrations — except that of George W. Bush — the American Bar Association is not given special access to background information on the judicial nominees to provide ratings prior to their nomination.
Federal Government Agencies
The repression of federal government agencies has occurred across the board and in mission-altering ways. Individuals who were put in to run agencies such as the State Department, Department of Interior, and Housing and Urban Development narrowed the scope of the agency and/or flipped its functions. For example when he was in charge of Interior, Ryan Zinke made federal lands that had been held in the public trust available for use and exploitation by the private sector in mining and offshore drilling.
This revision of the rules of federal agencies continues unaffected by the pandemic. The EPA has just reduced the regulations requiring that cars and trucks achieve a 5% annual improvement in fuel economy through 2025 to a 1.5%. This increases the operational cost of car ownership for consumers and the climate impact of vehicle utilization.
Trump’s effect on the government pales in comparison to that which he has had in repressing the Republican Party. That Party is now the Party of Trump.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party had been changing for decades from the more center right conservative positions that it once held. The Tea Party Republicans accelerated that change and made Congress a more confrontational and less collaborative place when they emerged on the scene in 2009.
Trump won the Presidency in part by channeling and communicating anti-federal government, white populist messages in the red and swing states. After he won, he continued those messages through his policies, interviews with Fox News — his unofficial PR agency; and campaign-style rallies in those states designed to appeal to his base and to maintain his popularity with those who elected him.
He has been successful in this regard. He has driven those who do not support his divisive tactics out of the Republican Party and now it essentially belongs to him alone.
He uses his position to back candidates for public office at all levels who parrot his philosophy and talking points. His dominance over the Party nationally is demonstrated by the fact that that his approval ratings with the party faithful since being in office have tended to fall in the 75–90% range, compared to overall ratings in the 35–49% range.
The Free Press and Media
The high ratings by the Party faithful is partially attributable to the fact that many of them only hear alternative facts. This is a term that was first used on January 22, 2017, by Kelly Anne Conway on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd when she said that then Press Secretary Sean Spicer had not told falsehoods in talking about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration and a few other things but was just using “alternative facts.” This characterization of repressing the truth and constructing an alternative fact universe has become the leit-motif for Trump and the few in his administration who are allowed to speak in public.
The primary spokesperson in that universe is Trump. He has cancelled all White House press briefings because no one can spin alternative facts as outrageously as he can and does. Trump flaunts this unrivalled capacity to mislead even today on matters as deadly serious as the coronavirus pandemic, when in his Covid-19 briefings he contradicts the experts, states his own opinion, and misrepresents the facts.
In those briefings, Trump calls outs and assails those members of the traditional media who he continues to refer to as purveyors of “fake news’ for asking “nasty questions.” Nasty questions can be defined as those presented to try to elicit a modicum of truth telling from the President who the Washington Post reports by mid-December 2019 had made nearly 15,500 false or misleading claims (the number is now more than 18,000).
It should be stressed that Trump could not prevail by saying the obverse of what is authentic, and repressing the media, if he did not have the virtually unabridged support of Fox News in reporting on his unscripted stage performances and storytelling.
The highly partisan support from Fox News has been there for him since he became President. A recent example of its “reporting” on Trump during the pandemic is demonstrated in a supercut put together by Trevor Noah for his The Daily Show.
Trump’s repressive acts extend beyond the Beltway. He is also trying to build walls between voters and their chance to participate fairly and fully in elections and immigrants’ opportunity to come to this country.
Illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mexico and the need to build a wall to stop them has been an obsession for Trump from the time he established his candidacy for and since he was elected President. Trump allocated $3.6 billion of military construction spending to the wall in September of 2019 to go along with $2.5 billion that he had reallocated from money that Congress had appropriated to stop drug trafficking. Trump’s budget presented in February 2020 for fiscal year 2021calls for $2 billion more for the wall
The wall and Trump’s resistance to and repression of illegal immigrants resonate with his mostly white base. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why his administration during this coronavirus crisis has increased the deportation of these migrant asylum seekers back into Mexico in spite of Mexico’s request to the U.S. not to do so to prevent spreading the virus.
Through the years, both political parties have tried to use the gerrymandering of voting districts, and various walls of sundry sorts, to prevent or restrict who votes in order to reduce the opposition party’s chances of winning elections. In his New York Times article on voter suppression, Yale history professor David Blight notes, “In 2011–2012 alone …180 new voter restrictions and 27 specific laws were enacted in 19 states, nearly all controlled by Republicans.”
One of Donald Trump’s hot buttons since he became President has been his perception that there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 presidential elections. That’s not because he won, but because Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by close to 3 million votes.
Trump tried to discredit that margin by establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May 2017. The Commission was disbanded in January 2018 after it was ridiculed during the period of its existence as unnecessary by everyone from state election officials to political experts and the media.
In 2020, Trump is back on the voter fraud bandwagon. During his April 7 coronavirus briefings, he stated, “I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing.” Greg Allen, in an article for NPR, reports that on the next day he sent out several tweets “calling on Republicans to oppose statewide mail-voting, claiming without evidence that the practice hurt GOP candidates and was susceptible to widespread fraud.”
The NPR article cited Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich saying that is not the case and that mail in ballots are used successfully and without challenge in many states producing favorable results for Republicans. Former Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado wrote an article showing that voting-at-home works well in Colorado and would also work well nationally.
In spite of this, in Donald Trump’s mind there is a group of nefarious voters who want to stuff the mail-in-voting box in order to beat him and Republican candidates for office in this election cycle. It’s impossible to ascertain where that idea comes from, but there is a distinct possibility it might come from one of his primary sources of news. That’s Fox Nation host and Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren, who says those illegal voters are out there and many of them are illegal immigrants.
Fox News — and especially commentators such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham — definitely influence Trump’s civic knowledge, political opinion, and policy instincts. As importantly, as a primary and sole source of information for a large segment of Trump supporters, Fox News has a major impact in shaping their civic and political values, attitudes and beliefs.
A Pew Research Center report, issued in January of this year, described what it called the Fox News phenomenon. That phenomenon is that Fox News stands alone as a “trusted go-to source of political news” for Republicans with 65% of Republican survey respondents saying they trust it.
CNN gets comparable trust ratings to Fox with 67% of Democrats and Democrat leaners saying they trust it. Pew points out, “The big difference is that while no other source comes close to rivaling Fox News appeal with Republicans, a number of sources other than CNN are also highly trusted and frequently visited by Democrats.”
In April, Pew issued a piece titled 5 Facts about Fox News, based on Pew Research Center surveys. Those facts include:
- People who cite Fox News as their main source of political news are older and more likely to be white than U.S. adults overall.
- Those who name Fox News as their main source of political news stand out in their views on key issues and people, including President Donald Trump. (A “striking example” is that in a March survey 63% of Fox viewers felt Trump was doing an excellent job in handling the coronavirus compared to 47% overall.)
- On an ideological scale, the average Fox News consumer is to the right of the average U.S. adult, but not so far to the right as the audiences of some other outlets. (The average audiences further to the right are for the Daily Caller, Breitbart News, and the Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh radio shows.)
These areas highlighted here are just the tip of the repression iceberg. Repression in them and others, such as climate change, science, and competent governmental employees, to name just a few, will impede and retard the economic recovery after the health war with Covid-19 is won.
Part Two: The Areas of Regression
Because of regression in the United States for so many Americans and in so many areas for some time an economic recovery by itself will be insufficient to preserve our American democracy.
As we noted in an earlier blog:
In this 20th year of the 21st century, the United States of America has become a land of inequality and a sanctuary for the rich and powerful. The top 1% of earners have more wealth than the bottom 80% and the top 20% have more wealth than all of those in the middle class.
In another blog, we shone a spotlight on how this economic regression has negatively impacted many in the middle class, blue collar and low wage workers, gig workers, and the working poor.
In part two of this series, we will revisit that impact on those workers in light of the coronavirus pandemic. And we will add and analyze other new areas of regression for analysis including: women (economic and abortion rights); minorities (Blacks and Latinos); teachers; students in disadvantaged communities; civic learning and engagement; urban areas (economic and integration); rural areas; small businesses, entrepreneurs and businesses start-ups; media; manufacturing; and innovation..
Part Three: Plans for Preserving Our Democracy
As Part Two of this series will illustrate, the scope of the regression is broad and encompassing, and has been going on for a considerable time before this pandemic. As a result, the plans for addressing the forces of repression and regression must be comprehensive, coordinated, and citizen-centered.
In Part Three, we will identify and discuss the following four plans that we think will be essential for accomplishing this type of response:
- Health Care Stabilization Plan
- Country Reopening Plan
- Economic Recovery Plan (Short Term)
- Democracy Renewal Plan (Long Term)
The coronavirus pandemic has been characterized as an invisible enemy. That enemy can and will be defeated, as can the forces and consequences of repression and regression.
The American citizenry can accomplish this if we remember the famous words of Pogo, the opossum, from the comic strip of the same name, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We can defeat that enemy with the right plans and by taking the actions required to win the battles that will be necessary to put the US back in U.S.A.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.