It is an axiom of American civics and political science classes that the U.S. Constitution, with its system of checks and balances, insures that American democracy will always be safe from dictatorship or a military coup d’état.
Considering the state of the two other branches of government, namely the Congress and the Courts, President Donald Trump enjoys more freedom than the framers of the Constitution could have foreseen. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress. As we have just seen, this majority has shown its willingness to back the President in virtually everything he is setting out to do. The U.S. Senate even went so far as to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” by changing the long respected rules of the Senate and thereby steamrolling the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the unanimous opposition to the Democratic minority. In the end, the Democrats were helpless to prevent the confirmation.
Now, Judge Gorsuch is Justice Gorsuch and the conservative majority has been restored in the nation’s highest court. Should another vacancy occur on the Court, there is little doubt that the same thing would happen again, giving the President an even stronger position to impose his will.
The President of the United States is, by definition of the Constitution, the Commander in Chief of the entire U.S. Military. He or she can issue orders and also remove and replace any and all members of the military from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense at will. Thus far, this Constitutional safeguard has worked well. Yet President Trump has made it clear that he intends to let the military do its job on the battlefield. There is little reason to doubt that he would give a similar green light to the military, including the National Guard, to “bring order” to a country in disarray, as he may a perceive it.
Lest we forget, the National Guard has been called upon to restore order in various times of perceived need, both in times of natural disasters as well as civic unrest, e.g. the anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State University in Ohio and, most notably, during the Civil Rights movement. In fact, it is to President Eisenhower’s everlasting credit that he federalized the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 in the face of the direct challenge of Gov. Faubus to the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. Clearly, the potential danger exists for a President to employ the military for his/her own more sinister purposes unless and until Congress intervenes.
Connecting all these circumstances, the Constitutional system of checks and balances and civilian control of the military is in jeopardy, due to what amounts to a single political party’s control of all three branches of government. We should be reminded that although political parties have been part of our country’s system of government from the outset, the Constitution makes no mention of them. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent a single party from taking control of the entire government, which is essentially what has happened. This presents a clear and present danger to our cherished form of government. Where are the checks and balances when one party and its President hold all the cards?
Adding to this, we have a reckless, unpredictable President who shows little understanding or respect for the U.S. Constitution. This is a President who, from the time he was a candidate, continually has shown zero tolerance for criticism or for opposition. He fires off executive orders like firecrackers on the Fourth of July and launches tirades against “so-called judges” who dare to block him. He demands loyalty and has already fired those he perceives as possibly disloyal, including the head of the FBI, the acting Attorney General, and dozens of U.S. attorneys across the nation.
As if that is not enough reason for alarm, the President has taken aim at the unofficial fourth branch of democracy, namely the free press and media. He regularly invokes the phrase “fake news” to invalidate factual reporting. Now he is speaking of his desire to curtail or eliminate press briefings in order to exert control over the news cycle.
The nation stands on the threshold of a full-blown Constitutional crisis that makes Watergate seem almost trivial. There is significant evidence that the Russians meddled in the recent election to help defeat Hillary Clinton and to destabilize American Democracy. One objective has already been achieved and it appears that the second is within the realm of possibility.
Although few are willing to admit it, our system of government is vulnerable. As with all human institutions, American democracy is subject to the vicissitudes of history. The United States is still a relatively young nation. There is nothing to suggest that it is impervious.
This year marked the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive 9066 which authorized the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent. It was put in place without challenge either from the Congress or the Supreme Court. The internment of American citizens stands as one of the blackest marks in our nation’s history. The anniversary received scant notice both in government and in the press. It was marked quietly primarily by the Japanese-American community. This anniversary should serve as a warning of how our system of government is vulnerable.
In the final analysis, the only real protection for our Democracy will be the wisdom and respect for law and good old fashioned patriotism of those who occupy positions of leadership. If those who lead the other branches of government are unwilling, either due to pressure from the President, loyalty to their political party, or their own timidity to speak truth to power, then America, as we know and love it, is in deep trouble. We must hope that those is positions of trust will do the right thing to preserve our democracy.
The time for action is fast approaching.