Pushing America on path toward autocracy

The rule of law — inviolate principles of equal protection, due process and checks and balances that structure our government and our civic life — is foundational to American freedom. Donald Trump is blowing up that foundation.

Consider Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists and anti-Semites at a pro-confederacy rally chanted “Jews will not replace us,” hoisted swastikas, celebrated racism, intimidated bystanders and counterprotesters, shot weapons, and killed a young woman. Donald Trump used the occasion to pick sides, and he picked theirs.

Following Charlottesville, Trump again stood up for — and further normalized — bigotry when he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio gained his deservedly heinous reputation, in part, by arresting and jailing persons who didn’t look American enough to him. A federal judge ordered him to cease and desist his racist law enforcement, but Arpaio refused to stop. He said, in effect, “I am the law, so I need not follow the law.”

In response, the Department of Justice charged him with criminal contempt, and based on overwhelming evidence Arpaio was found guilty. But before his sentencing, Trump pardoned him, making clear to American racists that the president has their back.

Unfortunately, the Arpaio pardon provides only one of the many examples of Trump’s racist proclivities and policies. We must add to this picture his travel ban on Muslims, his threats to deport 11 million people, and his reinstituting the so-called war on crime and war on drugs, which in reality is a war against black and brown communities.

Just as his racism undermines the rule of law, so does his constant belittling of judges and the judiciary, his encouraging the police to beat up people whom they arrest and, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ help, opening the spigot of surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement, who now can stockpile the type of arsenal used against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

Perhaps most frightening, Trump has created, and many Americans now accept, his propaganda machine. Trump is an inveterate and unabashed liar. Yet 35 percent of Americans believe he is a reliable source of facts and news.

Trump’s relentless attack on the news media and the First Amendment already has taken a serious toll. A vibrant press historically has protected us from an overreaching and corrupt government. But the president has triumphed in undermining its credibility and ability to fulfill its First Amendment responsibility to protect freedom.

Equally dangerous is the administration’s assault on voting. The history of freedom in America tracks the expansion of the franchise. But now Trump, backed by his fraudulently named Voter Integrity Commission and surrogates in many states, is conniving to prevent millions of people from voting, mostly young people and people of color who are less likely to support him.

Don’t underestimate this danger. If Trump and his minions succeed in their voter suppression endeavors, casting ballots may well become less a decision-making process and more of a facade to bestow unearned legitimacy on anointed victors. After all, he willingly accepted Russia’s help in electing him and now knows that he can win the presidency by changing relatively few votes in a handful of districts in a few swing states.

This nightmare scenario — of make-believe elections, a neutered press, unrestrained police forces, even more mass incarceration, and one set of laws for the rich and famous and Trump supporters and a different one for everyone else — brings us back to the Arpaio pardon and two possible and unexpected silver linings that have emerged from it.

First, an understanding has developed that the presidential pardon power, though broad, is not unqualified. There is a theory kicking around that the Arpaio pardon contravenes constitutional guarantees. After all, could a president issue a blanket pardon for all white people but not to people of color suspected, charged or convicted of the same crime? It’s likely that would be regarded as an impeachable offense.

Second, many believe that one purpose of the Arpaio pardon was to send the message to special counsel Robert Mueller that the president can immunize his family, cronies, and himself from criminal liability arising from their involvement in the Russia scandal. That turns out to be wrong. The president’s pardon power only extends to federal offenses. It doesn’t cover crimes that Trump and his associates may have committed under New York state law.

This president has not yet dismantled the rule of law nor transformed America from a democracy to an autocracy. Still, he has pushed the country far down that path with the complicity of many Republicans and alleged conservatives willing to sell out fundamental freedoms for a tax cut.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman admonished us when writing this week about the Arpaio pardon, “There’s ... a word for people who out of cowardice or self-interest go along with such abuses: collaborators.” I agree.

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