America is on its way to a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Over just a few days last week, President Trump and his allies stepped up attacks on Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the campaign’s connections to Russia. They tried to push Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of office. They thought out loud about whether the president can pardon himself.
This all points to the same conclusion: Mr. Trump is willing to deal a major blow to the rule of law — and the American Republic — in order to end an independent investigation into his Russia ties.
It is tempting to picture the demise of democracy as a Manichaean drama in which the stakes are clear from the start and the main actors fully understand their roles: Would-be dictators rail against democracy, hire violent thugs to do their bidding and vow to destroy the opposition. When they demand expanded powers or attack independent institutions, their supporters and opponents alike realize that authoritarianism has arrived.
There have, in fact, been a few times and places when the villains were quite as villainous, and the heroes quite as heroic. (Think Germany in the 1930s.) But in most cases, the demise of democracy has been far more gradual and far easier to overlook.
In their first years in office, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary claimed that they wanted to fix, rather than cripple, democratic institutions. Even as it became clear that these strongmen sought to consolidate power, most of their opponents told themselves that they were saving their courage for the right moment. By the time the full extent of the danger had become incontrovertible, it was too late to mount an effective resistance.
In some ways, the United States seems far from such a situation today. The Trump administration, after all, appears weak: It is relatively unpopular, mired in scandal and divided by infighting — Anthony Scaramucci’s 10-day tenure is just the latest example. And it faces determined opposition from courts, the news media, state and local governments and ordinary citizens. If Mr. Trump’s presidency ends in humiliation, future generations may well conclude that it was bound to fail all along.
But in other respects the United States is already well on the way to what I have, in my academic work, called “democratic deconsolidation.” Mr. Trump is increasingly emulating the playbook of popularly elected strongmen who have done deep, lasting damage to their countries’ democratic institutions.
In recent weeks, he has treated a gathering of Boy Scouts like a campaign rally. He has asked soldiers for political support at a ceremonial event. He has implied that policemen should rough up suspects they arrest. He has continued to feud with the country’s intelligence community. And he has suggested he still wantsHillary Clinton prosecuted.
Mr. Trump nonetheless has many supporters. While a majority of Americans believes that the president is doing a bad job, around 40 percent of voters — and some 80 percent of Republicans — approve of his performance. A number of Republican senators and congressmen have reportedly objected to Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Sessions and voted against parts of his legislative agenda, but most have yet to oppose him publicly.
This is worrying. The Constitution cannot defend itself. If Congress does not stand up to Mr. Trump because Republicans are afraid of their own base, the president may be able to obstruct the course of justice with impunity. Worse, he may then conclude that he can get away with violating even more basic limits on his power.
If Congress stands idly by as he fires Mr. Mueller, as it did when he fired the F.B.I. director, James Comey, it might prove similarly pliable should he disregard court rulings, attempt to close down critical newspapers or order his appointees at the Department of Justice to indict Mrs. Clinton.
Congress must send a clear message that these types of violations won’t be tolerated. If Mr. Trump fires Mr. Mueller, Congress can ask him to continue his investigation under the auspices of the legislative branch. And if Mr. Trump pardons himself, disregards court rulings or blatantly oversteps the boundaries of his legitimate authority in some other way, Congress should impeach him.
No flashing light will announce that the very survival of democracy is now at stake if Mr. Mueller is fired. And since nobody can say for sure that the Constitution will become toothless if congressional Republicans let yet another infraction pass, their instinct will be to defer their patriotic duty to some more opportune moment in the future. But that moment may never come. There may never be a time when we know for sure that this decision, today, will determine whether the American republic lives or dies.
In Hungary, democracy did not end when Mr. Orban staffed the electoral commission with his cronies, or when he put loyalists in charge of state television stations or even when he changed the Constitution to expand his powers. But now that he has taken all these steps, the opposition has little chance of ousting him at the next elections. Slowly but surely, Hungary has ceased to be a real democracy.
The temptation to delay opposing Mr. Trump until the right moment comes along is understandable. It’s also very dangerous. Even if congressional Republicans abdicate their duty, the Constitution may turn out to be unusually resilient. But the only sure way to save the Republic is for them to start standing up to the president’s authoritarian behavior — not next week, or next month, but today.