Many of us have written about the threat to American democracy. Actually that list is extensive and goes back a number of years. When I wrote my own book about the Roberts Court, I drew on that literature and applied it to the behavior of the Supreme Court. My hope was that if enough of us wrote about the problem, it would begin to sink in that something has to be done.
Instead we have Trump and the Republican Party trying to shift as much wealth as possible from the majority of Americans to a small fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent – precisely one of the most powerful causes of the breakdown of democracy. And Trump has been attacking the bulwarks of democracy – a free press, independent judges and prosecutors, an independent FBI and Justice Department, nonpartisan election machinery, and protection against domestic and foreign interference in elections. He does all this in the service of the effort to shift more and more money from the masses to the wealthiest, reflected in massive shifts of money to those who already have most of it and talk of attacking entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and other programs which compensate ever so little for the government’s favoritism toward the rich.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita describes it in The Dictator’s Handbook but so does the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The more the dictator takes from the masses the less power they have and the easiest it is to control them. The more the dictator gives to the wealthiest, the more they depend on and support him. In other words, turning democracy into dictatorship is a process of robbing from the poor to pay the rich, weakening the masses and securing the loyalty of the wealthy.
Many scholars have mapped the process as one in which the wealthiest increasingly circle the wagons against the masses, gain control over the election machinery, and corrupt the entire system that used to be democratic. The more wealth becomes concentrated, the more impossible it is to allow anything approaching free and fair elections. The process builds on itself in a corrupt and corrosive way. The economically ordinary people whom Trump and his wealthy supporters have convinced that they should depend on him are the people who will be used, dumped and double-crossed. And their erstwhile support for the fraudulent leader will suppress the rest of us.
The last time the disparity got this bad it led straight into the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are not independent facts. By stripping wealth from the masses, the elites stripped out the consumer economy on which they depended. The situation was sufficiently drastic that many were urging Franklin Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers, and indeed dictators like Huey Long in Louisiana were poised to make a run for the presidency, while racists commanded the airwaves. We were lucky. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician who was committed nevertheless to democracy. He saw the threat and worked hard to avert it. The Supreme Court fought him then as it has been fighting to deepen the crisis now.
We were lucky. Scholars have shown that the behavior of elites in crises like this is crucial. We need people in Washington for whom the survival of democracy in America is more important than partisan politics or dreams of turning America into a wasteland of serfs propping up the great ones. That this country had Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt at crucial times is amazing. May our luck survive Trump.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School. A widely recognized constitutional scholar, he has served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics.
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