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Democracy dies in the dark

  • Published at 05:52 pm December 11th, 2017
Democracy dies in the dark

I have been visiting family over the past fortnight, starting with the annual Thanksgiving holiday dinner with the remnants of my father’s family in Indiana, which is unabashedly Trump territory. After that I sojourned for four days in California, checking on family and those friends who remain.

Finally, I came over to Salt Lake City to check on my 19-month-old granddaughter. Everywhere I went, the US seemed pretty much the same, people were worried about the direction of their country.

Fortunately, most of those I visited were, when they were not eating Thanksgiving dinner, watching American-style football, (and, by the way, they watched despite the fact that Trump is carrying on a tweet crusade against players who do not stand up for the National Anthem). If those Americans had been watching the political hi-jinks in Washington, they would have been more than worried -- they would have been terrified.

The transfer of wealth to the already wealthy bill

At around 2am on December 2, the US Senate, with President Trump pushing hard from the White House, passed the Republicans’ major, and probably only, accomplishment of their first year running a one-party state, the so-called “Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill” which the White House and Senate Republicans call the first major “tax reform” since 1986.

Tax reform is a total misnomer, and the jobs part of the formal title is a lie; the bill is long on tax cuts and almost bereft of real reform and should be called the transfer of wealth to the already wealthy bill. But the contents of the bill are not surprising, even if repugnant; we always knew that the president and the Republicans were intent on cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and they kept their promise in spades.

But the way they went about it foreshadows a diminished democracy in the coming years. How much diminished depends, in great part, on how long Trump and his Trumpian/Republican Party remain in sole control of the first two branches of government, (among other things, the longer Trump stays in office, the more the third branch, the judicial branch, will also become an instrument of Trumpian governance).

Will the US join the march toward authoritarianism that many other countries have already joined?

But awful as it is, the content of the “tax reform” bill, is innocuous in comparison to the process that was used to pass it. It was, during the harshly abbreviated process, hard to tell the difference between the US and the authoritarian nations the US tries so hard to differentiate itself from.

There was never much hope that it would not pass the House as Trump has its Republican members under a whip hand. Few observers expect that it will go off the rails now, as it was in the Senate that several voices had been raised in objection to certain of its provisions, and there seemed a chance to stop the juggernaut.

In the end, however, one lone Republican, Senator Corker, voted against it while the other erstwhile stalwarts such as Collins, McCain, Flake, all caved in. One explanation is that no Republican can dare be against tax cuts. A more compelling one, to me, is that the big money donors to the Republicans threatened to stop financing the Republican congressional party if it didn’t get a tax cut passed.

The process to get the bill passed cannot withstand the most minimal scrutiny for transparency, fairness, and the other principles of democratic process. It was rushed through in the shortest possible time frame, without a single public hearing that would have allowed the public and experts to register their opinions and suggestions.

In contrast, the 1986 tax reform took six months of study, debate, and compromise to reach fruition, with perhaps 12 to 15 public hearings to get to “yes.”

In the dead of night

In the brief encounter last week, the Republican majority leader in the Senate announced at about noon on Friday that he had the votes to pass the bill, yet amendments to the text continued to be made to accommodate special interests until after midnight. These late changes, in many cases handwritten into the text, were evidently necessary to garner the votes of Republican holdouts.

It appears that the late changes made the bill even more rewarding to the wealthy. One last minute change, made almost surreptitiously, ostensibly to help small “pass-through” businesses, actually mainly rewards the richest 1% and especially, guess who: Donald Trump.

Tax experts, picking through the messy final text, have found a number of similar loopholes that mysteriously crept into the bill in the wee hours, almost all designed to reward the wealthy.

Of course, the biggest broken promise of all, one Trump and the Republicans shared, was their pledge that this tax bill would be deficit-neutral. In fact, it will add a trillion dollars to the national debt in the next 10 years. And that would bring the US national debt to 100% of GDP by 2027. The US could be insolvent.

But the Republicans have an answer for this. They will certainly use the huge debt pileup they created as the reason to cut social programs, and try to begin the process of dismantling the social safety net that has progressively protected Americans since the 1930s: Social security, medicare, medicaid, poverty programs, even education. Their intention is really to deconstruct the government-run social safety net -- privatise it, or eliminate it.

Now, I do not think this is even remotely possible for a party that is clearly a minority party and becoming more so every day. If nothing else, demographics will prevent it. But while the Republicans have basically shown their weakness in their authoritarian strategy and tactics, they have also opened the door for others to use similar tactics. And when strong parties begin to use similar methods to gain their political, economic, and social goals, democracy is in peril.

Will the US join the march toward authoritarianism that many other countries have already joined?

Pushing such a terrible tax bill through in the dead of night might be the first step. It was Damon Keith, a relatively unknown Federal Appeals Judge who wrote in an opinion which remains a precedent for the requirement that police authorities get a warrant for wiretapping: “Democracy dies in the dark.” That quote has suddenly gone viral, for good reason.

Why were the Trumpian/Republicans and Trump himself so fired up to get a tax bill, no matter how bad, through Congress? Was it to give a Christmas gift to the American people, or to their devoted followers (a much lower number), or to their donors so the money will keep flowing? Or was it because Trump sees the need to build up public support, especially among his core constituency, as the Mueller investigation gets closer to him? Was it because the Congressional Trumpian/Republicans see a 2018 congressional election in stark and frightening terms? Probably all of the above.

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article previously appeared on the Friday Times.