Schwab: Trump & Co. have learned their lessons all to well

Our democratic institutions are only as strong as people’s willingness to defend them.

By Sid Schwab / Herald columnist

Bosses fire employees. Therefore, Trump removing Alex Vindman and million-dollar-donating Ambassador Sundland for complying with legal subpoenas and responding truthfully is no big deal. Same with firing Elaine McCusker at the Defense Department who warned withholding military aid from Ukraine was illegal. Fox “news,” rightwing radio, and Trumpists demand the head of Mitt Romney, who finally manifested integrity born of faith and respect for his oath. His “physical safety” would be at risk, says a CPAC organizer, were he to attend. It’s all good.

When William Barr took control of all future investigations of political candidates, Trumpists smelled no rats. Same with his announcement of an “intake process” for Rudy Giuliani to send him dirt on the Bidens. With the mass resignations of attorneys prosecuting Roger Stone, after Barr’s takeover of the case, there’s no reason for concern that the Department of Justice is now, officially and solely, an instrument of presidential power. As in Putin’s Russia. When Trump attacked the federal judge in charge, Republicans remained silent, comfy in their reconstituting Reichstag. No worries.

No klaxons were sounded when Trump’s Treasury Department handed private citizen Hunter Biden’s financial information to Senate Republicans, having refused when House Democrats requested Trump’s. Unconcerned about current costs of Tribe Trump’s protected travels, they’ll investigate how much Biden cost taxpayers for security on business trips. Outrage over young Biden’s income from Burisma dissipates with JaVanka making over $83 million while in the White House; and with Trump’s who-knows-how-much from foreign and domestic swamp-dwellers renting his properties. The hundred-million-plus his “I’ll-be-too-busy-to-play-golf” golf trips have cost us? It’s fine: He’s ours.

Those who don’t find this frightening are those who don’t recognize America’s accelerating descent into authoritarianism; or who do, and welcome it. Those unfazed when information critical to Congressional oversight is withheld by a “president” and by agencies whose mission is to protect the nation, not Trump. Those unconcerned when Secretary of State Pompeo bans reporters who ask hard questions. It’s fine. He’s Trump’s.

If Trump has the right to fire those who revealed his intended extortion, what of his and his adulators’ demand to expose the whistleblower, whose claims proved accurate? Rand Paul, libertarian, did it. Illegally. Why would a distruster of government do so, other than to silence other potential revealers of government criminality? And why do no Constitution-loving, government-distrusting Republicans seem to care?

It’s not hard to understand. Purely out of selfishness, and personally safe, or so they imagine, from the depredations of the more powerful, such people ignore intimidation and muzzling of people willing to speak out against crimes committed by their protectors. We’ve seen it before: they’re sure it won’t happen to them, and don’t care when it happens to others. It’s Trumpism unchained. It’s the “lesson” Trump learned, dear Susan, from people like you. And your party.

Laws created to guard against Trump’s authoritarian abuses aren’t enough, especially when our chief law-enforcer is a sycophantic tool. Free societies depend on the willingness of citizens to respect the law, the absence of which among his followers Trump has always exploited; and on others feeling safe in speaking up when they see leaders who aren’t. It’s why, until Trump, whistleblowers were shielded.

Following the totalitarian playbook, Trump is purging those who have or might yet sound alarms, across all departments, including Justice, State and Treasury, secretaries of which are bending abjectly to Trump’s will, abdicating independence and their duty to us. Now he wants “his” military to punish Vindman. So it’s Defense Department, too.

This is precisely the unrestrained despotism against which our founders created checks on executive power. Abetted by cowed congressional Republicans and supporters who rationalize his worst, Trump is destroying those checks. His message to future truth-tellers: DON’T.

Recalled by Trump for her incorruptibility, Ambassador Yovanovich knows of what she speaks: “I have seen dictatorships, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death. We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act.”

We’re there. Even in America, whose democratic institutions are more deeply embedded than, say, Turkey or Poland, where they’re collapsing rapidly, or Russia, where Trump’s role model Putin was able to end its march toward democracy in a couple of years, institutions are only as strong as people’s willingness to defend them. Trump won’t. Barr and Pompeo won’t. Trumpists sure as hell won’t. Are there no actual conservatives left who will? Time is running out.

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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