America at a Crossroads

Democracy faces its greatest crisis ever under the Trump administration

By Tom Coffin

One has to wonder if Americans will care enough about our democracy and freedom to soon rouse themselves with the energy to defend the more than two centuries of heritage that our prior generations have handed over to us. Our future depends on our being up to the task.

For almost four years now we have collectively and passively assented to steady and incremental iconoclastic destruction of our democratic principles and institutions by an administration that is openly hostile to our nation’s foundations. From the first day in power, every action taken has had the purpose of subordinating all of the traditional mechanisms of government to the iron fist of authoritarianism under an all-powerful executive branch headed by a de facto dictator. 

In his first few months, the president vociferously maligned the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections and explored potential ways to abolish or lessen the Constitutional protections for a free press. He also expressed disdain for the Constitutional framework of co-equal branches of government, declaring the document archaic and obsolete — an obstacle to his agenda.

While continuing his campaign against a free press and any Constitutional restraints on his authority, the president next turned his attention to destroying the most basic and cherished civil liberties the people enjoy which are designed to protect them from the excesses of totalitarianism. Thus he embarked on a trend which found him praising a ruthless dictator for employing vigilante death squads to murder suspected drug dealers and users without any process such as hearings or trials, and encouraging our nation’s police officers to use excessive and unlawful force in making arrests of suspects. He attacked members of the judiciary if they ruled against him in litigation. In a wholly unprecedented effort to undermine our jury system, he even placed the foreperson of a jury in peril by criticizing her for presiding over deliberations that culminated in a guilty verdict against one of his friends and political allies.

As to the separation of powers doctrine, the president simply ignored it when he transferred funds Congress had appropriated for a specific purpose and allocated those funds to a wholly different project that Congress had refused to fund: the wall. The Senate capitulated, and meekly surrendered one of its foremost responsibilities under the Constitution — funding the government and its programs. 

While on the subject of appropriations, we must not forget another abdication of the Senate’s checks and balance role. That’s when it acquiesced in Trump’s conditioning of congressionally funded military aid to a foreign government on that government doing him the “personal favor” of announcing a criminal investigation against a domestic political opponent in the forthcoming election.

On our southern borders, Trump flouted the Constitution, international law and basic human rights as defined by the Geneva Convention by separating children, toddlers included, from their refugee parents and placing them in crowded cages. This while deporting their parents without them or creating records to facilitate their prospects of ever being reunited.

Despite having an attorney general willing to cooperate in such depravity, Trump searched for one who would go even further and dismantle the rule of law which is the bedrock of all democracies. With William Barr’s installation as the head of the Department of Justice, Trump has achieved his goal of a servant to oversee a dictatorial ministry of a facade of justice — one which would protect the president and his allies and punish his opponents.

And so the nation has been treated to the debacles of the Michael Flynn and Roger Stone cases, which have heralded the new era of a double standard and transparently corrupt system of justice. Despite almost comical efforts by Barr to deny any improper influence from Trump, several thousand former career DOJ attorneys have strenuously objected to this staggering implosion of a traditional independent institution dedicated to the impartial application of the law equally to everyone.

Barr has also proved a willing accomplice of Trump’s in deploying paramilitary forces against the American people to crush protests against the threat of a police state as the substitute for Democracy. The Black Lives Matter movement is directly related to the erosion of the rule of law and the disparate treatment of African Americans in our criminal justice system. The president’s express encouragement of the use of excessive force by police has fallen hardest on the Black population. 

The George Floyd killing triggered the inevitable backlash, but both Trump and his AG deny there is even a problem, only a “misconception” by the victims. Where do we expect people to go to obtain justice, if not the streets, when we close the courthouse doors to them by pretending there is no systemic problem discrimination?

The final and most dramatic blow to democracy is being delivered as we rapidly approach the 2020 elections. We are scourged by a pandemic — a scourge that has been exacerbated by an intentional “it is what it is” do-nothing disappearing act by the administration — and the government is partnering with the COVID outbreak to effectively deny the people their right to vote.

Voting is the heart and soul of democracy. Yet, enabled by a Republican majority on the Supreme Court, the Republican Party has been strategically laboring to suppress voting in Democrat geographic areas for years through gerrymandering, closing polling stations, requiring stricter IDs as well as other tactics resurrected. This was after the Supreme Court crippled the Voting Rights Act and declared certain forms of cheating (gerrymandering) non-justiciable.

We are now at the mother lode of the American political system — the election for the presidency — and find ourselves with an incumbent who doesn’t believe in elections, democracy, the Constitution, the rule of law or a government whose purpose is to serve the people. And so he has crippled the United States Postal Service in an attempt to kill the option of voting by mail and forcibly place voters at risk of COVID by queuing up in long lines at crowded polling stations if they wish to exercise their sacred right of participating in democracy.

This is the crossroads at which America has arrived. At this juncture, there can no longer be any doubt. In a little less than four years, Trump has literally attacked every vestige of democracy, freedom, civil rights, rule of law and constitutional prescription for government there is. There is nothing he hasn’t attacked. We are even at the precipice of losing our right to vote. This is surely the ultimate betrayal, the Judas kiss on the cheek by one who is supposedly sworn to defend us from just such a fate.

Thomas Coffin is a retired U.S. Magistrate Judge. He served 24 years in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, from 1992 to 2016.