“Autocracy” thrives in darkness

Liberals, and a few conservatives, are committed to the notion that President Trump is a threat to democracy — an autocrat. But Trump’s first year in office provided scant evidence for this claim.

No political enemy was prosecuted, no anti-Trump organ silenced, no court order flouted. The reach of the federal government diminished slightly, thanks to regulatory rollback. For better or for worse, Trump largely deferred to congressional Republicans in the attempt to repeal Obamacare. He also provided wide latitude to his cabinet members.

Trump did issue a few arguably aggressive executive orders. However, when courts balked, the administration’s lawyers redrafted the orders in the hope of alleviating the concerns, however misguided or downright silly.

As Trump’s second year begins his fiercest critics finally think they have ammunition with which to make the autocracy charge stick. They claim that Trump and his allies are leading us down the “road to autocracy” by “assaulting” the FBI and the Justice Department with allegations of wrongdoing during the 2016 election campaign and its immediate aftermath. (“The party of law and order has become an adversary of federal law enforcement,” Washington Post writers Philip Rucker and Robert Costa inform us.) These attacks are said, by people who should (and probably do) know better, to be part of a grand design to weaken our institutions.

Nonsense. Criticizing the behavior of particular officials does not constitute an assault on the institution they work (or worked) for. I haven’t seen the article in which Rucker or Costa characterizes the resistance to Trump as an assault on the presidency. Nor, when Donald Rumsfeld and others who planned and executed the invasion of Iraq were under attack by Democrats for alleged incompetence and bad faith, was this considered an assault on the military.

At times the Democrats have viewed the FBI itself with considerable suspicion. Did this make them “an adversary of federal law enforcement”? I don’t think so, and I certainly don’t recall the Washington Post claiming it did.

These days, many on the left view Jeff Sessions as a menace. Under the reasoning of folks like Rucker and Costa, they can be labeled adversaries of the DOJ and federal law enforcement.

Clearly, claims that the likes of James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, and Peter Strzok broke or bent the law, or failed to follow proper procedure, for partisan purposes create not the slightest tension with the image of Republicans as the party of law and order or as a respecter of our law enforcement institutions. To the contrary, such a party should insist on adherence to the law and to proper procedures by top law enforcement officials.

There’s another dimension to this question, though. It is raised when conservatives talk about the “deep state.” Claims that federal agencies like the FBI (or the DOJ generally) and the CIA are controlled by a permanent class willing to interfere in elections and/or undermine an elected president constitute serious charges against institutions, not just particular officials.

To be clear, concern over the conduct of Comey, McCabe, and others doesn’t entail a deeper criticism of the FBI. However, many expressing the concern tie it to the deeper criticism.

The most important question is the validity of the “deep state” narrative (a matter beyond the scope of this post), not the consequences of asserting it. But advancing the narrative can be viewed as an attack on the agencies in question — a claim of inherent deficiency, not just bad leadership. This should not be done lightly.

Expressing concern about the deep state has nothing to do with “autocracy,” though. Charges of inherent deficiencies and biases in key institutions are well within the bounds of democratic discourse and, indeed, a familiar manifestation of it.

The Defense Department is heavily influenced by warmongers and/or defense contractors; the regulatory agencies are captives of the big businesses they purport to regulate; the CIA and/or the FBI are out of control, or at least heedless of privacy concerns — these propositions have all been asserted by leftists at various times.

And they should be, if supported by good evidence. Autocracy is more likely when criticism of powerful departments and agencies is stifled than when it is aired.

“Democracy dies in darkness,” as I read somewhere.

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