CHAREN: Checks and balances won’t save us from Trump

The already-forgotten-but-not-yet-gone Kevin McCarthy shared some thoughts on threats to our democracy with Bob Costa on “Face the Nation.” McCarthy is unworried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions. “Yeah, but remember, you have a check-and-balance system.”

McCarthy isn’t the only one to place exaggerated confidence in institutions to save us from Trump’s lawlessness. Even the supposedly serious conservatives on The Wall Street Journal editorial board assure readers that “We think American institutions are strong enough to contain whatever designs Mr. Trump has to abuse presidential power.” The real danger, as the Journal editorialists see it, is that “his chaos theory of governance would result in a second term that failed to deliver on his promises and set up the left for huge gains in 2026 and 2028.” So the Journal isn’t at all concerned that Trump would follow through on plans to instruct the Justice Department to prosecute his opponents; pardon all of the Jan. 6 rioters, fake electors and others who helped him attempt to steal the 2020 election; withdraw from NATO; impose a 10% tariff on all imports; investigate NBC for treason; and shoot shoplifters on sight.

This complacency is dangerous. The truth is that institutions don’t uphold themselves.

Consider the GOP. Though partisan feelings run hot these days, the actual political parties have very little power. They don’t even have influence over what the party stands for. In 2020, the Republican Party — which had produced a platform every four years despite civil war, depression and two world wars — produced no platform, merely a one-sentence declaration that the party supported “the President’s America First agenda.”

The Democratic Party, also a shadow of its former self, could not assemble a delegation of elders — say, in 2022 — to approach Joe Biden and suggest that he step aside and groom a younger successor.

If the Republican Party were not such a shell, it would have shut down Trump’s dangerous lies about the stolen election on Nov. 3, 2020. Instead, leading officeholders “humored” him or, worse, reinforced his lies. They knew that to mislead voters about the integrity of the election process was playing with fire — that it could result in instability or violence. But the party failed miserably. Even after the deadly assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 147 Republican representatives and senators voted not to certify Biden’s election.

It was only the conscience and courage of a few individuals that kept the United States from plunging into a constitutional crisis. Mike Pence, Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger, Jeff Rosen, Richard Donoghue and a few others found it within themselves to put country before party.

A few people with the backbone to do the right thing do not make an institution. They don’t comprise a reliable “check and balance” — especially when the institution has chosen not to reward but to punish them. Not only have most of those who did the right thing lost their seats; many have had to expend small fortunes for personal security.

What would elected Republicans do if he instructed his officials to violate people’s constitutional rights and promised in advance to pardon them? Let’s be realistic. Most Republicans would justify it. The Wall Street Journal would probably tsk tsk and say the real danger was that Democrats might get the same idea. And if they didn’t, what could they do to stop him? Impeachment is a dead letter.

What about the institution of the press? There are probably more excellent journalists working today than any time in history, but the press as an institution is in crisis. Reliable outlets compete for clicks with disinformation sites and malicious liars.

What about the churches? You would think that if any institution were loyal to something higher than partisanship, it would be the churches. But as Peter Wehner, Tim Alberta, David French and Russell Moore have shown in painful detail, white Evangelicals have shown themselves to be among the most susceptible to the lure of a would-be authoritarian. The churches are not a check on Trump.

What about the military? For the most part, the military has held steady, affirming that it has no role in domestic politics. It should disturb the sleep of any patriot that all of the living former secretaries of Defense felt the need to sign a letter in 2020 affirming that the military has no proper role in determining the outcome of America’s elections.

What about the courts? The judiciary has been a stalwart check on Trump. Will that hold? Trump will spend the next 11 months discrediting the entire judicial system in order to vitiate the impact of any guilty verdict. And what is to stop him from pardoning himself for any and all depredations of the Constitution, which he has already declared should be “terminated”? What can the courts do against the plenary pardon power?

Our institutions are weak. The checks and balances, like the impeachment power, have proved toothless. There is only one check on autocracy that remains — the electorate — and with every poll, doubts about that one accumulate.