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By a remarkable coincidence, on the same day that Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States, the progressive Left discovered a distaste for illiberalism. Writing on behalf of the “many scholars/journalists who study illiberal/authoritarian regimes” — all of whom are “deeply alarmed about [the] US right now” — Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan announced via Twitter that the twelve days since the 2016 election had been the “most alarming” of his “professional life.” The United States, Nyhan explained, was close to seeing a total collapse of the “norms of our democracy,” in part because “our institutions/elites keep accommodating illiberal behavior.” “Should democracy fail,” he warned, “there will be no one moment,” but rather a “slow descent into illiberalism.”
A “slow descent” that began on November 9, 2016, mind you. A “slow descent” that came ex nihilo. A “slow descent” that followed a perfectly flat plane, and for which the president-elect’s predecessor bears no responsibility. Intrigued, I asked Nyhan whether he would consider recent trends toward judicial imperialism, executive overreach, and the abandonment of due process as undermining the “norms of our democracy” – and, in concert, whether as a college professor in 2016 he might have any insight into which “institutions” or “elites” have been most aggressively “accommodating illiberal behavior.” His response? The problems to which I was pointing were “not the same thing.” “This is not an NRO culture-war thing,” Nyhan griped.
Where, one must ask, have the social scientists been during the overture to our “slow descent into illiberalism”? For almost all of Barack Obama’s presidency, the system of checks and balances that undergirds the unique American order has been treated by progressives as if it were an outdated relic. Some, such as Vox’s Dylan Matthews, have called for an “elective dictatorship.” Others, such as the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, have portrayed all dissent or obstruction as if it were tantamount to treason. In all cases, the question has been the same: “Who will rid us of these turbulent skeptics?”
For deigning to oppose Obama’s agenda, Republicans have been called quite the variety of unpleasant names — “hostage-takers,” “bomb-throwers,” “terrorists,” and “traitors” were perennial favorites — and they have been repeatedly compared to the 19th-century secessionists who sought to smash up the Union. For shutting down the government — a tactic that has been used by Democratic lawmakers 15 times since 1976, including five occasions during which a Democrat was president — Republicans were accused of “nullification,” of channeling the spirit of Fort Sumter, and of racism. For using their constitutionally enumerated powers, a collection of lawmakers who informally refer to themselves as the “tea party” were accused by Senator Tom Harkin of being “every bit as dangerous” to America “as the break up and the Civil War.”
Barack Obama was no Adolf Hitler. He wasn’t even a Woodrow Wilson. But he played with abandon on the slopes that Trump now inherits, and, in so doing, he set precedents that are liable to be abused. When, as seems inevitable, President Trump complains publicly that the Supreme Court has declined to rubber-stamp his agenda, his defenders will point to Obama’s dressing down of Justice Alito during the 2011 State of the Union, and to the bully-pulpit speeches he staged on the Court’s steps, as prologue. When, as he has already in proposing Nigel Farage as the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S., Trump violates centuries of diplomatic protocol, his cavilers will be reminded that Obama was against Brexit. If Trump attempts to dominate Congress and to usurp its legislative functions, his acolytes will show videos of Obama’s “We can’t wait.” If Trump undermines due process, we will be reminded of the Democrats’ support for restricting the Second Amendment based on the government’s “terror watch” list, and of the kangaroo courts that have been set up on college campuses across the land.
Throughout, the Brendan Nyhans of the world will ask, “How could this happen?” And the answer will be elementary: It happened because process was subordinated to partisanship and because ends became mistaken for means. It happened because men are forgetful and myopic and prone to drawing straight lines. It happened because even the best among us are tempted by expedience.In private we ask, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; in public, “If you would not see your enemies handed untrammeled power, seek it not for your friends.” That so many are skeptical of an incoming president is, by my lights, a good thing. That they are unable to see illiberalism’s continuum and to place his predecessors on it is decidedly less so. This brave new world came into being a long while ago. Only a fool shows up at the changing of the guard and complains about the soldiers’ new uniforms.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.