Democracy Or Dictatorship? We Will Decide.

Heather Cox Richardson

Friday, September 15, was the fourth anniversary of these Letters from an American, although they did not then have a title. When I posted a roundup of what I thought was going on in the government on Facebook that day, I had no idea it was going to be anything other than a marker for the future. 

I wrote a review of Trump’s mental decline amidst his faltering presidency, stonewalling of investigations of potential criminal activity by him or his associates, packing of the courts, and attempting to use the power of the government to help his 2020 reelection. And I added: “None of  this would fly in America if the Senate, controlled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, were not aiding and abetting him.”

“This is the story of a dictator on the rise,” I wrote, “taking control of formerly independent branches of government, and using the power of his office to amass power.”

Just four days later, the story that there was an intelligence community whistleblower had broken wide open. When I wrote on September 19, it was about how, on September 13, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote to then–acting director of national intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire accusing him of illegally withholding from the committee a whistleblower complaint made by someone in the intelligence community. The inspector general of the intelligence community, Trump appointee Michael Atkinson, had determined the complaint was credible and urgent. Under the law, that determination meant that Congress must see it. 

But Maguire refused to turn it over. 

Maguire had been in the job only a month. Trump’s previous director of national intelligence, the well-regarded former senator Dan Coats (R-IN), had earned Trump’s wrath in 2018 when he confirmed—a day after Trump had denied it—that the United States intelligence community had concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.

Trump fired Coats just three days after the phone call that had sparked the whistleblower complaint: the phone call in which Trump had asked Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” before the administration would release the money Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine fight the ongoing Russian presence after its 2014 invasion.  

Coats’s natural replacement was the deputy director of national intelligence, career intelligence professional Sue Gordon, but Trump forced her out. Instead, he tried to replace her with loyalist Representative John Ratcliffe (R-TX), but the Senate balked then at confirming a man without the national security credentials required by law (it would agree to Ratcliffe in May 2020). Then he turned to Maguire, slotting him in as an “acting” officer so he could avoid Senate confirmation.   

“A Director of National Intelligence has never prevented a properly submitted whistleblower complaint that the [inspector general] determined to be credible and urgent from being provided to the congressional intelligence committees. Never,” Schiff said in a statement. “This raises serious concerns about whether White House, Department of Justice or other executive branch officials are trying to prevent a legitimate whistleblower complaint from reaching its intended recipient, the Congress, in order to cover up serious misconduct.”

As I had noted just four days earlier, there was already plenty of reason to worry about what was going on in the administration—not least over the DNI position—but the whistleblower threw things into a new realm. A member of the legislative branch—Congress—had directly accused a member of the executive branch—possibly even the president— of violating a specific law. 

And so we were off to the races. 

The question at the heart of the four years since then has been whether the rule of law on which the United States of America was founded will survive.

Within months the fight over the whistleblower complaint had become an impeachment. The evidence against the president was so overwhelming that Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said: “Out of one hundred senators, you have zero who believe you that there was no quid pro quo. None. There’s not a single one.” 

And yet, Republican senators stood behind Trump. “This is not about this president. It’s not about anything he’s been accused of doing,” McConnell (R-KY) told his colleagues. “It has always been about November 3, 2020. It’s about flipping the Senate.”

His acquittal made Trump determined to take revenge and to cement his power. As the Covid-19 pandemic shattered the country in summer 2020, he claimed he had “absolute authority” to force states to reopen. “When somebody is President of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump stated, adding that “[t]he federal government has absolute power” and that he had the “absolute right” to use that power if he wanted to.

Trump’s determination to hold onto power metastasized into his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election…and still, Republican senators refused to hold him to account. 

That poison has continued to spread. On May 27, 2023, the Republican-led Texas House of Representatives voted to impeach Texas attorney general Ken Paxton on 20 counts of corruption and bribery. Paxton is supported by hard-right wealthy donors and has used his position to advance Trump’s fortunes rather than to defend Texas laws. According to Axios’s Mike Allen, Trump allies Steve Bannon and Charlie Kirk fired up their supporters to flood senators’ phones to demand acquittal, while party leaders warned senators that they would face well-funded primary opponents if they voted to convict.

On Saturday the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton of all charges, with only two Republicans voting to convict. Trump promptly congratulated Paxton on his “Texas sized VICTORY” and attacked the Republicans who had voted to impeach him. 

The Dallas News warned: “We have come to a place of great danger, where the plain evidence of corruption can no longer overcome the majority party’s determination to protect its self-interest and its agents.”

But this is not the only story of the past four years. At the same time Republican Party leaders have abandoned the rule of law, the rest of us have realized how imperative it is to demand its restoration.

The other thing that happened on September 15, 2023, was that copies of the new book arrived. It is called Democracy Awakening for a reason. From the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration—the largest single-day demonstration in world history—to Alexander Vindman’s declaration in the first impeachment hearings that “Here, right matters,” to the lawyers protecting immigrant rights and election laws, the Black Lives Matter movement, the refusal of Republican officials to help Trump overturn the election, the work of election officials to ensure a fair vote count, the determination of law enforcement officers like Michael Fanone to defend the U.S. Capitol, the testimony of those like Cassidy Hutchinson, and the determination of the majority to make its voice heard, from where I sit it looks like the American people are waking up to the defense of our democracy.  

The past four years have been quite a ride. For me, what began as a Facebook post has grown into a community I am ever so proud to be a part of. 

I’m eager to see what comes next.

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