President Trump firing James Comey is the latest sign American democracy is under threat. Experts on authoritarian regimes warn that this is exactly how democracies die. In the modern age, it's rare to see democracies being suddenly overthrown by some wide ranging conspiracy or plot. Instead, what happens is norms, which are the bedrock of democracy, are slowly broken one by one until the entire system breaks down.
But the thing is, modern authoritarians generally don’t have that kind of sinister blueprint. “They’re winging it,” Chenoweth says, bluntly.
What happens, instead, is a series of lower-level conflicts between the executive and other elements of the state. The president wants to do something; a court or a legislature blocks him. The president, frustrated with his opponents’ behavior, decides to circumvent them using whatever legal tools are available.
Through this lens, it's easy to see America at the beginning of dangerous slide into authoritarianism. Trump, whether he's aware of it or not, is planting the seeds for autocratic rule. His first instinct when thefederal judges blocked his travel ban was to attack the legitimacy of the court. He constantly attacks the press for writing critical stories.
Making matters worse, the Republican-held Congress refuses to even acknowledge the threat Trump poses to democracy. Instead of challenging the highly unusual firing, Republicans have closed ranks and defended Trump's actions. Timothy Egan at the New York Times is calling on Republicans to stand up to save the republic.
We’re looking for a few good men and women in Congress to understand the gravity of this debasement. We don’t need more parsing about the bad “optics” or “timing” of Trump firing the man who could have ended his presidency. We need a Republican in power to call it what it is: a bungled attempt to obstruct justice.
And the tragic part is that Trump is likely to succeed, at least in the short term. The person he chooses for F.B.I. director will never assemble a prosecutable case of treason that leads to the doorstep of this White House.
Trump's supporters say Comey's firing was well within Trump's rights and powers as president. Trump was given a mandate by the American people to drain the swamp and ensure the government is serving the American people first. Conservatives argue it's a gross exaggeration to say Trump fired Comey over the Russian investigation. Again, it's Trump's critics looking for anything and everything they can to attack the president.
It is well documented that the Russian government attempted to interfere in November’s election, but there remains no concrete evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign was in on it — let alone that Trump himself “colluded” his way into the Oval Office. Furthermore, speculations to the contrary are in no small part based on a misunderstanding of what Comey said in his March testimony before the House Intelligence Committee: There is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election interference; there is no ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI of President Trump or his campaign.
Trump's actions and ineffective communication has done little to help the situation, but that does not justify the mass hysteria. Comey was widely criticized for his actions and mismanagement of the situation by both sides. It's too much to say his firing is an attack on democracy.
Needless to say, over the past year James Comey found himself in a difficult situation, squeezed between two major-party candidates widely suspected of grave criminal wrongdoing. But his response was, time and again, to make himself policeman, prosecutor, and judge, breaking with decades-old protocols instituted for precisely those sorts of high-pressure situations, and making the nation’s chief law-enforcement office look like a political player. The Bureau’s reputation is at a low ebb because of Comey’s decisions. One way or the other, he needed to go.
In all seriousness, functioning democracies rely more on norms than laws and those norms are being degraded with terrifying abandon.