Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the year since Donald Trump moved into the White House, one of the key questions was how long the institutions of American democracy would hold up if he tried to create an authoritarian state centered around himself. For a long time things seemed to be largely OK: the institutions of state were mostly able to resist Trump’s incursions into their necessary roles and perform their duties more or less as intended. Sure, Trump’s appointees were hyperpartisan in their deregulatory and corporate-friendly fervor, which often put them at odds with the purposes of the agencies they were in charge of. Yes, talented employees are leaving in droves and some key functions are going unfilled, and yes, agencies with authoritarian powers like ICE have been behaving cruelly and abominably with horrible consequences for those affected. But overall, American democracy itself has not been on the verge of unraveling. The president has found himself at least partially constrained by the courts in his racist immigration decrees; the Justice Department and FBI have been doing their duty in pursuing investigations into the President’s malfeasance; the states effectively scuttled Kris Kobach’s voter suppression commission; and the other agencies aren’t fully dysfunctional even if they are perverted in serving the interests of the rich and powerful rather than regular Americans.

But all of that started to change this week. The seams are beginning to come apart, and the danger of autocracy is far nearer than it was just a few days ago. This, even as the publication of Michael Wolff’s new book shows just how dangerously unfit this president is even under normal circumstances.

Republican Senators who began last year by pretending to want investigations into Russia’s interference in the election are now actively scuttling those investigations. Two Republican Senators, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham, have now made a criminal referral to the FBI against Christopher Steele, the longtime intelligence officer who provided information designed to expose Russia’s crimes and accomplices. This is nothing less than a coverup designed to muddy the waters, protect those truly guilty of collusion with Russia to undermine our democracy, and intimidate anyone else who might come forward in the future under similar circumstances. It’s particularly galling coming from Lindsey Graham who at one time was one of the president’s harshest critics, but is now serving as his political hit man even as Trump’s unfitness for office has never been clearer.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced the FBI wilted some months ago after ongoing public pressure from Donald Trump to prosecute his political opponents for nonexistent crimes by reopening investigations into the Clinton Foundation and the Uranium One nothingburger. The investigations were halted due to lack of evidence of wrongdoing, but the mere fact that the FBI could be pressured into harassing the charity for purely political reasons is troubling.

On the real collusion front, the integrity of the FBI’s investigation in Trump and his associates is being hampered by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ blatant attempts to acquire sensitive documents held close by the FBI, and to subpoena  FBI officials whose public testimony would harm the investigation itself. Nunes is already widely suspected of having passed sensitive information to the White House and having lied about it, but he is being backed up in this coverup by Paul Ryan himself.

If (like our illustrious president) video is more your thing than text, Rachel Maddow provided a good rundown of these and other disturbing developments on her show last night. It makes for disturbing viewing.

It’s clear that the country has reached a dangerous inflection point. Republicans have decided en masse that their best chance at political survival is to hew closely to President Trump. But the president is so clearly unfit for office and in such obvious legal and ethical peril that they cannot protect him without violating basic principles of accountability and democracy.

Unfortunately, there are no mechanisms for accountability while Republicans run essentially the entire country. Democrats and all public officials of decency and patriotism must fight to preserve small-d democratic norms throughout the next year until hopefully Republicans lose control of Congress. But it will be a time of trial and extreme peril. It’s not clear how much longer our institutions can persevere against the strain of Trump’s authoritarianism and a Republican Party that has wholly lost its moral compass.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.