Democracy in peril: With the Supreme Court backing down, who will stop Donald Trump?

Congress has become a craven enabler, and the high court just gave Trump free rein. It's all up to Mueller now

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 27, 2018 8:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Donald Trump (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The biggest question of the Trump era so far has been whether the institutions would hold under this president's ongoing assault on the rule of law. He does not understand how government is supposed to work on the most basic level, has no respect for or knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and is an instinctive authoritarian demagogue with no sense of his own limits. His own people cannot restrain him.

By this time it's clear that the Republican Congress is failing to perform its duty. It is a willing accomplice in the president's continuous violation of every established rule and norm. In fact, congressional leaders are now helping President Trump evade the legal consequences of his campaign's complicity in an attack on the electoral system.

They have likewise shown no appetite to challenge Trump on policy, allowing him free rein to enact a draconian anti-immigrant program, start a global trade war, tear up treaties and international agreements, denigrate our long-term alliances and use executive agencies to take a wrecking ball to the regulatory apparatus that keeps the citizens safe from disasters both natural and man-made. Republicans in Congress have also turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption permeating every corner of the executive branch, including the Oval Office.

The Congress, as currently configured, is beyond useless as a check on a rogue president. It is functioning as his co-conspirator.

That leaves the third branch of government, the courts. Up until now, they have been the only functioning bulwark against the worst of Trump's impulses. As of yesterday, however, it became clear that the Supreme Court, the only co-equal branch of government that could have checked the president's power, is also abdicating its duty. In its ruling on Trump's "travel ban," it pretty much gave the president a blank check when it comes to dealing with foreigners. He has a free hand now and will no doubt waste little time in implementing his most oppressive anti-immigrant policies. He may well be inspired by the high court's deference to his power to push the envelope in any other way he chooses.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke for many Americans with her scathing, angry dissent in the travel-ban case, which concluded:

Our Constitution demands, and our country deserves, a Judiciary willing to hold the coordinate branches to account when they defy our most sacred legal commitments. Because the Court’s decision today has failed in that respect, with profound regret, I dissent.

Nobody is holding Donald Trump to account for anything.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., even took a bow on social media, proud to have been the one who made it happen:

Foreign allies are closely watching this unfold. They see now that they are dealing with a U.S. government that is incoherent, hostile and aggressive toward them. Adversaries obviously see a country that is unbalanced and vulnerable. The world's autocracies are beginning to see a country run by kindred spirits.

The disastrous G7 meeting in Quebec left all of America's closest allies gobsmacked by Trump's heavy-handed behavior. He has been dismissive and rude since he came into office, but this was a dramatic escalation. Now they have belatedly recognized that Trump is serious about instigating a trade war, despite the fact that he fails to understand the issue on even the most elementary level. They are left with little choice but to retaliate, which Trump sees as "unfair."

The New York Times' Paul Krugman described the problem:

Trump famously declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Never mind the goodness issue: It’s already becoming apparent that the “easy to win” part is delusional. Other countries won’t quickly give in to U.S. demands, in part because those demands are incoherent — Trump is demanding that Europe end the “horrific” tariffs it doesn’t actually impose, while the Chinese can’t even figure out what the Trump administration wants, with officials calling America “capricious.”

If the rest of the world expected that the Republican Congress, having spent decades ranting about free markets and railing against trade barriers, would at least exert some resistance on this issue, they have once again been disappointed. The GOP has been passive and accepting. There will be no check on him from that quarter on this issue either.

As was evident by Trump's lobbying on behalf of Vladimir Putin at the G7 summit, Trump is clearly champing at the bit to get together with the Russian president. He has dispatched National Security Adviser John Bolton to set up a meeting between the two of them around the time of the NATO summit in July.

All of this has reportedly led to some serious qualms among America's allies, who are worried that if Trump meets with Putin ahead of the NATO meeting, Trump may be even more inclined to do something destructive to the trans-Atlantic alliance.

According to The Washington Post, this meeting with Putin has them spooked either way:

But worries are so high that one senior European diplomat, in a recent conversation, halted mid-sentence to muse about whether it was worse for the two to meet before the NATO summit — when many alliance leaders fear the U.S. president might make big concessions to Putin without input from them — or after, when they would be unable to mop up a mess.

Their worries are understandable since we now know that on Putin's advice, Trump blithely gave up the joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea without consulting anyone -- and got nothing in return for it. His vaunted negotiating style could end up green-lighting something far worse than a trade war.

Now that it's clear that no one in the current U.S. government will lift a finger to stop Trump from acting like a maniac, the rest of the world has recognized that it must try to recalculate how to keep him from doing his worst. Good luck with that.

There are a couple of institutions that haven't weighed in just yet, so there is still hope that America can pull back from the brink. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into serious crimes that may implicate the president is still hard at work. And in just over four months, the American people will have a chance to weigh in by either validating or repudiating the president's enabling party in the midterm elections.

If those backstops don't work, our democracy may not make it. And much of the rest of the world will have no choice but to see this behemoth economic and military power as an existential threat.

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By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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