Grounds for hope, grounds for grave concern in the battle to defend our democracy

By: - April 17, 2018 5:55 am

These are extraordinary times in the American experiment with representative democracy. In Washington, a buffoonish would-be despot occupies the highest office of the land and sullies it on an almost minute-by-minute basis in unprecedented fashion. This past Sunday, the editorial board of the New York Times felt obligated to publish a special, full-page editorial in which it inveighed peremptorily against the possibility that the President of the United States could issue a Putin-like dismissal of the top investigators probing alleged illegality in his administration.

After holding up Senator Orrin Hatch’s 20-year-old admonition at the time of the Clinton impeachment that “This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes…But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up,” the editorial (“The President is Not Above the Law”) said this:

Make no mistake: If Mr. Trump takes such drastic action, he will be striking at the foundation of the American government, attempting to set a precedent that a president, alone among American citizens, is above the law. What can seem now like a political sideshow will instantly become a constitutional crisis, and history will come calling for Mr. Hatch and his colleagues….

…it will be up to Congress to affirm the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American constitutional order.”

If anything, the Times’ forecast of a possible constitutional crisis seems somewhat understated in describing the reality that confronts Americans in the spring of 2018. After all, it’s one thing for the president to lie about his behavior or to try and cover up the lie. It’s something else again when the subject of the alleged lying – foreign interference in U.S. elections and even the possibility of treason – already pose a gigantic threat to national security and even the survival of constitutional government, in and of themselves.

That the current state of affairs is deadly serious has, of course, been lent additional credence by the encouraging emergence in recent days of a rather remarkable new national group dedicated to the protection of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, called Republicans for the Rule of Law. Despite being led by a collection of hard right neocons like William Kristol, the group produced and promoted a video ad last week in which it explicitly defended Mueller and urged Americans to call their members of Congress to ask them to “protect the Mueller investigation.”

North Carolina: Right in the middle of things

As it has been throughout most of the last several years when it comes to battles over democratic governance, North Carolina and its political leaders are not far removed from the crisis. On the positive side, North Carolina’s junior U.S. senator, Thom Tillis, has at least paid some level of lip service to the cause of protecting the Mueller investigation by having co-sponsored a bill that would prevent firing the special counsel except for “good cause.” Tillis even signed his name to an op-ed that recently appeared in the Washington Post in which he explained his belief in “the rule of law, regardless of who occupies the White House or which party leads the Justice Department.”

As welcome as Tillis’ pro-Mueller actions are, however, the senator’s stances in this area are hardly beyond reproach. In the very same Washington Post essay in which he called for protecting Mueller, Tillis made the downright bizarre statement that his legislation could be jeopardized (and that he wouldn’t blame Republicans for it) if House Democrats tried to score political points or engaged in fundraising in which they cited the bill.

Say what? The futures of the country and the Constitution are at-stake and Senator Tillis won’t blame Republicans for not acting to protect them if Democrats hurt their feelings? But then, what would one expect from a man who endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and has aggressively supported so many of his outrageous acts since he became president?

Talk about double standards, equivocation and leaving oneself a truck-sized escape clause.

Tillis’ public stances in support of Mueller and the “rule of law” are rendered even more suspect by recent revelations with respect to his own 2014 campaign and its connections to Cambridge Analytica, the British Facebook data harvesting outfit with Russian ties.

As an editorial in the Greensboro News & Record noted last week, the senator engaged in absurd hypocrisy when he presumed to lecture Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about coming clean on the big Russian data mining controversy even as the sound emanating from his own campaign bore a striking resemblance to chirping crickets.

In many respects, of course, Tillis’ out-of-both-sides-of-his-mouth approach to the Trumpian threat to democracy is what we’ve come to expect from North Carolina conservative leaders. For another example, see Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate committee supposedly overseeing investigations into many aspects of the crisis, who continues to display all the determination and resolve of a block of Silly Putty.

Meanwhile, similarly mealy mouthed behavior has been on display for months over in the conservative think tanks, where people who profess to hold Trump in utter contempt remain silent in the face of his repeated lies and treacheries.

Closer to home

Ultimately, it comes as little surprise that conservative North Carolina politicians like Thom Tillis would attempt to have it both ways in the fight over the future of democracy – especially given their own sustained Trump-like behavior when it comes to limiting voting rights and enacting illegal and unconstitutional gerrymandering laws. It was Tillis after all, who presided over the state’s enactment of the “monster” 2013 voter suppression law and many of the unconstitutionally gerrymandered electoral districts that the state has imposed on voters during recent elections.

We were reminded of this reality late last week when a special panel of three state Superior Court judges ruled that the upcoming May primary election would have to continue as planned even though it was very likely that the districts GOP lawmakers recently redrew in Wake County were illegal. The court’s pragmatic but maddening explanation: it’s too late to stop the election.

And so it is that North Carolina stands on the precipice of having worked its way through almost an entire decade of elections with voters still waiting for their first lawful and constitutional set of electoral maps. Somewhere, Donald Trump is smiling.

The resistance grows

Happily, the resistance to the threats to democracy – at both national and state levels is strong and growing. National polling reveals strong support for the continuation of Mueller’s investigation. Just yesterday, for instance, a national Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Americans supported investigating allegations that Trump’s associates paid hush money to women who say they had affairs with him by a 58%-35% margin.

Meanwhile, a growing movement to, quite literally, take to the streets in the event Trump fires Mueller continues to grow day by day. Organizers are promising a veritable flood of citizen mobilization and hundreds of “Nobody is Above the Law” protest rallies — including 20+ in North Carolina alone.

And the fight against unconstitutional districts and voting laws continues too. After last week’s ruling on the unconstitutional Wake County districts came down, Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorney Allison Riggs wasn’t giving up.

“We will aggressively litigate this case to final resolution to ensure there are fair districts in place by the time voters go to the ballot box in 2020,” she said. “Basic legal principles of equality demand that voters in Wake County have the same right to vote in constitutional districts as every other resident in the state.”

The bottom line: All North Carolinians would do well to mirror the resolve in Riggs’ statement – by staying engaged, speaking up and marching in the streets if necessary. To keep up with the latest developments in the fight for democracy in North Carolina, be sure to visit the NC Policy Watch’s new “Defending Democracy” website at

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.