2024 U.S. election most important since 1860

January 08, 2024 09:59
Photo: Reuters

In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party won the U.S. presidency, beating Democrat John Breckinridge. In May 1861, six southern Democratic states seceded from the union, followed by four more -- all wanted to retain slavery. The civil war began.

For many Americans, the election in November this year is as momentous as the one in 1860. At stake is not only whether the Democratic or Republican candidate wins but whether the country’s 235-year-old system of government will survive.

The 55 delegates who wrote the U.S. constitution in the summer of 1787 wanted a system better than the kingdoms and autocracies of Europe which had persuaded them to leave and seek a new life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The most important element of their new constitution was the separation of powers between executive, legislative and judicial. No-one, however virtuous he seemed to be, could be trusted with complete power.

It is this separation of powers which Donald Trump is threatening to overturn if he wins a second term as president in November this year.

The first issue is the justice system. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) are the two principal law enforcement agencies of the government. Last year Trump demanded that Republican members in Congress defund these two agencies because they had conducted investigations against him that have resulted in indictments. Last November, he said that, as president, he would order the DoJ “to investigate every Marxist prosecutor in America.”

Trump is facing four criminal cases involving 91 felony counts in three states and Washington DC. He is the first former president in the nation’s history to face indictment.

He is desperate to dismiss these cases. If elected, he would use his presidential prerogative to do just that. He is also likely to dismiss cases against his close friends and advisers.

Sarah Matthews, who worked in the Trump White House as a press aide, said that his policies aimed to consolidate his own power. “That way he can wield it to enact revenge on anyone he deems as an enemy.”

Last March Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I am your warrior, I am your justice. For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

His second target is a government bureaucracy that is apolitical. He would issue an executive order known as Schedule F. This would strip tens of thousands of career employees of their protection as civil servants. This would enable him to fire those he does not like or consider loyal.

This would include the leaders of the U.S. military. In September, Trump said that Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the country’s top soldier -- from October 2019 to September 2023, had committed treason by reaching out to China after the 2020 election to offer reassurances. “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump wrote on social media.

His third target is Congressional checks on the power of the president, one of the most important elements of the Constitution. The Senate, for example, would have to confirm his choices for cabinet posts.

A majority of Republican members in Congress support Trump because of his popularity among the party faithful. Privately, many have deep misgivings about him but are afraid to voice them in public; they fear losing their seats. This would make them vote for his cabinet choices, even if the person was ill-qualified and unsuitable.

In his most recent issue, the monthly Atlantic magazine – founded in 1857 -- devoted an entire issue to what Trump would do in a second term. It said that he would warp the U.S. Justice Department, prosecute his enemies, disempower experts, promote his own loyalists and trample on the checks and balances at the heart of American governance system.

“I believe that a second Trump term poses a threat to the existence of America as we know it,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of Atlantic. “We cannot participate in the normalisation of Donald Trump.

“Our eyes and ears tell us that Donald Trump fomented an insurrection against the Constitution (on January 6, 2020). We saw it. We heard it. It happened. That means that he placed himself outside the norms of American democratic behaviour. That is why I am comfortable devoting an entire issue of answering the question of what a second Trump term would look like and reaching the conclusion that it would be terrible. Absolutely terrible,” he said.

One of Trump’s targets would be the freedom of the media, he said.

“We all understand that Trump thinks of us (the liberal media) as enemies of the state, and we understand that there are consequences for us that come with this belief. He could try to somehow criminalise reporting in a second term, and so we have to sound the alarm about that, along with the more generalised threats to American democracy. And we have to sound the alarm now.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.