Do you remember the Doomsday Clock? Sure you do. It’s a metaphor for a man-made, world-ending catastrophe expressed in minutes to midnight. Members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have been maintaining it since 1947, a year when the world was coming to grips with the possibility of a thermonuclear war.
When the Cold War ended around 1991, the clock was at 11:43 PM, its furthest ever point from doom. Last month the clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, 20 seconds closer than in 2019. Planet-devastating climate change was combined with a civilization-ending nuclear war in making the latest calculation. This is the closest point to doomsday the clock has ever been.
If doomsday isn’t enough to worry about, there’s another ominous countdown that should horrify all Americans – the Autocracy Clock. When it reaches midnight, our democracy will have ended.
I’ve been wondering when this clock started ticking. No, it wasn’t when President Trump took office; it has evolved over time, as authoritarian leaders unethically attempted to suppress their opposition. President Richard Nixon provided a good example.
No question, Nixon and his inner circle were corrupt. Although his reelection in 1972 was not seriously threatened, Nixon’s associates burglarized the Democratic headquarters in an attempt to insure his victory. They would do anything to crush their opponents. Fortunately, there were patriotic Republicans in Congress back then who forced Nixon’s resignation.
The Iran-Contra scandal during President Ronald Reagan’s administration showed that the executive branch could setup a secret government operation to engage in illegal activities in complete defiance of congressional oversight. I believe the GOP began moving toward authoritarianism during the Reagan years but far-right Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) hastened the process in the 1990s.
Gingrich initiated a hate campaign against Democrats that still permeates the GOP. Instead of treating them as fellow Americans who had different political views, Gingrich labeled Democrats as “sick,” “traitors” and “corrupt.” He forced a partial government shutdown for 26 days in 1995-1996 over conservative budget issues and later led an effort to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton. Gingrich wrote the playbook for the radical Tea Party Republicans that took control of the U.S. House in 2011.
Fox News began broadcasting in 1996 when Gingrich was at the height of his power as speaker of the House. Its Republican-centered commentary supplemented his efforts to demonize Democrats and the conservative rhetoric of Fox pundits helped Gingrich steer the GOP further to the right. For almost 25 years, Fox has given a voice to right-wing Republicans who lambast the federal government and constantly disparage liberals.
Then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must have learned some lessons from Gingrich’s tactics too. It was credibly reported that he advised the Republican leadership in 2009 that nothing would be gained by compromising with newly elected President Barack Obama. Thus, he began a program of obstructing the president across the board, using the Senate filibuster as a weapon. McConnell still openly brags about the success of his efforts, particularly in preventing Obama from confirming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
Oh, and let’s not forget the conservative-controlled Supreme Court. Its 5-4 ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case opened the floodgates of special interest money pouring into the political system from super PACs, anonymous billionaires and even foreign interests. Then in 2013 the court’s conservatives gutted key sections of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County case. This decision unleashed a concerted effort by Republican-controlled states to suppress minority voters. These two cases seriously weakened our democratic processes and disenfranchised millions of Americans.
I believe the GOP/Fox News war on the federal government and the gridlock in Congress caused by McConnell and Tea Party Republicans helped outsider presidential candidate Donald Trump immensely. He easily thrashed 17 or so of the best primary candidates the GOP had to offer and narrowly defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Voter suppression, Russian meddling and then-FBI Director James Comey also deserve a lot of credit for Trump’s victory.
President Trump displayed authoritarian tendencies from the get-go. This led to his impeachment and trial in the GOP-controlled Senate for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Senate Republicans, however, prevented important witnesses from testifying and turned the trial into a sham. Apparently, they are terrified of Trump.
Well, we should be terrified too. Republicans not only defended Trump, they argued that he has almost unlimited power. They rubbered stamped his refusal to allow administration officials to testify before congressional committees and turn over documents. This is a shockingly undemocratic precedent that nullifies the oversight powers of Congress and the separation of powers. Clearly, Republican Senators have a much higher loyalty to the GOP and the president than the Constitution.
So, with compliant William Barr as attorney general, power-hungry Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader and cowardly Senate Republicans ready to agree with whatever Trump does, this president is near to having total control over the United States government. Is there any doubt he will now feel free to use this power to hide his crimes and suppress his political opponents?
Trump has brazenly stated that Article II of the Constitution allows him to do whatever he wants. Senate Republicans have now told him – Go Ahead! They’re attempting to elevate Trump from president to potentate.
The Autocracy Clock has not yet struck midnight; but that fateful hour is getting closer by the day.