Type to search

A Professor’s Lesson: ‘American Democracy Is Now Confronting An Abyss’

Politics Top News US White House

A Professor’s Lesson: ‘American Democracy Is Now Confronting An Abyss’


Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Ah, listen to that ominous phrase, the “Deep State.”

You hear the words hissing from the fur-lined rat hole of Breitbart. They ring from the pulpit of Greenwald. They sound in the silos of Salon and The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. And over on Twitter, the white nationalists are Jew-baiting the hapless Bill Kristol because he prefers the Deep State to the Trump State.

In other words, the situation is hopeless, but not serious. In a sobering interview with the German daily newspaper Suedeutche Zeitug, Yale history professor Tim Snyder recently suggested that American democracy has less than a year to live. Is it really possible that the Madisonian republic, founded in 1789 and renewed in 1865, is about to die?

Yes, says Michael J. Glennon, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University.

I turned to Glennon for answers because he has stomped a few grapes in the vineyards of Washington. He worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and thought big thoughts at the Brookings Institution before taking refuge in academia.

Glennon is the author of National Security and Double Government, one of the most acute assessments of American government you are ever likely to read. If you need to lose sleep, buy Glennon’s tome. Whether you like President Trump or hate President Trump, Glennon’s book will wake you up to America’s current reality.

Jefferson Morley: Has President Trump exposed the undemocratic character of our “double” government?

Michael Glennon: The façade was crumbling before Trump appeared, but he’s removed the frontage and unveiled the power exercised by the national security bureaucracy.

JM: What do you mean, “the facade was crumbling”?

MG: In earlier U.S. presidencies, that power was largely concealed because it would have undermined the legitimacy of the constitutionally established institutions—the Executive, Congress, and the courts—if the public understood the extent to which those three branches had ceded authority over national security to an unelected bureaucracy. So, they had an incentive to pretend they were in control.

But the open split between Trump and the intelligence community has made clear that the security managers have an agenda of their own, and pursue it with very few checks. This was concealed from the public during the Obama administration because Obama largely embraced their agenda as his own and when they screwed up, he took responsibility, as had other presidents. Trump is different.

JM: Can/should the “Deep State” rescue us from Trumpism, as Bill Kristol recently mused?

MG: Bureaucratic checking by the security managers won’t work and is a dangerous idea. It won’t work because, unless the security managers deliver a knockout blow and force Trump out of office within the next few weeks, he’ll use divide-and-conquer tactics to root out the opposition and claim their organizations as his own.

The playbook for dismembering a disliked bureaucracy is widely known to organizational theorists, and it’s only a matter of time before Trump will be able to employ those methods to get control of these agencies. Factions within them will align with Trump to do his bidding and ultimately will come to dominate rival, opposing factions. Trump can then declare victory, as he must do so as to restore public confidence in his own judgment—he is, after all, forced to rely upon their information and analysis in making national security decisions; where else can he look?

At that point the rivalry will cease and the “deep state” will emerge front-and-center as Trump’s overt partner in governance. That’s the more likely scenario.

JM: Sounds positively Putinesque.

MG: An alternative scenario is no more comforting. Under it, a continuing series of leaks and challenges to his authority either drive him from office, through resignation or impeachment, or leave him so enfeebled that he is in effect a ceremonial president taking orders from the security bureaucrats, who operate more or less in plain view.

The managers are in this scenario so widely understood to wear the crown that it’s no longer necessary to hide the fact. Of course, this would represent a very different form of government, and given the historical record of abuse of power by these agencies, there is little reason to believe that their rule would represent a “rescue” in any meaningful sense of the word.

JM: Is it possible to oppose both the “Deep State” and Trump?

MG: My own sense is that a happy outcome is unlikely and that American democracy is now confronting an abyss. The root of the problem is that, as the result of widespread and pervasive civic, political, and historical ignorance, the aspirations of the polity to participate in governance vastly exceeds its capacity to do so responsibly.

In recent days, activism and engagement have spiked, but the base of knowledge needed for effective democratic governance still is not present, and it’s hard to see why or how or when that will change.

If it takes reading 1984 to realize we’ve got a problem, chances are it’s too late to do anything useful about it. I may be wrong, and I hope I am. But the realistic answer, I’m afraid, is that people are waking up too late.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump applauds his crowd as he holds a “Make America Great Again” rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque



  1. Dominick Vila February 21, 2017

    American democracy, with all its flaws, is in decline, not because of what Trump says and does, but because of the decision of those who voted for a narcissistic, ignorant, bully and continue to support him is spite of conclusive evidence that the man is unfit to be President. The threat to our democracy has nothing to do with North Korea, terrorism, illegal immigrants, welfare recipients, or Obamacare. The threat is coming from within our society, a society that has shifted to the far right and seems determined to destroy the social fabric and values that allowed our middle class to be the envy of the world, that protected the poor, and that stood for the core values enshrined in our Constitution. Trump is simply the buffoon that articulates the innermost wishes of a radical segment of our population determined to destroy our institutions of government, our social programs, our environment, the regulations that have protected us as consumers and citizens, freedom of expression, voting rights, and everything else that made this country great…in the name of greatness. That this is all happening in the name of Christ, and purportedly to make America great again, and that millions of fellow Americans believe this con job, is evidence of an intellectual cancer that, if allowed to expand, will transform the United States into a mix between Nazi Germany, the South African apartheid days, and a Third World dictatorship, with Generalissimo Trump as puppet master.

    1. Beethoven February 21, 2017

      Walt Kelly’s character Pogo, over 50 years ago, identified the problem very succinctly: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  2. yabbed February 21, 2017

    With Trump we have sunk into the depths of hell. If we don’t get rid of this scourge of democracy we will not long survive.

  3. stsintl February 21, 2017

    “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism ownership of government by an individual, by a group or any controlling private power.” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt– http://www.demsclub.com/quotes.htm

    Neo-Capitalism [Mafia] is masculine and strong. Democracy is feminine and delicate. Free Press is windows to Democracy’s bedroom. When Neo-Capitalism [Mafia] pulls down the shades over the windows, places five judges of the Supreme Court to guard the door and rapes Democracy, nation ends up with an illegitimate government.

    Sadly, having been raped repeatedly over the years, Democracy bled to death in 2016 on November 8th during childbirth, leaving the newborn “Oligarchy” for the nation. Since Russia has considerable experience in raising Oligarchy, America, under DJT Presidency, plans to marry him to help her with taking care of the newborn. The two-step sisters growing up in single household would make both grow up stronger.

  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth March 7, 2017

    This is a dire assessment of an intolerable situation, we the people, have allowed to fester far too long. That there is hope though is a certainty, but still remains largely unappreciated as a result of our hurried pace of living, the countless distractions presented by so much media bombardment, and just a generally enervated spiritual capacity. Compassion, generosity, empathy, altruism have been demonized by extremists in America as “politically correct”. For example, there are those who had at least some signs of decency, were brought up by a parent, or parents, who taught the values of a good character motivated by morality; but as soon as they enter the snake-pit of partisan politics while simultaneously getting entrapped in materialism and public acclaim, suddenly have been transformed to a distorted shadow of their former selves—Dr. Ben Carson comes to mind. Others have become focused either solely on gaining money, and/or show a religious-like fervor for a political ideology, dismissing the very essence of what a true democracy should look and feel like. Then there are many who never had any meaningful exposure to ethical training and little exposure to real Religion, and right out of the gate were indoctrinated to accept money and power as the twin gods of choice.

    “The root of the problem is that, as the result of widespread and pervasive civic, political, and historical ignorance, the aspirations of the polity to participate in governance vastly exceeds its capacity to do so responsibly.”

    To me, this observation from the article succinctly describes the essence of decay that still slowly, silently, and inexorably eats away at the moral fiber of America, and much of the rest of the world as well, leading to a global malaise and a paralysis of will to improve one’s self. A system of governance in America that started out with noble ideals has been undergoing a gutting out of its soul as a result of an unusual preoccupation with gaining wealth and living a life of ease and comfort—the Roman Empire decayed for the same reasons, as a result of succumbing to becoming lazy, soft, complacent, and victims of a cockiness and self-assurance. Donald J. Trump epitomizes this sort of decay, and lends a legitimacy to this ongoing evisceration taking place in his life and most of his supporters. The rest of us are affected to varying degrees, while simultaneously be impacted by Trump’s ego and the lack of moral character so abundantly manifest in his supporters.

    There is a way out of what might otherwise be inevitable—but the willingness to change our outlook on our personal life, and that of society at home and across the globe, is required to begin the process. Over the years I’ve laid down numerous “breadcrumbs” as to which direction to turn to.

    Anticipating that humanity would be beset by a variety of crises unheard of in the past, was obliged to reveal the following regarding the state of affairs of humanity as a whole, and should be considered in light of the article above. The excerpt below is from a Proclamation to the world, issued in the 19th Century by Baha’u’llah.

    It reads as follows:

    “The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.
    Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths. Take heed that ye do not vacillate in your determination to embrace the truth of this Cause—a Cause through which the potentialities of the might of God have been revealed, and His sovereignty established. With faces beaming with joy, hasten ye unto Him. This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future. Let him that seeketh, attain it; and as to him that hath refused to seek it—verily, God is Self-Sufficient, above any need of His creatures.”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.