Progressives have long feared that Donald Trump’s continued shattering of cultural and political norms is sabotaging democracy itself. His penchant for authoritarian leaders, his bromance with Vladimir Putin, his love of military parades, his separating children from their parents at the border, his threat to use federal agents against protesters, his dismissal of intelligence briefings, his disdain for science—whether it be climate change or the current pandemic—are all examples that support this view.
But actions in recent days prompt all Americans to wonder if this concern is more than a liberal flight of fancy, and instead has real potential for the country’s long-term health and identity.
First, there is the President’s wary, lukewarm support of the US Census. In 2018, Trump tried to add a question on the census about citizenship. Many saw this as a blatant attempt to frighten immigrants—and their families—out of filling out their forms, thereby reducing the count of non-white Americans and the corresponding limits on funding that such an undercount implies. The Supreme Court ruled against the President and documents later emerged that illustrated the overtly political nature of this proposal.
Though the President failed in this attempt, his administration recently shifted its position from wanting more time for US residents to fill out their forms due to coronavirus concerns to actually mandating an abbreviated time frame—moving the deadline from October 31 to September 30 for door-to-door collection of forms. This shortened timeline has the effect of reducing the number of marginalized individuals—homeless people, students, communities of color, poor and rural Americans—and thereby accomplishing the same effect as the citizenship question.
Second, the President mused (his way of floating an idea before declaring a point of view) about whether the November 3 election should be postponed due to the coronavirus. While he has no authority to do this (the date is set by statute), raising the idea sparked great distraction just as the virus was spiking in several southern and western states.
But it is his third preoccupation that has been the most aggressive: his repeated attacks on the US Post Office, accompanied by very real actions in removing sorting machines, eliminating overtime and even rounding up mail boxes. He is explicit about his reason: that mail-in voting will lead to unprecedented levels of voter fraud (despite any evidence to support this).
All of these actions—whatever their motivation—have explicit political implications. Tampering with the Census Bureau has direct bearing on future elections since Congressional seats are re-allocated every ten years based on the census count. Postponing the election—in addition to being a distraction from coronavirus failures—provides an alternative scenario (albeit unworkable and illegal) Americans can cite should the approaching election face challenges. And weaponizing the Post Office gives President Trump grounds—however fanciful—upon which he can challenge those election results should he lose.
It should be noted that Trump’s critique of the Post Office is nothing new, dating back at least to 2018. His justification for this lack of support is that the USPS is in dire financial straits, largely because the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that requires the Post Office to pre-pay pension funds for workers 75 years in advance!
David Dayen, writing in The American Prospect, states “No public agency or private company has any similar burden. It was placed on the Postal Service… to deliberately cripple the agency at the behest of UPS and FedEx, its two major competitors on package delivery. There should be no confusion: Without this completely anomalous pre-funding mandate, the USPS would be a money-making operation, regardless of the rise of email.”
The US Post Office is routinely found to be the most favored of all federal government agencies. In truth—while we all complain about the mail from time to time—it is the part of the federal government that directly touches more Americans than any other—especially rural Americans, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities. President Trump’s challenge to this constitutionally-based entity is both politically imprudent and ethically untenable. It offers the best evidence yet that this would-be dictator is actually out to dismantle the very fabric of our democracy in an effort to remain in power.
Observant readers of these posts will note that this edition has come earlier in the week than normal. The next two weeks will see the unfolding of both parties’ political conventions and it is my intent to write two blogs each week—the first, at the beginning of the week, will address general matters in the headlines; at week’s end, I will comment specifically on the conventions. As always, I welcome your thoughts.