US news has again found two ways to talk about threats to democracy via Trump. But missing in the click-bait conversation is any deeper means of empowering a return to normal civic discourse, which US citizens most sorely need and deserve.

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It’s a rare day when The New York Times puts US democracy on watch, but that was precisely what happened on Monday July 17, when a multi-authored op-ed titled “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025” described open campaign trail plans to consolidate power under the president if the Republican bid is successful in the 2024 election cycle. This maximalist version of “unitary executive theory”, first developed by Ronald Reagan’s legal team and banned in part under Richard Nixon, argues that Congress is directly subordinate to the president in all capacities, including the proceedings of agencies under its purview.

The op-ed is a troubling read, informed by direct statements from Republican figures like John McEntee, who told the NYT that “[o]ur current executive branch was conceived of by liberals for the purpose of promulgating liberal policies. There is no way to make the existing structure function in a conservative manner. It’s not enough to get the personnel right. What’s necessary is a complete system overhaul.”

But the very next day, more judicial action emerged to address past anti-democratic action. In the state of Michigan, 16 electors alleged to have signed certificates falsely claiming that then-President Donald J. Trump had won the 2020 election were issued eight felony charges apiece, each carrying a potential prison term of up to 14 years. The charges include conspiracy to commit forgery, forgery, election forgery, and conspiracy involving uttering and publishing falsehood.

As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel explained,

The false electors’ actions undermined the public’s faith in the integrity of our elections and, we believe, also plainly violated the laws by which we administer our elections in Michigan. …

The evidence will demonstrate there was no legal authority for the false electors to purport to act as ‘duly elected presidential electors’ and execute the false electoral documents. … There was only the desperate effort of these defendants, who we have charged with deliberately attempting to interfere with and overturn our free and fair election process, and along with it, the will of millions of Michigan voters. That the effort failed and democracy prevailed does not erase the crimes of those who enacted the false electors plot.

Michigan Department of Attorney General Press Release, July 18

This move comes a month ahead of promised charges by Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has been investigating Trump’s efforts to “find” enough votes in Georgia to flip the state after the 2020 election. On July 18, Trump himself took to social media to announce that Special Council Jack Smith had informed him he is a target of a Grand Jury investigation into January 6 proceedings (and presumably the road leading up to that attack).

Also, Israeli antiquities lent to the White House were found at Mar-a-Lago: another potential site of rising disfavor with the soon-to-be thrice-indicted former president.

Keeping sane in politically mad times

So which narrative should be believed?

The one in which the US is on the verge of losing its democracy if Trump takes office in 2025? Or the one in which he’s in the process of being brought down by multiple ongoing sites of federal prosecution?

How about a detour into a third option? Not a middle-ground position: a stepping back and looking at the larger picture.

Taken together, we’re witnessing the normalization of deep uncertainty about the future of justice and democracy as the only relevant component of US political discourse. That should be our core takeaway, when navigating news not only of matters related to Trump but also to other contenders for presidency: like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, recently accused by veterans of trying to build a militia out of the State Guard, and RFK Jr., who seems to have run for office to give his anti-vax and conspiracy theories the media shelter of a presidential campaign.

Is there reason to be concerned about US government? Especially with the long track record of criminal activity in higher office going years without redress? Absolutely. Even with indictments finally in motion, in a year of significant convictions for insurrectionists involved in the Capitol attack, the US is not secure in its democratic proceedings. That was made plain enough in the term the Supreme Court just finished, on the back of a year consumed by news of judicial misconduct.

READ: Along party lines: SCOTUS decisions and US schisms

Moreover, a central source for the NYT‘s op-ed is not itself under indictment. This means that Project 2025, a presidential transition plan organized by the Heritage Foundation, may very well continue under whatever candidate Republicans select for the 2024 presidential election. If elected, independent agencies sanctioned by Congress could still see their autonomy subordinated to direct presidential oversight: a huge risk for the Federal Communications Commission (which oversees media), for the Federal Trade Commission (which enforces consumer protection rules and combats antitrust), and maybe even for the Federal Reserve.

But in that NYT‘s reference to Project 2025, one also catches a glimpse of what else has been lost in this era of will-they-or-won’t-they media panic about the impending collapse of US democracy to an authoritarian state project:

Actual political discourse.

A much more comprehensive civic debate, that is, about the world US citizens want to live in, and not just the one that, amid all the noise of recent news cycles, it always feels like the country is but one step away from becoming.

Is it any wonder that average US citizens are so disillusioned with their institutions, when civic discourse has become a matter of constant reaction, not creation?

Talking conservative positions, not sensationalism

The Heritage Foundation’s plans for the Fed are indeed extreme, amounting to a significant rollback of Fed operations in Chapter 24 of its latest Mandate for Leadership. Is that surprising, though, considering what the Heritage Foundation is and the role it’s played in US government for the last fifty years?

Founded by a beer company magnate and two strongly Christian conservatives in 1973, the US conservative think tank has played a strong role in setting policy and agenda for Republican and Democratic leaders in federal government from the Reagan administration forward. This unto itself should be a serious talking point in news media and electoral cycles: the outsized role of third-party think tanks in setting state policy, and the diminished role of elected assemblies in drafting legislation among themselves (in part, because of their diminished readiness to discuss policy with the level of topical knowledge necessary to vote thoughtfully and well).

READ: What fifty years of struggle can teach us, going forward

But in the absence of any greater traction on reducing the power of lobbies on US government action (a power that is fairly recent in US history), legacy and other mainstream media could at the very least dedicate itself to better informing voters of the policy positions that these disproportionately influential backroom bodies are placing in the hands of elected officials, and rushing into law.

Project 2025, for instance, is well worth a “know thy enemy” read, if nothing else. Are there some thoughtful policy arguments in this highly conservative if not libertarian text? Absolutely. Chapter 28 on the FCC and Chapter 30 on the FTC join Chapter 24 on the Fed in offering a range of coherent positions responding to crises of the day.

Are they positions we’ll all agree with? No. Are many seemingly measured proposals here coding for much more insidious real-world action? Definitely. But in the world of policy discourse, it’s also never black-and-white. Take this example from Chapter 30:

Beyond antitrust injury, we are witnessing in today’s markets the use of economic power—often market and perhaps even monopoly power—to undermine democratic institutions and civil society. Practices such as Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) requirements on publicly traded corporations and their inclusion in business agreements, the so-called “de-banking” of industries and individuals, and the interference of large internet firms with democratic political discourse undermine liberal democracy, a truly open society, and, indeed, rule of law. Without rule of law, markets themselves will wither.

The preceding paragraph on antitrust (referenced in the opening here) highlights a conservative debate that underpins arguments for the dissolution of the FTC entirely, but only once “there is a return to a constitutional structure that the Founding Fathers would have recognized and a massive shrinking of the administrative state.” Yet in this paragraph, despite the conservative challenge to environmental protections and the random invocation of “rule of law” without clear referent, there are concerns that people across the spectrum would agree with in theory, such as “the interference of large internet firms with democratic political discourse.”

Likewise, the chapter on the FCC raises key issues about how best to protect US citizens from espionage, sabotage, and risks to children online. In the chapter on the Fed, the issue of “picking winners” via prioritized asset classes, some of which contribute to skyrocketing housing costs, could be classified as a bipartisan concern.

Should this be shocking to anyone? That there are overlapping sites of interest between humans across the political spectrum? That Democrats aren’t from Venus and Republicans aren’t from Mars?

In a less sensationalist news climate, it would be possible to discuss frankly and openly the very different Americas that libertarian-leaning conservatives, progressive-centrist liberals, and democratic-socialist leftists want to build in the US.

After all, policy papers like these certainly don’t try to hide the US right’s priorities. In the conclusion to Chapter 30, author Adam Candeub writes:

Conservative approaches to antitrust and consumer protection continue to trust markets, not government, to give people what they want and provide the prosperity and material resources Americans need for flourishing, productive, and meaningful lives.

Which is very true to conservative theory. And very much in opposition to the vast number of US citizens who do not trust markets to offer effective solutions without a level of state oversight and corrective mechanisms. As the recent collapse of US housing insurance markets under climate change acceleration makes clear, simple conservative delineations between government and private sector purview just aren’t passing muster anymore (if they ever did).

Is it any wonder that average US citizens are so disillusioned with their institutions, when civic discourse has become a matter of constant reaction, not creation?

And yet, these policy conversations cannot be had with the fullness that the US public deserves so long as sensationalism continues to win the news cycle.

If US presidential elections are going to be four-year campaigns in practice if not in theory, there is at least a way in which media-led discourse could cultivate genuine civic education around the forms of governance being asked for by citizens, and the forms advanced by various parties and their supporting interest groups.

Unfortunately, that is not the way of our world. For all that online technologies make it easier than ever to lay bare the competing philosophies and action plans of various political actors, we’re still stuck with an overarching media environment built around cliffhanger dramas about whether the whole union will be saved or lost on the prosecution or election of a single leading character.

When will that attack on a more robust democracy at last receive its due?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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