Saturday cartoon

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As the acquittal of Donald John Trump by the U.S. Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors solidifies capitulation of the Republican Party to Trump despite largely uncontested facts that point to obvious guilt, expect corruption to surface everywhere at home and abroad. This will touch Waco and Central Texas. Perhaps it already is. One cannot, however, detect corruption without being clear-eyed and without having a light shining on it. Corruption always hides in the dark, even in an autocracy with democratic pretenses.

Some of us weary of political fighting are tempted to zone out. Perhaps Super Bowl Sunday is our chance to do just that. Two in three Americans will tune in to the game between the Chiefs and 49ers broadcast by Fox, many of them watching at parties with mounds of hot wings and chests of ice-cold beer. Will the intoxicating drinks, the salty appetizers, the always creative rendition of the national anthem, the replays that show beauty and violence in slow motion, the provocative halftime entertainment and the five-million-dollars-per-30-second advertisements distract us from only the third trial in U.S. history to remove an impeached president? Perhaps not, given that Trump is scheduled to be interviewed by Fox News around the broadcast of the game. And then there’s the formal debut of his 30-second re-election commercial.

Beer and circuses

The tendency of the populace in a nation with an autocratic reign — a system of government by one person with absolute power — is to go along to get along, especially if there is enough beer and circus for everyone. History, both modern and ancient, is replete with examples of complicity by the masses. Citizens of the country who are taught by those in authority that the autocrat is selected by God are unlikely to question things much. Kingdoms since the advent of the agricultural revolution — whether in the East or the West — installed a monarch, an emperor, a pharaoh, a czar to rule over all. Divinely appointed autocrats were above the law. Some were benevolent and enlightened monarchs such as Cyrus the Great of Persia; others such as Ivan the Terrible of Russia brought havoc and upheaval to their own people and others.

Yet in almost all cases, whether the ruler was beneficent or abhorrent, brilliant or stupid, saint or sinner, the tendency of the people — past and present — was almost always to go along since the chosen one held reins of power that were absolute, or nearly so. Commoners had few ways if any to make their voices heard. Most never even imagined they could have a political opinion. Popes, patriarchs, ayatollahs and gurus provided the boundaries of right belief and wrong belief for the faithful. To even think about revolution was a heretical act. When droughts, famines, plagues and wars occurred, the supreme leader was advised by sage counsel that beer and circus for the masses would be enough to distract them from their misery. And, usually, it was.

Rising in revolution

But not always. The American Revolution was fought and democracy established because the people wanted more than whiskey and cockfights. Our Founding Fathers thought the unthinkable — namely that King George was not appointed by the Almighty. This radical idea was heretical to the Church of England and contrary to the religious orthodoxies of European nations, all of which had monarchs that “God had installed.” To oppose the king was to oppose the Lord Himself. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and other patriots thought otherwise and were willing to put their lives and fortunes at risk in order to establish a constitution in which all were subject to laws made by elected representatives.

Inspired by the Americans, the French threw off their monarchy. And “the rest is history,” right? From the Texas Revolution against Mexico to the fall of the Berlin Wall, people have been rising up. In the late 20th century dictators still ruled most of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe but in the early 21st century democracies were emerging on all continents. Peoples — South Africans, Poles, Filipinos, Brazilians — once dominated by oppressive regimes supported by religious institutions moved miraculously toward American-inspired democracies. By 2005, more than half of the world’s population lived in a democracy.

What happened? In the blink of an eye things changed. The Arab Spring proved an illusion. Elected presidents and prime ministers such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand brazenly took power not prescribed in their nation’s laws. Emerging democratic giants such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey forged stronger alliances with autocratic regimes. And democracy lost momentum.

Capitulation to Trump

When Donald Trump was elected America’s president in 2016, a Republican friend but not a Trump supporter told me not to worry because America had checks and balances that would, in his words, prevent the “boy Trump” from messing things up. What my friend and millions of other Americans had not calculated was the rapid capitulation by the Republican Party to Trump. What my friend and millions of other Americans did not count on was elected Republicans in the House and the Senate putting their own political fortunes ahead of democratic principles and institutions. And, through the spectacle of a trial in the Senate to remove Trump, the capitulation is complete for all Americans and the world to see.

The facts are not seriously disputed by the president’s counsel or Republican senators: Trump broke the law by withholding critical aid to Ukraine in order to coerce its newly elected reformist government to announce to one and all an investigation into a Trump political rival in the looming 2020 election. In short, Trump abused his office for personal gain. He then tried to cover this up by obstructing Congress’ constitutional right to investigate his actions. Sworn testimony from Trump appointees and others reveals his self-serving scheming was known to Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Attorney General William Barr. This week’s damning revelations by former national security adviser John Bolton — that the pressure campaign on Ukraine to dig up dirt on Democratic rivals was hatched as early as May 2019 — only reinforce the allegations of Trumpian skullduggery.

Schemes and shakedowns

The shakedown of Ukraine’s President Zelensky by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, appears to have even included the highest-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes — a conflict of interest if one ever existed. According to phone records, Nunes was in communication with Lev Parnas, Giuliani’s associate. According to Parnas, Nunes and his staff were aware of the scheme. If this is true, and it appears highly likely that it is, then Nunes hid the fact he had knowledge of the conspiracy, even as the House Intelligence Committee sought information from other fact witnesses.

Did knowledge of all this include former Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, who has recently moved to Waco to run as the Republican candidate for Congressional District 17? In October 2019, a federal grand jury in New York issued a subpoena to Sessions seeking records and other information regarding his interactions with Giuliani and Parnas. Parnas and colleague Igor Fruman were indicted in October in connection with a plot to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians. The allegation is that Sessions was one of those who received the illegal money for his 2018 campaign in Dallas (which he lost). In a Jan. 18 interview with the Waco Tribune-Herald, Sessions denied any quid pro quo to help press for removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (Marie Yovanovitch)but acknowledged that Parnas and Fruman donated money to both the congressman and a powerful pro-Trump political action committee. (The former congressman has not been charged with any violation of election law.)

The Trib editorial board asked Sessions what happened to the individual donations given to Sessions’ campaign: Sessions maintains he did not use the money in his 2018 campaign: “The day one I learned about it, I gave that [$5,400] to a charity in Bryan and a charity in Waco.” Though he could not remember at the time of the interview which charities he had given it to, he later reported to the Tribune-Herald that the money was given to Bryan-based Scotty’s House and the Waco-based Advocacy Center for Crime Victims & Children. (Online Trib Q&As with local congressional candidates are greatly expanded beyond the more limited versions in print editions.)

Road to autocracy?

If the Republican Party through its deceptions and misdeeds have now put America on the road to autocracy, is all hope lost? While democracy at home and abroad is in serious trouble, the fight is ongoing. Texans know what it is to take a stand against tough odds: “Remember the Alamo. Remember Goliad.” Democrats, Independents and some Republicans are not going to go quietly into this dark night. While 2020 is crucial in this struggle, the fight will last for decades with or without a President Trump.

The temptation, however, will always be to go along to get along. Autocrats want their citizens bleary-eyed — anesthetized with alcohol and entertainment. And they want no light to shine on their corruption. So they take over the judicial system (think Attorney General Barr) and the media (think Fox News). We the people must stay alert to corruption in our neighborhood and we must support journalism in Waco that does investigative work. While the darkness is growing, the light is not out. Watch. Stay vigilant.

Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. The fifth-generation Texan enjoys carpentry, painting, backpacking and travel.

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