Small “d” democracy
By Mark Lurinsky.
We have just witnessed three stunning events with heavy impacts on the future of democracy and the rule of law in the world and our own country. They fell along the broad themes of crime, punishment and decline.
A Crime: The abrupt death of the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prighozen in the third week of August has corroborated much of what we already knew about the bloodthirsty reign of Russian ruler Vladimir Putin. Experts have verified that the breaking apart in mid-air of Prighozen’s private plane – visible in a dramatic televised video – was almost certainly not the result of mechanical failure. Observers around the world have commented on its similarity to the uncanny number of other suspicious, unresolved deaths, or near-deaths of prominent Russians who have run afoul of Putin, both members of that country’s fledgling democracy movement and others viewed as potential rivals to the would-be president for life. ¹
Historians looking for parallels in Russia’s past invariably turn to the bloody three decade reign of Joseph Stalin, who was well known for repeatedly ordering the cold-blooded murders, both public and hidden, of whole echelons of one time allies, rivals and opponents, including members of the top ranks of the Soviet Communist Party and military, even as his policies directly and indirectly led to the deaths of many millions more Soviet citizens from starvation and state-sanctioned mayhem. To be sure, while Vladimir Putin’s biggest adventures into murder – most significantly his major wars against civilians in Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya and also, with Bashar al-Assad, Syria, have yet to come close to approaching the vast scale of Stalin’s crimes, what we have been seeing is something quite similar adapted onto the background of a relatively modern 21st century economy. Locking up large numbers of outspoken or even mild critics for political crimes and various thinly camouflaged assassinations of citizens were certainly hallmarks of Stalin. Putin, a mid-level KGB officer until 1989, regards the extended empire that the USSR constituted under Stalin as part of Russia’s longed for glory days. ²
Punishment: The booking in an Atlanta jail of former U.S. President Donald Trump, a Putin ally³, has been an intriguing glimpse of what the long-delayed accountability for the grave crimes which culminated in his unremitting attempts to overthrow our country’s democratic order may eventually look like. Trump’s fourth criminal indictment, by the grand jury of Fulton County, Georgia has two important legal features: As a state crime, there is little possibility that an eventual conviction can be nullified by a pardon from a future Republican president. In addition to the various detailed counts related to Trump’s scheme to illegally and fraudulently overturn the votes of Georgians in the 2020 presidential election with 18 co-defendants, the indictment includes the kicker charge of “RICO”. Violation of Georgia’s tough Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act includes specific penalties of five to twenty years imprisonment, as well as provisions that permit conviction where a broad pattern of corrupt and fraudulent activity exists and each accused agreed to participate in two acts of the conspiracy. Like the 1970s federal law on which it was modeled, the Georgia statute’s targets also go beyond the stereotypical blue collar organized crime street thugs the media most commonly associates it with, and applies to large white collar frauds as well. Notably, Fani Willis, the District Attorney, used the Georgia RICO Act in 2015 to secure convictions of 11 of the 12 administrators, principals and teachers at the heart of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, in which standardized test scores in 44 schools were falsified.⁴
The legal game plan of Trump and his inner circle, as far as we have seen one, involves pushing for infinite delays and administrative meddling against all four of his criminal prosecutions in hope that he can once again ascend to power and shut things down before the hammer of justice descends. Meanwhile, attorney John Lauro, who represents Trump in the related federal case on the election, argued recently for the novel bogus theory that “a technical violation of the Constitution is not a violation of criminal law.” ⁵
A Decline: The “everyone but Trump” Fox News-sponsored Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Milwaukee, which came the day before the former president was booked in Atlanta, was in most respects a non-event. Unfortunately, its biggest highlight came when six of the eight contenders declared to the country by a show of hands that they would support Trump, the current G.O.P. front-runner, as their party’s candidate even if he is convicted by juries in the criminal cases. Perhaps they were hoping that the “technical violation of the Constitution” nonsense would wash with the public. This raises an interesting moral question, if not a legal one. If those who pass for leaders in today’s Republican party declare, in effect, their willingness to become accessories-after-the-fact to keep Trump from facing justice, or even to become accessories-before-the-fact to potential future crimes of their alpha dog in a potential second term as president, aren’t they effectively signing on as members of a Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization too? Sadly, the level of the decline of the once great party of Lincoln has to be judged by this.
Free and fair elections in which every citizen can vote and everyone’s vote gets counted and respect for trial by a jury of one’s peers are two of the biggest hallmarks of democracy and the rule of law. And there is adherence to the Constitutional order. We know all these are completely absent in Putin’s neo-Stalinist Russia. And one U.S. political party is turning its back on these principles too. 2024: Vote and organize!
Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968, He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.
¹Analena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister and a leader of its Green Party, speaking of this pattern of “unclarified fatalities”, commented, “It is no accident that the world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced confident of Putin suddenly, literally falls from the sky two months after he attempted a mutiny.” Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the victim in 2020 of a failed poisoning using the KBG-linked nerve agent Novochuk and Lukoil chairman Ravil Maganov and the meat tycoon and regional legislative deputy Pavel Antov, who had each become openly critical of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, were both mysteriously reported to have “fallen out of windows” in late 2022, to name a few other such incidents.
²Putin-ruled Russia has seen a flowering of public nostalgia for Stalin at the same time that Memorial, the Russian human rights organization documenting the victims of Stalin’s great terror, has been ordered dissolved.
The Russian president, who himself rose to power twenty-three years ago by virtue of a military-police dictatorship tacitly supported by a rotating group of crony capitalist oligarchs, has made it clear that he is not particularly fond of those Soviet leaders who engaged in moderate post-Stalin reforms, such as the late Mikhail Gorbachev, Nikita Krushchev, or, for that manner, USSR founder Lenin, who tempered dictatorial rule with significant compromises with non-Communists.
³As recently as this March, Trump reminded Fox News anchor Sean Hannity about as how as president he “got along great” with Putin, while plugging the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine as a likely success.
The irony of Trump, who regularly tries to brand Democrats and other opponents as “communists” embracing the unrepentant KGB man Putin, should be lost on no one. Even at the height of the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, ordinary Americans’ fear of the Soviet Union was much less about any considered thoughts on the relative merits of a Marxist-envisioned planned economy with government ownership of industries vs. the unlimited power of private capital than the complete absence of the right of people to be secure in their persons from arbitrary violence in countries under the grip of Stalin or his imitators.
⁴The State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump case also has the distinction that the fraud against the voters leaves little to the imagination of potential jurors and the broader public, since so much has already been forced out into the open. Who can forget the tape recording of Trump’s hour-long January 2, 2021 call to the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, in which he repeatedly pressured the Georgian to “find 11,000-plus votes” to overturn the result, or, for that matter, the intense public and life-threatening private pressure campaign against Black Atlanta election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, for which Trump fixer Rudolph Giuliani has already stipulated elsewhere that his efforts were both false and defamatory?
⁵The only context that a “technical violation of the Constitution” defense makes any sense is chilling one in Trump’s own fevered authoritarian mind. In December 2022, shortly after announcing his candidacy for another presidential run, he asserted on his social media platform that his loss in the 2020 elections “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”