The price of liberty

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

No one knows for certain who first wrote those words. They’re most commonly associated with Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation's most consequential founders. Nevertheless, its meaning becomes increasingly relevant with each day.

For decades, the United States government fought to shield itself from the supposed threat of communism at the cost of many American lives. Political leaders feared that if the ideology spread, it would eventually find its way to our shores.

It didn't. But the threat of an upended democracy still exists. But It won't be at the hands of the North Koreans or the Russians. It won't even be at the hands of Islamic extremists; after all, we created them.

If our democracy falters, it will be because we let it. The greatest threat to government as we know it will come from within.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Our founding fathers lived in a time when authoritarian rule was always around the corner. It wasn’t uncommon for a leader to claim the powers of the state as their own. The chances of that happening likely weighed heavily on the minds of Jefferson and fellow framers. That's why they safeguarded our government with a system meant to inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers. The division of responsibilities within the federal government allows for the checks and balances that have kept our country afloat.

But what happens when our capacity for checks and balances weakens? What if the separation of powers shrinks? What if we’re already headed down that road?

There have been articles written painting pictures of a dramatic shift in governance resulting from the dues ex machina of a terror attack, a crisis or a coup. And it's true; the executive branch could seize massive amounts of power in the event of any one of those scenarios. But we could be headed towards a diminished democracy without them.

The political climate is just right. The value of the truth is at an all-time low and polarization has plagued nearly every aspect of daily life. The president's administration is seizing power at every turn. Our legislature is feckless. Our judiciary is bullied and our press is undermined. All the while, the general population couldn't seem to care less.

If Donald Trump's goal was to distract while his administration consolidates power, he's succeeding. He's only been in office for a month, and already his administration has tested the Department of Homeland Security's willingness to act against the will of a federal judge, while removing the military and intelligence element from the National Security Council.

And no one seemed to notice.

When Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from certain countries, he deliberately made it more extreme to elicit a public outcry. He did so by knowingly including green card holders - vetted, legal immigrants in the country for work or school.

The administration knew such an overreach would be tested in the courts. That's what they wanted. When the federal judge called for a freeze on the order, Trump would be able to test the DHS's willingness to ignore the court and continue doing the administrations' bidding. Those who capitulated would need to be replaced.

Then, while protestors took to the streets and captured the media narrative, Trump reconfigured the National Security Council. If you didn't know, the NSC are the folks who authorize secret assassinations, American citizens included.

As the media focused on protestors, Trump removed the permanent status of the council's military and intelligence advisors, replacing them with his alt-right companion Steve Bannon. Bannon, who has a history of bigotry, has been accused of claiming he wanted to bring down the state and destroy government establishments. And he’s also Trump’s chief strategist.

I can already sense my critics - devoted Trump disciples - penning their illegible letters now. But before our staff has to waste time editing them for print, let me say that America's democratic recession started well before Trump.

The intense polarization that has allowed it to continue started as far back as the 1980s. It was present under George W. Bush. His administration used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to consolidate power, ramp up surveillance and operate within legal grey zones. Barack Obama used executive orders to legislate from the Oval Office, conferring powers to the executive branch that he had once said was impossible.

Until the opposing party regained control of Congress, neither Bush nor Obama had to worry about any oversight from the legislative branch. Because of the tribal mindset of modern partisanship, Congress has become a check on only presidents of the opposite party. Bush’s administration was free to do as it pleased from 2003 to 2006. Obama’s did the same from 2009 to 2011. With a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, Trump can expect Congress to turn a blind eye to whatever his administration decides to do.

They especially don’t want to be in this President’s crosshairs. When Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters he would no longer campaign for Trump, after the leak of his forceful sexual advances on women, his approval rating among Republicans dropped by 28 points in less than 10 days. Legislators will bow to Trump’s every command rather than find themselves on the receiving end of his tweets. Checks and balances? Not likely.

There is some hope in the judiciary, at least for now. Despite Trump’s bullying, the federal courts have shown a willingness to step in when necessary. That is, until Trump’s administration packs them with loyalists. During Obama’s final years, a Republican-led Congress obstructed most federal court nominations. As a result, Trump inherited over 100 judicial vacancies. He will have no trouble filling them with confirmations from a submissive Congress.

The last line of defense of our liberty is the fourth branch of government, the press. But Trump and his loyal worshipers have seen to it that it, too, has no power under his administration. I’ve written many times before about the dangers of an undermined press. The president’s administration has successfully labeled all critical reporting as “fake news,” pulling credentials from news organizations that won’t cow to his will.

It’s working. The general public has played right into his hand, more willing to believe a Trump lie than a factual news report. Society no longer values truth. So many Republicans would rather throw their own moral code in the trash in defense of their leader. To them, the truth is relative. Nothing matters as long as you’re rooting for the team.

And those are just the ones who pretend to pay attention. The rest of society is perfectly content not knowing anything at all. Why bother with political yammer when you can mind your own business? Leave the questions to the troublemakers.

As long as American liberty is threatened, I will continue to be a troublemaker.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at newsroom@thnews.com.)