The Rise of the American Junta

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation.”

James Madison

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its inter-course with the rest of the world to the sole disposal of a magistrate, created and circumstanced, as would be a president of the United States.”

Alexander Hamilton

If ever the constitutional democracy of the United States is overthrown, we now have a better idea of how this is likely to be done. That may be the most important contribution of the recent Iran-contra congressional hearings.

If the events of the Iran-contra scandal had happened in some other country with a weaker constitutional order and tradition, they could have been regarded as the dress rehearsal for a coup. Why this “gradual and silent encroachment of those in power” succeeded for a time and then failed miserably is the finest lesson in the American constitutional structure that we could possibly have been given in this anniversary year of the Constitution.

The main lesson—that the chief danger is from within, not from without—is not a new one. It had already been taught in this generation by the McCarthyite plague of the 1950s. But there was one critical difference. Senator McCarthy had operated from the legislative branch of the government. He was frighteningly successful for a time in blackmailing and bullying the executive branch, but his base of power was essentially outside the presidency. He did not have at his direct command the CIA, the National Security Council or its staff, and least of all the president, however cooperative or submissive each of them may have been during his short reign of political terrorization. McCarthy began and ended as an outsider, a legislative guerrilla warrior as quickly brought down as he had shot up.

Richard M. Nixon’s threat to the constitutional system was different in that it came directly from the presidency. But it was relatively easy to contain, for one reason because it was not based on any great issue of state. The “plumbers” operation was a sordid, outrageous political act that was never camouflaged as a blow in defense of the Republic or in behalf of the struggle against communism. It was bad enough, but nothing on the order of the Iran-contra affair.

The greater threat has now come from the executive branch with the exploitation of a genuine but frustrating issue and the employment of large-scale covert operations. This is the toxic formula for putting the American body politic at maximum risk.

At an early stage of the Iran-contra revelations, I wrote an article entitled “Reagan’s Junta” (The New York Review, January 29, 1987), at which time I did not have at my disposal even the so-called …

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