Democracy in the age of Trump
the voice of dissent
Those familiar with my political engagement know that I regularly criticize some segments of the American Left for drifting away from the democratic norms that have founded this country. For example, I am worried about the general trend towards restricting freedom of speech on the basis of “hate speech,” in particular on college campuses. Similarly, I am concerned about the nation-wide campaign to delegitimize Donald Trump’s election, one that has nonetheless been absolutely consistent with the rules of America’s constitutional democracy.
But voicing these criticisms without addressing the way President Trump damages America’s democratic norms and institutions on a weekly basis would simply amount to intellectual dishonesty. Since he launched his presidential bid in June 2015, Trump, through his words and actions, has been denigrating key principles of America’s constitutional regime, one that has allowed the United States to remain a stable country for 228 years—with the exception of the four-year Civil War from 1861 to 1865—while its southern neighbors have been through recurrent institutional turmoil since they gained independence.
Trump has an alarming record in terms of abiding by the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. He has threatened to “open up” libel laws to sue news organization that write articles critical of him. At a press conference in January, he refused to take a question from a CNN reporter, arguing that his organization was “fake news.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer then threatened to throw the reporter out of the conference room if he asked another question. Trump’s attacks on the press—sometimes at the cost of a complete disregard for the truth—mean that he only tolerates reports that fit his own narrative. This is a fundamental departure from the norms of democratic life.
During the campaign, Trump also objected to the principle of the peaceful democratic transfer of power on many occasions. He refused to expressly state that he would recognize the results of the election if he were defeated, deeming the election potentially “rigged” and rife with voter fraud. As a consequence, many of his supporters threatened to start “another Revolutionary War” if Hillary Clinton were elected.
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for the rule of law whenever this principle did not suit him. For example, he once called his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters at his campaign rallies, promising to pay the legal fines that would follow such actions. Most worrying, he called his supporters to monitor the unrolling of the voting process on election day on the basis of potential voter fraud. This reminded me of the illegal militias that many authoritarian leaders create to intimidate voters and political opponents.
And Trump has demonstrated a complete disregard for the independence of the judiciary and the separations of power. For example, when a federal judge blocked his executive order temporarily banning entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump lambasted his decision and referred to him as a “so-called” judge.
Despite all of that, it seems very unlikely that America’s democratic institutions will break down during the Trump Administration, because they are deeply rooted in the country’s constitutional and political life. Nonetheless, what is worrying is that Trump has been consistently weakening people’s trust in democratic norms and institutions, be they conservative or liberal people. For years Trump had been questioning the legitimacy of President Barack Obama, arguing that he was born in Kenya despite all evidence of the opposite. He now faces a humongous liberal backlash over the legitimacy of his own presidency. For years he had been spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. He now faces the public release of an unsubstantiated report that the Russian government blackmails him by possessing compromising information about him. I do not know where this political paranoia, which threatens American democracy, started—whether on the far-right or on the far-left. All I know is that both illiberal movements feed each other, and both need to be condemned.
The people’s trust in their democracy is the ultimate indicator of the health and resilience of that democracy. Venezuela offers an interesting example of what could happen when people lose trust in their democratic norms and instead opt for authoritarian, populist and nationalist leaders. In 1992, surfing on a popular discontent of the political establishment, Chávez and a group of other military officers led an attempt to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The coup failed and Chavez went to jail. However, so low was Venezuelan people’s trust in their democratic norms and institutions that the man who had just committed a coup remained popular while in jail and was released two years later under popular pressure. He then went on to found his Movement of the Fifth Republic (Movimiento de la Quinta República; MVR), and was elected president in February 1999. Under his presidency, he gradually reinforced his executive power at the expense of that of the judicial and legislative powers where his opponents still had stakes. He also sanctioned the creation of pro-Chavista paramilitary groups. Although most of the opposition to the Chavez regime remains pacific till today, members of the military attempted a failed coup amid violent riots in 2002, and right-wing paramilitary groups have appeared in the country, throwing Venezuela into turmoil.
As I have previously argued in my columns, one should not brush aside the entire Trump movement by deeming it entirely xenophobic, racist, closed-minded and anti-democratic. In fact, I believe that Trump represents people’s real and legitimate concerns regarding the current trade, foreign and immigration and integration policies of the United States. I even believe that Trump’s nationalism could be a force of good by giving a common purpose and sense of belongingness to an American society that is collapsing and in need of identity in the face of globalization. But Trump cannot, and should not be allowed to destroy the norms and institutions that generations of Americans have built in their quest for liberty.
Emile Riachi is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “the voice of dissent,” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.