It’s Too Early to Celebrate the Survival of American Democracy

One year after Donald Trump’s elections, the U.S. political system is proving resilient – and giving false comfort.

Then-candidate Donald Trump at a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 in Tampa , Florida. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Then-candidate Donald Trump at a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 in Tampa , Florida. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

It’s been one year since the election of Donald Trump as president and, despite his questionable commitment to the country’s political traditions, American democracy is still standing. Some of Trump’s most dangerous policies have been stopped by the judiciary. Others have not made it through Congress. Special counsel Robert Mueller is closing in on the dangerous liaisons between the Trump campaign and Russia (and perhaps much more). The president’s approval rating has hit a dismal 38 percent, and Democrats scored a landslide in Virginia’s elections last week.

Is it time to rejoice in the strength of American institutions? That would be underestimating the threat on the horizon and overestimating the strength of U.S. institutions. There are two complementary prongs to Trump’s onslaught on American democracy, and both are still clear and present threats.

The first is a systematic attack on democratic political norms.

Democracy is supported by a complex set of political norms that encourage restraint and compromise from the main political actors. These norms are the lifeblood of democratic institutions because no constitution can specify a complete recipe for resolving conflicts in the disparate situations in which politicians, political parties, and other powerful actors will find themselves. Even when certain rules are specified, they need to be interpreted and are often vulnerable to abuse. Democratic political norms fill in this vacuum. They encourage compromise and rule out actions that enable those who currently hold power from impairing rivals. Without these norms, those in office will find ways to abuse their power, undermining the workings of democratic institutions.

The recent history of Argentine democracy illustrates the disastrous consequences of the violation of such norms. Argentina’s famous strongman Juan Perón was elected as president in 1946, after his stint as minister of labor in the former military regime. One of his first acts was to replace three Supreme Court justices with his cronies. Thereafter, Argentina’s Supreme Court ceased to be viewed as a check on presidential power, and it became a new normal for every president, even those who came to power via democratic elections, to oust justices and replace them with loyalists.

Of course, the political norms of democratic compromise in the United States were seriously strained even before Trump’s presidency, as illustrated, for example, by systematic gerrymandering to lock in the domination of the party currently controlling a state’s legislature or by the unwillingness of Senate Republicans to even consider former President Barack Obama’s final nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. But Trump’s demonization of opposition and media, blurring of lines between personal and presidential, removal of all types of auditing and other control mechanisms on the administration, and legitimization of uncompromising, or even hateful, views via his implicit support for far-right protesters in Charlottesville and his pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have set new lows not just by U.S. but by any international standards.

Political norms that are the bulwark of our democracy cannot be easily repaired once damaged, even if Trump’s most dangerous policies are stopped. Nor can white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and nativist rhetoric be swiftly sidelined once condoned by the U.S. president.

The second prong of the Trump onslaught is an attempt to weaken institutions so as to elevate the personal power of a would-be autocrat. The recent history of democratic institutions succumbing to such attacks in Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela illustrate that the takeover of democratic institutions is often a slow, gradual process. First comes the silencing of internal opposition within the party or the political movement of the strongmen. Then, there is the slow process of neutralizing the judiciary, followed by a systematic, if uneven, sidelining of independent civil service. All throughout, the media and other civil society organizations are increasingly muzzled and silenced by threats, co-option, and smearing.

Of course, if democratic institutions are truly strong and alert against threats, these attacks can be resisted. But the performance of U.S. checks and balances so far gives no comfort.

The last several months have shown clearly that Congress, so long as it remains under the control of Republicans, will provide none of the checks on the president’s power that are often presumed. On the contrary, the fact that only senators not seeking re-election have been able to speak against Trump underscores the near-complete capitulation of the Republican Party. And it is set to get worse as Republican lawmakers are witnessing how the small but highly motivated and mobilized minority of Americans devoted to Trump will bombard them with tweets, messages, or even threats if they so much as disagree with the president.

Several judges stood firm against Trump’s travel ban for several Muslim-majority countries. But in the next three years, Trump, through appointment, can completely change the balance of the judiciary, especially for cases that make it up to the Supreme Court, where he may have an opportunity to appoint several more justices. Banking on the judiciary to defend democracy would be foolhardy indeed.

The growing chorus of Trump supporters demanding the termination of Mueller’s investigation, fully anticipating that Republicans in Congress would not stand in the way, should dispel any notion that the judiciary can single-handedly defend American institutions.

It is heartening to see how several states and cities have stood for the rights of immigrants and taken actions for protecting the environment, even as the Environmental Protection Agency has turned into an anti-environment agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt. But states can neither stop the buckling of federal institutions under the president’s onslaught nor counter the collapse of political norms undergirding American democracy.

America’s most effective safeguards against Donald J. Trump so far are not to be found in Congress, the judiciary, or the states, but in the media and in civil society.

Many media outlets, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, have enthusiastically embraced their critical role in these turbulent times and have spearheaded the defense of our democracy, keeping the spotlight on the president’s campaign against U.S. institutions and his and his family’s questionable business deals. But can we be sure that Trump’s unremitting attacks on the New York Times, CNN, and other critical outlets won’t work? It is true that when another would-be autocrat, Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, tried to browbeat her country’s opposition media group Clarín, it did not succeed. But that’s small comfort. Independent newspapers did at first stand up to Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan too, but they got worn down slowly by threats, financial pressure, and relentless smear campaigns by other media blindly loyal to these strongmen. Even if the tradition of fierce, investigative and sometime rambunctious journalism in the United States gives us some hope, we cannot bank on these media outlets to defend our democracy in this age of weaponized fake news.

The people who get their voice from democratic political institutions are — have to be — their last line of defense. The American people have risen up to this challenge. Their mobilization against the policies and the values of Trump’s administration are the true silver lining of the dark clouds of today. It is this mobilization that has paved the way to the defeat of the president’s ban on citizens of several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, that made it impossible for even Republican congressmen to repeal Obamacare, and that has egged on Democrats to stand firm against the president. But history is full of examples where such mobilization peters out, especially when faced with soft (and even worse, hard) repression, or when it runs out of steam or gives way to internal squabbles (witness the emergence of Democratic litmus tests, already starting to divide the opposition).

So the slow battle between America’s democratic institutions and its 45th president is set to continue. But even more worryingly, there are the wild cards.

Putin’s subversion of Russian institutions would have been much harder without the Chechen War and the alleged Chechen attack on four apartment blocks in Russia in 1999. The suspension of the remaining constitutional checks on Turkish President Erdogan would have been all but impossible without the intensification of the war between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish rebels. What would happen if we witnessed a series of foreign terrorist attacks on U.S. soil? Or if war broke out against North Korea?

It’s too soon to rejoice, and too dangerous to be complacent. We are still the last defense.

Daron Acemoglu is an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Twitter: @DrDaronAcemoglu

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