Trump actively threatening to weaken democracy

Published 6:31 am Sunday, December 25, 2016


Guest columnist

Western democratic governments share some fundamental characteristics. These include — but are not limited to — the protection of civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. Freedom of speech includes especially the liberty to criticize the government and its leaders without fear of retribution or harm. In these Western democracies the results of election outcomes must also be accepted and respected by both the public and candidates so that a peaceful transition of power can take place without revolution or civil war.

Email newsletter signup

In the weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, he has sought to undermine each of these in the United States, sometimes on multiple occasions.

Examples include (but are not limited to):

1) attempting to weaken First Amendment guarantees to free speech by threatening the revocation of citizenship or jail time for flag-burning, a protected form of free speech affirmed by the Supreme Court;

2) attempting to weaken First Amendment guarantees to freedom of assembly by using government influence to discourage several non-violent protests planned for inauguration weekend in Washington, D.C.;

3) campaigning during the election on a promise to impose a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S., in clear opposition to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion.;

4) attempting to weaken America’s freedom of press by openly bullying and criticizing news reporters;

5) attempting to silence private citizens who criticize him through bullying and intimidation on Twitter, which some supporters have taken as an implicit “green light” to threaten those critics with physical violence;

6) questioning the legitimacy of our electoral institutions by falsely claiming that there was widespread voter fraud (this is especially important because public faith in the integrity of our election systems is a key foundation of civic stability and political legitimacy);

7) attempting to weaken American institutions by siding with a foreign government over the United States intelligence community about foreign interference with our electoral process.

I could go on.

Of course, every American presidential administration has its critics and controversies. These usually take place, though, within the boundaries of Western democratic institutions, norms, and understandings. Our differences as Americans are usually about liberalism vs. conservatism or competing trade-offs between freedom and security or freedom and equality. President-elect Trump, however, is engaging in rhetoric and activities that are actively threatening to undermine the foundations of our democratic form of government. These are the things that authoritarian leaders do.

This is not an exaggeration. I am not being unreasonably alarmist or sensationalistic. This is not a debate about Democrat vs. Republican or liberal vs. conservative. It is notable that many prominent Republicans such as Evan McMullin and Andrew Sullivan have had the courage to step up and point out the very imminent threat that our president-elect poses to our democratic institutions and norms. And well they should: Donald Trump is giving every signal and indication that he would prefer to move America’s political boundaries and practices to be less democratic and more authoritarian.

Some could argue that Trump’s rhetoric is all just bluster: “It’s Trump’s style! He’s just likes to rile up a crowd. He’s not really going to follow through on all of this.” Maybe. But maybe not. So far, he’s followed through on the racist rhetoric during the campaign by appointing Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, as chief strategist.

He’s also followed through on the Islamophobic rhetoric in the campaign by appointing someone who believes Islam to be a “cancer” — Michael Flynn, as national security advisor. He may very well try to follow through on the rest of the authoritarian rhetoric. Every indication so far has been that he’s trying to do the things he said he would do during the campaign and since the election. We have every reason to expect that he will actively seek to continue to curtail First Amendment freedoms and delegitimize government institutions, increasing his own political power in the process.

The only real check on President-elect Trump is now Congressional Republicans. They will fulfill their patriotic duty to be a real “check and balance” to oppose the president’s attempts to weaken American democratic norms and institutions only to the extent to which they believe that their party’s base is also opposed to Trump’s anti-democratic gestures.

Given that nearly half of Republican voters supported Trump in the primaries and nearly 90 percent of Republicans voted for Trump in the general election, though, Congressional Republicans lamentably have no real incentive to strongly oppose the president-elect’s anti-democratic initiatives and rhetoric. Loud signals to the contrary from Republican voters to their elected officials, though, might start to change this.

Joseph de Maistre once said that every nation gets the government it deserves. Now is the time for the American people to show that they deserve the democracy they have inherited, but I fear they are not up to the task. I hope and pray they will prove me wrong.

Benjamin Knoll is John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College.