100 Days of Chaos

Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Democracy

By Christoph Scheuermann
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U.S. President Donald Trump


With his attacks on judges, journalists and critics, U.S. President Donald Trump is chipping away at the foundations of democracy. Is the American Constitution strong enough to withstand the assault?

The man who has found himself on the United States president's bad side this week bears the quaint name of William Horsley Orrick, a 63-year-old who -- in his frameless glasses and side part -- has the classic look of a civil servant. Orrick is a District Court judge in San Francisco and on Tuesday, he blocked Donald Trump from penalizing those cities that provide immigrants special protections, such as making it more difficult for them to be deported.

Trump had ordered that federal funding be withheld from these so-called "sanctuary cities."

But with his ruling, Orrick has slapped a temporary stay on the order.

It was just the most recent defeat in the courts for the president, following the suspension of his travel ban targeting the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries -- and it didn't take long before the president went public with his rage. The ruling, Trump wrote in one of his early morning Twitter eruptions, is "ridiculous." He added: "See you in the Supreme Court!"

Trump has never made a secret of his intense disdain for the institutions that are necessary for a vigorous democracy: an independent judiciary, a critical press and a healthy opposition.

Essentially, Trump would be happy to do away with all of that, or at least marginalize it.

Following the ruling from San Francisco, he indicated that he is broadly dissatisfied with the federal judges there and threatened to curtail their power.

The president's anger with people who contradict him and institutions that stand in his way does not fade with time. On the contrary, the more resistance Trump is faced with, the harder he fights and the more deeply he believes that he is right. But in a democracy, it is necessary to establish alliances and build coalitions. The president, too, must defer to these constraints: He is reliant on Congress, his power over the states is limited and judges are independent.

Democracy lives from the ability to forge compromise, but that is a skill that Trump appears not to possess. As such, his first 100 days in office can be interpreted as an attack on the foundations of American democracy.

The independent organization Freedom House, which monitors the state of democracy worldwide, recently criticized the U.S. in its annual report due to the erosion of democratic ideals. Trump's approach to fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of opinion, was of particular concern to the researchers.

The Risk of Authoritarianism

"The institutions have become more vulnerable," says Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard University. Levitsky has taken a closer look at the first months of the new administration and concluded that there is a risk that the U.S. could become more authoritarian under Trump's leadership. Levitsky speaks of "competitive authoritarianism," a kind of top-down democracy, in which the president controls state institutions and the media and the opposition is put at a structural disadvantage. Levitsky has been researching autocratic regimes for years and found that "periods of intense polarization are often followed by the collapse of democracy." And there is hardly any country in the West that is as deeply divided as the United States.

Trump exploited this polarization to get elected and is now doing the same in office. He is able to do so in part because his supporters have remained loyal no matter what he does. And the list of irregularities is long: He has essentially transformed the White House into a family fiefdom by installing his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in the halls of power; he has refused to release his tax returns as has been standard practice for presidents since the end of the 1960s; and he has been decidedly half-hearted about separating himself from his business interests, allowing him to profit from decisions he makes in the White House.

The president's priorities were revealed particularly transparently in the tax plan that he presented Wednesday. The heart of the tax-code overhaul is a cut to the corporate tax rate from the current 35 percent to just 15 percent. It also calls for the elimination of the inheritance tax in addition to income tax cuts. Together, the cuts would cost the state $2 trillion in tax revenue every year -- an enormous hit to the budget for a tax reform that primarily benefits the rich. People like Trump and his family.

Worse, though, are the president's regular attacks on judges, journalists and his opponents. Trump goes after his critics with irascible fits of temper, yet he harbors admiration for autocrats. He has often praised the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of his first visitors in the White House was Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Furthermore, he could hardly congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fast enough following his victory in the recent constitutional referendum that brought the country a giant step closer to becoming a dictatorship.

'Going Bananas'

Trump's advisors and cabinet members are likewise scornful of all who would dare stand in the way of the president. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of all people, recently criticized a judge in Hawaii for blocking Trump's travel ban for people from majority Muslim countries. "I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power," Sessions said. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said simply that William Orrick and his court were "going bananas."

Trump and his team can feel encouraged by the results of a February survey which found that 51 percent of the president's supporters believe he should be able to override judicial rulings he doesn't agree with. When both the government and its people are united in their disdain for democratic institutions, it represents a clear danger.

Additionally, Trump behaves in ways that are unseemly for the head of state in a democracy.

He tells lies and insults people, he sells his intellectual shallowness as being a man of the people and he peddles his lack of composure as strategy. He is proud of his basest instincts and is open about his respect for enemies of democracy.

After 100 days of Trump's presidency, America is even more polarized than before. The fronts have become harder and the debates have become more aggressive, even if that hardly seemed possible following last year's campaign. Animosity between the Trump camp and the anti-Trump camp has deepened. The blustering narcissist in the White House has outdone even himself when it comes to driving his country even further apart and failing to live up to his critics' already low expectations.

After 100 days of chaos, Trump is the least liked of all modern presidents -- even George W. Bush enjoyed greater approval at the beginning of his tenure. For a man like Trump, who loves nothing so much as himself and who almost obsessively monitors -- and seeks to control -- his image in the media, such survey results are a painful comedown. There is reason for concern that he might feel tempted to become even more combative and aggressive in his attacks on his critics.

At His Fingertips

Harvard professor of government Levitsky says that American democracy is in no way immune to abuse of power. By today's standards, he says, the U.S. only became truly democratic in the 1970s after racial segregation had been largely overcome. Before that, authoritarian tendencies were widespread in the 11 states belonging to the American South, which had long been governed by Democrats. Blacks and poor whites were systematically discriminated against and the political opposition was oppressed.

The American Constitution is surprisingly vague regarding the limits of presidential power and he has the means at his disposal to deploy state agencies against the political competition.

Several of Trump's predecessors have used the FBI, CIA and NSA to spy on public officials, journalists and activists they didn't like. The executive has never been innocent. A firebrand in the White House who seeks revenge on his opponents has all the instruments he needs right at his fingertips.

A president's political power is limited by the system of checks and balances outlined in the Constitution and includes the Congress, the judiciary and the states. But the Constitution can only provide the population with limited protection from a vengeful president.

"We often think that checks and balances can save us and that the Constitution is unassailable," says Tom Ginsburg, a constitutional law expert at the University of Chicago. But how might Trump react in the case of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or in times of war?

Would he take the opportunity to make a grab for power and weaken other institutions? He possesses the authority to do so.

There have been times in the past when Democrats and Republicans have cooperated to protect the common welfare and democratic institutions -- even in opposition to presidents from their own party.

In the 1930s, leading Democrats stood up to Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to shake up the Supreme Court due to the court's skepticism of the New Deal, the president's far-reaching reform package. In the 1970s, Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Breaking with Democratic Norms

Those times, though, are long gone. The Congressional committees charged with investigating the Trump team's connections to Russia are dominated by Republicans, who are delaying the proceedings. The president is wary of having too much light shed on contacts between former advisers and Moscow and he is relying on Republican members of Congress for help.

Trump is a president who has broken with democratic norms. He casts doubts on the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency and demanded during the campaign that Hillary Clinton be locked up.

After the election, he made accusations of vote manipulation, saying millions of immigrants living in the country illegally had cast votes despite having no right to do so. He never offered proof for the allegations.

He has also inflicted wounds on democracy by regularly doing the exact opposite of what he promised during the campaign. The faith of the electorate in their political leaders, which was already low, will likely sink further -- and the desire for a strong ruler, who will impose his will on the system, will grow.

The first 100 days have revealed an immoral president without a plan, an unpoised leader with no interest in the political process. It seems unlikely that Trump will impose a state of emergency or strive for single-party rule: The U.S., after all, isn't Turkey or Venezuela. But he has set in motion the internal erosion of democracy and is taking advantage of its weaknesses.

As such, the only hope lies in his own incompetence.

"Were there a competent version of Trump, would the Constitution protect us?" asks the legal expert Tom Ginsburg rhetorically. His answer is chilling: Probably not.

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