“Will President Trump’s assault on the norms underpinning constitutional democracy permanently alter American political life?
On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine. So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America to swallow what he feeds them.
. . . .
Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies, including the threat of terrorist violence. But they also contain the seeds of their own destruction: if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate, then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.
The threat to democracy posed by the current outbreak of populist nationalism has become a matter of concern for both scholars and ordinary citizens. The central topic at a conference at Yale earlier this month was “How Do Democracies Fall Apart,” and the subject will be taken up again in November at a Stanford conference called “Global Populisms: A Threat to Democracy?”
I contacted several of the participants at the Yale gathering and was struck by their anxiety over the future prospects of democratic governance.
One of the most insightful was Adam Przeworski, a political scientist at N.Y.U., who has written, but not yet published, his own analysis of current events under the title “What’s Happening.”
First and foremost, Przeworski stresses,
there is nothing “undemocratic” about the electoral victory of Donald Trump or the rise of anti-establishment parties in Europe.
These parties and candidates, he points out:
Do not advocate replacing elections by some other way of selecting rulers. They are ugly — most people view racism and xenophobia as ugly — but these parties do campaign under the slogan of returning to ‘the people’ the power usurped by elites, which they see as strengthening democracy. In the words of a Trump advertisement, “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.”
In support of Przeworski’s argument, it is clear that the success of the Trump campaign in winning the Republican nomination was the result of a classic democratic insurgency: the Republican electorate’s rejection of its party’s establishment.
The danger in the United States, in Przeworski’s view, is the possibility that the Trump administration will use the power of the presidency to undermine the procedures and institutions essential to the operation of democracy:
That the incumbent administration would intimidate hostile media and create a propaganda machine of its own, that it would politicize the security agencies, that it would harass political opponents, that it would use state power to reward sympathetic private firms, that it would selectively enforce laws, that it would provoke foreign conflicts to monger fear, that it would rig elections.
Przeworski believes that
such a scenario would not be unprecedented. The United States has a long history of waves of political repression: the “Red Scare” of 1917-20, the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, the McCarthy period, the Nixon presidency.
Along similar lines, Anna Grzymala-Busse, a political scientist at Stanford, replied by email to my inquiry:
My big worry is not simply that formal institutions have been eroded, but that the informal norms that underpin them are even more important and even more fragile. Norms of transparency, conflict of interest, civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of citizens are all consistently undermined, and without these the formal institutions become brittle.
Trump, in Grzymala-Busse’s assessment, “articulates a classic populist message that we see in Europe: the elite establishment is a collusive cartel uninterested in the problems of ‘the people,’” and, she continued, he has begun to follow the path of European populist leaders:
Much of Trump’s language and actions are also familiar: there is a standard authoritarian populist template, developed in Hungary and faithfully followed in Poland and in Turkey: first, go after the courts, then the media, then the civil society, churches, universities.
The attacks on the courts, media and universities
are not simply the ravings of a lunatic, but an established strategy for undermining democratic oversight and discrediting the opposition.
. . . .
Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post on Oct, 17, summed up Trump’s approach to veracity and to reality itself:
Trump takes his own particular combination of ignorance, bluster and malice, and sets it off like a nuclear bomb of misinformation. The fallout spreads throughout the country, and no volume of corrections and fact checks can stop it. It wasn’t even part of a thought-out strategy, just a loathsome impulse that found its way out of the president’s mouth to spread far and wide.
Trump’s recklessness is disturbing enough on its own. But what makes it especially threatening is that much of the public — well beyond the 40 percent of the electorate that has shown itself to be unshakable in its devotion to the president — seems to be slowly accommodating itself to its daily dose of the Trump reality show, accepting the rhetorical violence that Trump inflicts on basic standards of truth as the new normal.”
Read Edsall’s full, much longer, article at the link.
An immigration policy based on xenophobia, racism, and White Nationalism, rather than on any rational, generally accepted socio-economic analysis, is at the heart of the Trump–Bannon-Sessions-Miller attack on America’s democratic institutions. As I said earlier today, “The Trump Administration, and its ‘fellow travelers’ among GOP politicos and voters, is the biggest threat to our national security and the future of American Democracy.”