Not kidding around: Donald Trump is actively threatening to weaken American democracy.
Western democratic governments share some fundamental characteristics. These include the protection of civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. That includes especially the liberty to criticize the government and its leaders without fear of retribution or harm.
In stable 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.
In the weeks since Trump won the presidential election, he has sought to undermine each of these democratic foundations in the United States, sometimes on multiple occasions. Examples include:
▪ 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.
▪ Attempting to weaken First Amendment guarantees to freedom of assembly by using government influence to interfere with several non-violent protests planned for inauguration weekend in Washington, D.C.
▪ 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.
▪ Attempting to weaken America’s freedom of press by openly bullying and criticizing news reporters.
▪ 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.
▪ 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).
▪ Attempting to weaken American institutions by siding with a foreign government over the U.S. intelligence community about Russian interference with our electoral process.
These are the type of things that authoritarian leaders do.
Of course every American presidential administration has its critics and controversies. These usually take place, though, within the boundaries of democratic institutions, norms and understandings. Our political differences as Americans are usually about liberalism versus conservatism or trade-offs between freedom and security or freedom and equality.
It is not unreasonably alarmist or sensationalistic, however, to warn that Trump is engaging in rhetoric and activities that are actively threatening to undermine the foundations of our democratic form of government. Nor is it a purely partisan activity to point out Trump’s anti-democratic signals.
Many prominent members of Trump’s own party, such as former presidential hopeful Evan McMullin and conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan have had the courage to point out the very imminent threat that our president-elect poses to our democratic institutions and norms.
Some could argue that Trump’s rhetoric is just bluster: “It’s Trump’s style. He’s 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 Islamaphobic rhetoric during the campaign by appointing someone who believes Islam to be a “cancer,” Michael Flynn, as national security adviser. He may very well try to follow through on the rest of the authoritarian rhetoric as well.
The only real check now on Trump is congressional Republicans. They will fulfill their patriotic duty to be a “check and balance” to oppose the president-elect’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, nearly 90 percent of Republicans voted for Trump in the general election, though, congressional Republicans, lamentably, have no real incentive to strongly oppose Trump’s anti-democratic initiatives and rhetoric. Loud signals to the contrary from Republican voters to their elected officials might start to change this.
French philosopher Joseph de Maistre 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 the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College.