Throughout the Trump presidency he has exploited democratic institutions to further his own political agenda at the expense of American democracy. Just last Friday, under the veil of the First Amendment, President Trump eliminated the requirement for employers to cover birth control for female employees. The Trump administration argued it was protecting religious freedoms as the basis for their decision, claiming, “[w]e should have space for organizations to live out their religious identity and not face discrimination.”
Birth control is a core component of women’s healthcare. By allowing employers to deny birth control, women’s health will be put at risk. This denial does not promote equality, an element many citizens associate with a free and fair democracy. Further, this change in the law happens to negatively impact some of Trump’s more vocal and motivated opponents, women.
But perhaps more serious than the specific degradation of rights, is the mechanism and reasoning Trump employed to defend this change. Ensuring the sanctity of the constitution and protecting citizens’ rights are two values Americans hold dearly. Despite claims to protect democracy and freedom, Trump stripped 50.9% of the citizenry of a different right.
The decision to allow companies not to cover birth control is, as Ozan Varol explained in Stealth Authoritarianism, an example of “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic means … [i]n some cases … the deviation does not appear transparently anti-democratic” Essentially, stealth authoritarianism is when a democratically elected leader makes choices that undermine the democracy in which they lead. But at times, these decisions may not seem inherently anti-democratic, as the leader uses a foundational pillar of democracy to support their action.
Of course, no decision should be assessed in a vacuum. While one change may not be a substantial threat to democracy, a leader is a sum of all of their choices, and this is when problems can arise. As Bermeo stated in On Democratic Backsliding, “[democracy] is put together piece by piece, and can be taken apart the same way” . Combining this recent birth control decision by Trump with some of his other choices and claims, such as attacking the media and free speech and threatening to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, it is clear that we as both citizens and political scientists cannot and should not turn disregard his motives.
One of the more threatening aspects to stealth authoritarianism is that once a leader’s true motives are realized, it may be too late to prevent a shift in regime type. While Americans are seemingly hyper-vigilant regarding Trump’s presidency, it will be important not to let future decisions be made without examination. If we become complacent, Trump may take steps to further or more drastically erode our democracy.
So while birth control may not be of substance to some, it is the method in which Trump made this decision that must be watched. By framing his direct attack on women by claiming religious freedoms, this anti-democratic change was overlooked by some citizens. The surreptitious tactics have unquestionably begun, and American democracy is most certainly not standing on solid ground.