Donald Trump is implementing actions that appear to undermine democracy, and he is doing it through legal means. Unfortunately, even if the legality of his means becomes more questionable, there would be little that could be done to stop him.
In one of Trump’s first statements on twitter following last year’s election, he alleged that he would have won the popular vote if the millions who voted illegally were not counted. Given his relationship with the news outlets that reported on the election and his claims against their factual accuracy, this appears to be in the same vein as statements such as the one he made regarding his inauguration turnout — completely unfounded and an insecure attempt to boost his ego. However, the actions that President Trump underwent to prove this point are far more frightening, and appear to be indicative of what Ozan O. Varol refers to as “stealth authoritarianism”
Varol defines stealth authoritarianism as the use of legal means that exist in a democratic government for anti-democratic ends. The “mechanisms” Varol cites that perpetuate stealth authoritarianism include judicial review and surveillance, but none affect democracy so directly and intensely as the active suppression of voters’ rights.
In May, Trump put forth unilateral action to form what he dubbed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission was billed as a bipartisan effort, aiming to investigate voter fraud in the 2016 election. This investigation was launched (despite very little evidence of actual voter fraud) with a letter to each state in the nation asking for the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, last four Social Security number digits, and voting history back to 2006 for eligible voters from each state. This data could easily be used and manipulated to suppress voters’ rights in a manner similar to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s controversial and ineffective “Crosscheck” program, a smaller but similar voter database (Kobach happens to be a co-chair of Trump’s election commission). This certainly fits the definition of stealth authoritarianism, as it clearly attempts to suppress voters’ rights, but it also reveals strong evidence that democracy is backsliding under the Trump administration.
Ellen Lust defines democratic backsliding as, “changes that negatively affect competitive elections, liberties, and accountability.” Trump’s electoral commission certainly aims to affect the competitiveness of elections, but the conversation that perpetually surrounds his policies also calls into question the extent to which he is accountable. I would argue that in his current political atmosphere, Trump has little to be worried about in terms of consequences.
Calls for impeachment are frequently floated whenever President Trump’s rhetoric steers close to the constitutionally-questionable. Of course, Trump would actually have to unilaterally follow through in his threats to (for example) suppress media outlets that oppose him, or deny people their right to protest for impeachment to even be considered. The impeachment process is designed to be difficult, but the increasingly strict party adherence that congress has developed make it nearly impossible with a unified government. If Trump cannot potentially be held accountable for denying Americans the right to vote, limiting their right to free speech, or any other potential violation of the constitution, our democracy has significantly decayed. Our ideological tendencies may be a significant problem for how we hold our leaders accountable; if accountability is a basis for democratic legitimacy, our democracy may not be as healthy as we assume.