David Corn, Washington Bureau Chief for Mother Jones, is candid when asked about his thoughts on our president. In line with the nature of societal thought that has become widespread in the age of polarization, Corn views President Trump not merely as a colleague on the polar end of the ideological spectrum, but as an imminent danger to America. Indeed, that is the mentality that has recently permeated the American public, which might lead some to shrug off such claims as typically partisan. Yet, there has been an air around Trump since before the election that suggests his candidacy and subsequent presidency are somehow unprecedented and could merit the accusations as a result of his divergence from convention.
In my interview with him, Corn cited a plethora of anti-democratic behaviors he thought served to erode the American fabric. According to the criteria provided by Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg, it seems Corn is convinced that Trump is promoting constitutional regression. This would suggest that through his actions, Trump is contributing to the insidious decay of competitive elections, rights of political speech and association, and administrative and adjudicative rule of law simultaneously. Corn nods to each of these and plenty more.
For one, he argues that the president has undermined the principle of free and fair elections by resolving not to respond to Russia’s interference. Trump and his transition team ignored intelligence community conclusions with regard to Russian interference in the election, which effectively allowed for the dissemination of misinformation that reached millions of Americans and may have influenced election outcomes. Combined with Trump’s own demagogic tendencies and disregard for fact-based discourse, he undermined and continues to undermine the “epistemic minima for effectual constitutional liberal democracy.”
This is a notion brought forth by Huq and Ginsberg that suggests that the systematic distortion and suppression of fact obstructs democracy in that it prevents the public from reaching voting decisions that accurately reflect their ultimate desires and/or interests. While this is not yet a subversion of pluralism and competitive elections, it is an infringement on fair elections, which do not allow for untruthful propaganda or international entities to influence public opinion. Corn makes sure to emphasize that the story is yet to be complete, and having managed to obtain the highest office in the land through such means and on such a platform is just the incremental step that might ultimately result in constitutional regression as Corn fears.
This deceit wages on in the background, setting a scene ripe for other forms of manipulation, such as the degradation of political speech. Corn speaks venomously of the president’s antagonism toward the media apparatus and the way in which he manages to avoid accountability with his accusatory labels. While regularly referring to dissenting voices as purveyors of “fake news,” within and beyond the media and his own party, Trump has gone so far as to ban select news organizations from briefings, threaten to revoke network licenses, and launch his own “real news” broadcast (which Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, remarked was eerily reminiscent of state-owned channels).
While condemning Trump’s refusal to be held accountable by the media, Corn also suggests that his reprisals against members of his own party who dissent effectively erode the legislative branch as an institutional check against authoritarianism. He makes the claim that Republicans fear retaliation from the president which might result in a loss for them come election season, or otherwise cause a rift within the party. Far from justifying their unwillingness to condemn Trump’s actions, Corn holds them responsible for the ease with which Trump is managing to subvert democratic principles. Indeed, it takes no stretch of the mind to recognize how such actions work to subtly erode the fabric of free speech.
Finally, Corn recognizes an indifference to preserving the rule of law in Trump’s disregard for the institutional constraint on his power as the executive. The president fails, Corn claims, to heed the judgments made by the other branches of government, equal in authority and entirely imperative for the maintenance of a democratic system. This was evident when he dismissed Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her “betrayal” in deciding not to enforce the travel ban, and when he fired James Comey because of the pressure of the Russia Investigation. Still, it seems as if Corn is more concerned with Trump’s dismissal of norms of governance than his neglect for the rule of law. As Huq and Ginsberg claim in discussing what pathways of constitutional regression might afflict America under Trump, it is incredibly difficult to drastically amend the U.S. Constitution. It was created with precisely the intention to resist the whims and passions of a particular political moment. While Trump may show a blatant disrespect for the rule of law, which could potentially evolve into a rejection of the rule of law, this is far less likely and thus far less worrisome than the damage he has wrought to political norms.
Corn cites a number of instances that demonstrate Trump’s disinterest in complying with informal but well-established conventions during his candidacy and presidency. To lack a sense of obligation to these norms is to lack a fear of public consequences. And why would Trump fear public retaliation if he has faced none from his base thus far? This is a testament to the extreme polarization and partisanship of the present time, and it has effectively induced Republicans into silence. It seems the new political norm worthy of public rebuke if violated is unfettered partisanship. It is no surprise then that Corn considers this the most dangerous.
Read the interview here:
Mother Jones has a constantly updated lists of events demonstrating Trump’s creeping authoritarianism. Do you genuinely believe that Trump is endangering democracy?
Yes, first and foremost, by polluting civil discourse and assaulting political norms. We’ve long had problems with division in American society and maintaining fact-based discourse out of the realm of demagoguery. He’s intensified that problem by making everything personal and heightening the rhetoric of division. It makes people who are involved in politics now more willing to be coarse and to defy facts. He has assaulted the norms of our governance by not releasing his taxes, by not caring about transparency and accountability, by running a white house that celebrates nepotism and clientelism, by not dealing with massive conflicts of interest where his family finances blur with his government responsibilities, and by not caring about Russia interfering in our supposedly free and fair elections. This is where you see the creeping authoritarianism, like “l’etat c’est moi,” or “the state is me.” He reacts as if he is the government and he doesn’t seem to recognize that other branches are co-equal in the system. He certainly would like to have a cult of personality. He is debasing people who work for him, forcing them to match him in terms of dishonesty and disingenuousness and dissembling, and he is waging this war on the media because he doesn’t want to be held accountable. He wants to, as all authoritarians do, control the narrative completely. He’s trying to undermine, undercut, and subvert media outlets by accusing everything they’re doing as being fake news, witch hunts, and hoaxes. The end of the story is not written yet, so we don’t know how this will all turn out, but the fact that he’s gotten this far with these tactics is in and of itself frightening, and should make everyone concerned about the future of American democracy and the institutions that supported this. We have a constitution, we have laws, and we have rules, but a lot of what makes any system work are the cultural norms that may not always be written down, and if there are rules they may not have enforcement mechanisms. The active measures he takes to disintegrate these norms are the most dangerous. And if it were any one of these individual offenses I would be less concerned, but it’s the effect of it all together and the real damage that could cause that should worry us all.
Before the election, it was up to the public to determine that this subversion of norms was suspect or at least disturbing, and they didn’t, arguably, because of the control Trump possessed over every seemingly campaign-ruining story the media ran. But since he’s been in office, he’s continued to subvert these norms and now that’s on our elected officials. They are a pivotal part of the mechanism in place to check executive power, so why are they failing?
It sounds partisan to say this, but every act of norm violation that he’s engaged in, he’s been called out on by Democrats. But the Democrats are in the minority in Congress. They can’t hold hearings, they can’t investigate these things on their own, and Republicans have again and again turned a blind eye to Donald Trump’s violations of good manners, policy debates, and common governance. It seems that they’ve made a bargain with the devil. They want tax cuts more than anything else, and they’re approaching a tax cut plan that will disproportionately and by great measure, benefit the well-to-do. In order to get that, they can’t criticize Trump for his erratic behavior, policy ignorance, divisive actions, bigotry, misogyny, or racism. They all know that were they to criticize him on any of these fronts, he would go ballistic and there would be a tremendous civil war for the Republican party. Likely victims of that would be the tax cuts that they want, getting rid of environmental regulations, and trying to destroy Obamacare. I know from talking to people within Washington that a majority of Senate Republicans worry about Donald Trump. They worry that he’s erratic, doesn’t understand policy, and might bring us unnecessarily into conflict abroad. They worry about what he’s done to lower the standards for discourse in this country. But, they’re all—most of them—chicken-shit. They don’t want to take him on because they fear they’ll lose. They fear that the base of the party, the tea party-ish base, is still with Trump, and they’ll be challenged by an extremer Republican in primaries and lose. Many of them should know better.
Do you believe any of the other institutions that we have constitutionally in place can or will protect us the more democracy comes to hang in the balance, if the Republicans were to continue turning a blind eye and never—?
It’s hard! The best check on Trump would be if the Democrats win back the House in 2018 along with the power of investigation and hearings to impose. The odds are not in favor of that at this moment in time, but it’s certainly a possibility. The courts obviously are a place to go, but their reach is limited. They were able to stop the travel ban that he wanted to impose on people coming in from Muslim-majority countries, and they were able to stop some attempts to weaken EPA regulations, but the president has a tremendous amount of discretionary power, and the courts can only operate in certain areas. The courts also have a fair number of conservative judges that feel that it’s not their duty to rein in Trump. What we’re seeing is just how much power and influence an unfettered president can have. I’ve written about what may happened should Trump want to ultimately use nuclear weapons, and if there are any restraints on that. In theory the answer is no. Would they, if they thought that he was ordering something rashly? I don’t know. Now we’re talking about a system that is not dependent on rules and constitutional obligations. I certainly hope we don’t get to the point where we need a test like this.