Presently, there is seemingly a decay of democracy under the Trump administration. The current administration has acted in ways, that under various circumstances, some of the American people have considered undemocratic or against American values. However, many people accept this trend of anti-democratic acts as being due to Trump’s populist nature. However, one has to determine whether Trump is causing democratic erosion or if the current president is just an effect of a gradual decay of democratic principles in the U.S.. There have been peaks and valleys to American democracy since the country’s inception; whether that be the New Deal, Andrew Jackson, or voting rights limitations, “democracy” has had to grow, face limitations, and change in America over time. Is Trump’s populist agenda the cause of the apparent democracy crisis in America or is Trump the end result of a larger stealth authoritarian picture?
The reasoning for why Trump is not the cause but rather an effect of democratic erosion starts with the idea that he isn’t the first populist president. Starting with the election of Andrew Jackson in the beginning of the 1800’s, numerous populist presidents have found ways to limit democracy. Andrew Jackson limited it by the annihilation of Native American rights, while Trump has been a bit more subtle. From Muller’s What is Populism?, he defines populists as having an ideology of “producerism” which means that populists “pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work.” Andrew Jackson spoke for the “common man” who was outside of the political system, he also went against decisions made by the Supreme Court and brought about a party of “rough and tumble” Democrats. Trump used the same tactics to rise to the presidency. He is the “rough and tumble” version of current Republicans; he is not afraid to call out the “elite” or make radical statements about the state of the country. Trump is not the first nor will he be the last populist president to come into power and inspire fear from the average member of the population. By comparing Trump to past presidencies can lead one to the conclusion that Trump is the effect and not the cause of democratic erosion.
When one defines “democracy” there are many different definitions and criteria according to Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: there is the classic definition of government for the common good, or a government that represents the people, the majority of the population is allowed to vote, or elections are held freely, fairly and competitively, and/or civil or political freedoms are abundant. Recently, there have been discussions about how fair the voting in America actually is. There have been accounts of voter fraud, Russian meddling, massive gerrymandering, and media bias. Even though people think this is a new idea, voter issues and undemocratic actions have always been a problem for America. The Election of 2000 is a great example of voter issues that are in no way related to the Trump administration. Gore won the popular vote, won a few major battleground states, and yet lost the election to the electoral college and Florida. The most undemocratic act during the process of deciding the winner in the election was Gore’s requested re-tallying of the votes. The governor of Florida at the time was Jeb Bush, who stalled the new tallying of the votes until the Supreme Court deadline passed and George W. Bush was elected president. After the election and controversy, the definitive winner of Florida is still unknown; what’s also unknown is the severity of the problems in their paper polling and if Bush’s votes in Florida are accurate. This suspected fraud didn’t happen in the 2016 election, but Trump did make claims during the election that it was.
That last paragraph was written prior to the Mueller investigation’s indictment of 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 election and creating misinformation about “fake Hillary”. Throughout the entire 2016 election, Donald Trump claimed that there was voter fraud, that there were “illegals” voting, or that Barack Obama had wiretapped his campaign. None of these accusations were ever proven true, but the people (his voters) believed them anyway. He claimed the media was entirely biased and said every negative story they had about him was “fake”. Donald Trump has tried to destroy the credibility of the media. This has been done in such a blatant way that many people take it as a joke. However, the silencing of the media is considered one of the signs of an undemocratic regime. The fact that the special counsel in charge of identifying Russian collusion actually did find evidence that the Trump campaign was in someway helped by a foreign government is incredibly ironic. No other president before has had allegations of this magnitude and no president has ever gone through such elaborate attempts to deny them. This points to the idea that maybe Trump is the problem and that his campaign was the start of a new wave of democratic erosion in America.
In order to support the theory that Trump is not the cause of the decaying democratic system in the U.S., the Republicans stalled Obama’s nominees, not because they were unqualified but because they were nominated by a democrat. Trump boasts that he has elected the most judges out of any president, but that is only true because of Republican politicians’ willingness to support undemocratic actions. The House and Senate stalled Obama’s appointees even before Trump was in office. Gerrymandering, especially in Pennsylvania is rampant and destructive to African American voting rights, was not caused by Donald Trump. He was elected and supported by individuals who are less democratic than the American standard but Donald Trump did not cause their undemocratic nature. Trump is a populist president with stealth authoritarian behavior; he is not near Andrew Jackson’s blatant disruption of civil rights and that is because he is a modern political leader. He masks his true ambitions behind a populist image just as stated in Varol’s Stealth Authoritarianism:
“In so doing, the new generation of authoritarians cloak repressive measures under the mask of law, imbue them with the veneer of legitimacy, and render authoritarian practices much more difficult to detect and eliminate. In the modern era, authoritarian wolves rarely appear as wolves. They are now clad, at least in part, in sheep’s clothing.”
With President Trump, his words are so blatant and loud but his actions are subtle. Those with the even more subtle actions however are the politicians in the House and Senate who make major decisions for the country that may or may not be eroding American democracy. Whether it be gerrymandering or the stalling of justices, not just Trump has shown actions that are contrary to former American standards for democracy. With the conclusion of the Russia investigation into the corruption of the 2016 election, will we be able to know if Trump has caused an immediate downslide in democracy.
*Photo by Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post, Creative Commons Zero License