In Kurt Weyland’s piece on the barriers to populism in America he identifies Republican constraint as one of the protecting factors of American democracy. However, this argument is flawed for several reasons. First, the actions of our Republican congress in the first year of the Trump presidency do little to ensure the safety of democracy. President Trump’s attacks on the media, vocal distrust in security agencies and politicization of nonpartisan institutions are just a few of the president’s disturbing attempts to further his populist desires. As Pippa Noris describes in her article on democratic backsliding, Americans face a significant risk of falling into democratic erosion through authoritarian populist leaders. She specifically names President Trump as a risk to American democratic ideals. Despite this identified threat and the president’s alarming actions, Republicans have continually shown impulses to enable Trump’s populist proclivities by refusing to provide proper congressional oversight.
Secondly, even if Republicans were effectively constraining the president, Tom Ginsuburg and Aziz Huq’s work on constitutional retrogression makes clear that we cannot rely solely on the institutional checks embedded in the constitution to protect our democracy. The two scholars find consolidation of executive power through the disintegration of institutional checks to be the greatest risk facing American democracy. When one looks at the lack of active Republican effort to constrain the president, partnered with the lack of constitutional protection for checks and balances, they find that Weyland’s optimism regarding the state of American democracy is quite deceiving.
The recent partisan manipulation by the president regarding memo releases written by members of the House Intelligence Committee is the perfect illustration of not only Republicans’ refusal to check the president, but their enabling of his dangerous behavior.
President Trump’s release of the security memo came over the objections of both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This action is simply one in a chain of actions taken by the president to discredit our nation’s most important security institutions, as the president has utilized this controversy to declare himself vindicated in the Russia probe. Furthermore, the President has since refused to release the Democratic response to the original memo, citing concerns over the exposure of sources and methods – a concern he ignored in the Republican case. The presumable discrepancies among the two memos could be chalked up to partisan politics. However, the president utilizing his executive power to block the release of the Democratic memo exhibits a partisan narrative that could prove catastrophic for our democracy.
While the manipulation of surveillance laws can be employed by autocratic leaders to obtain opposition research on political opponents as discussed in Ozan Varol’s work on stealth authoritarianism, the Trump/Republican handling of surveillance information differs greatly. The way the Republican memo and President Trump have handled surveillance laws- specifically the politicization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) security process- falls more into the category of putting up a façade of protecting democracy. This is another mechanism addressed by Varol for asserting populist authoritarianism. By painting the surveillance process as a politicized mechanism to attack the Trump administration, GOP congressmen and the president are partaking in actions they propose as protecting our democracy. This heroic mentality is simply incompatible with the actions of these individuals who are disrupting the surveillance process and actively politicizing intelligence agencies. While the president’s efforts to diminish American trust in institutions like the FBI are alarming, Republicans have done little to limit the president’s politicization of nonpartisan institutions, and in this case, have assisted in his efforts.
It is true that some Republican officials have publicly spoken out against individual actions and claims made by the president. However, it seems lawmakers find themselves unwilling to fully perform their checks and balances duties until they have decoupled themselves from near-term association with the party. For instance, it was not until Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona announced he would not be seeking reelection in 2018 that he began to speak out against some of President Trump’s populist authoritarian influences. Likewise, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a former Trump ally, also refrained from voicing his harshest criticism, a reference of the White House as “an adult day care center,” until after announcing his retirement.
Specifically, Senator Flake has taken vocal issue with President Trump’s attacks on the press. He issued a condemnation of the president on the Senate floor in January 2018. Media control is an accepted tactic utilized by populist authoritarian leaders to consolidate power. While Senator Flake’s criticisms were welcomed by those opposed to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, they do little to dissuade fears when the critiques are simultaneously issued with retirement plans. If the only Republicans in congress that are willing to challenge President Trump’s populist tendencies plan on leaving in November 2018, Americans should worry about who will be there to take over their role in checking the president. This is especially true when one considers that the biggest proponent for the person who will ultimately backfill these vacated positions is the President, himself. For example, if Trump’s preferred candidate, Kelly Ward, wins the Arizona Senate seat, Senator Flake’s condemnation of the president will gradually fade, over time.
While Americans should be particularly concerned about the lack of Republican effort to check the president, it must not be forgotten that Huq and Ginsburg specifically checkmark consolidation of executive power and elimination of institutional checks as the greatest risks to American democracy. Even if Republicans were actively constraining the president, as Weyland claims, the safety of checks and balances cannot be taken for granted. The current partisan composition in Congress certainly enables the president’s ability to erode American democracy, but it cannot be forgotten that scholars identify the Constitution as weak in protecting institutional checks, regardless of who is in power.
It is fair to state that Republican constraint (or the lack thereof) is simply a narrow contributing factor to the state of American democracy. However, as is discussed in a myriad of recent works on democratic erosion, including a piece by Nancy Bermeo, the process of democratic backslide is taking place in more discrete and incremental ways in our modern era. This means that not even the seemingly smallest of populist enablement can be ignored. Given the lack of convincing restraint on behalf of congressional Republicans, Americans should find themselves wary of the security of American democracy, long-term.
Photo by: Al Drago, The New York Times.