Nobody can deny that the election of Donald Trump has shaken up democracy in the United States. His authoritarian tendencies are cause for concern, both for the Republican Party and for the country as a whole. The question posed in Alison Gerzina’s “How the Republican Party has Failed American Democracy” is whether or not the party itself is a threat to democracy equal to Trump. Her answer is yes, but the situation appears to be more complicated than that.
There are three cases of successful Democratic Party gate-keeping explored in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die: Henry Ford, Huey Long, and George Wallace. The third, Wallace, eventually ran as an Independent in the election of 1968 and lost; he is the most recent case cited. All three men, then, were successfully blocked through gate-keeping policies prior to the primary reforms that followed the tumultuous 1968 election. The riots at the Democratic National Convention that year suggest that average voters did not feel like their party upheld the democratic ideal, regardless of whether or not gate-keeping occurred. The peak of gate-keeping processes in the United States came at the expense of voter autonomy, leaving rank-and-file party members feeling excluded from the process.
That is not to say that gate-keeping is no longer important. On the contrary, it is a critical part of ensuring that authoritarians are kept out of office, which is why the election of Trump was disheartening. However, the will of the people is what controls the delegates, so when Trump won primaries, party leaders could not tell the delegates to nominate someone else instead. That ended poorly when the Democratic Party did so with Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Though Trump secured the nomination with 1441 delegates, the three runner-ups combined (Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich) won 885. Further, while Trump won the party’s popular vote with 14,015,993 votes, the three runner-ups had a combined total of 15,628,124 votes. This suggests that over half of the party members who voted in the primaries preferred a more moderate alternative to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
Yes, the Republican Party’s lack of gate-keeping led to a questionable leader. But it seems hasty to declare that the party itself is an equal threat to democracy. Voices within the party such as Senator Jeff Flake are not afraid to question Trump and his decisions. Take, for example, Trump’s decision to invoke emergency powers to get funding for the border wall. In Jeffrey Toobin’s article, “Can Donald Trump Invoke Emergency Powers to Get His Wall?”, he points out that the ambiguity surrounding the definition of “emergency” in the National Emergencies Act of 1976 leaves an opening for him to do this, regardless of whether it infringes on the norms of democracy. The majority of Congressional Republicans, however, do not support the decision, acknowledging that it is an inappropriate side-stepping of Congressional oversight. Many of his less enthusiastic supporters are also critical of the move, which diverts funding from FEMA and the Department of Defense among other areas of government. The fact that members of the party are questioning the President’s more authoritarian actions means that there is still hope for the party, that there is not, as Gerzina writes, “no sign that the Republican Party will change course anytime soon.”
Robert C. Lieberman of Johns Hopkins University and his co-authors point out in “Trumpism and American Democracy” that Trump is the most widely disliked president in American history, with the worst approval ratings and “unprecendented levels of enmity and scorn from across the political spectrum.” To have the lowest approval ratings at this point in his term out of any president in the Gallup era means that Republicans as well as Democrats must be voicing strong disapproval. Parties have a tendency to self-correct. Barry Goldwater disseminated ultra-conservatism, but he fell out of the good graces of his party much like Senator McCarthy did. Neither man was ever the President of the United States. After a peaceful transition of power from the hands of Trump to whoever the next president is, whether it is the result of the 2020 or 2024 election, it seems unlikely that another potential authoritarian will have the means to do what Trump successfully did. Media will not be likely to give any new demagogues free airtime as they did with Trump, and Republican voters are showing signs of wariness with respect to his actions. The public is learning its lesson.
It seems harsh to say, as Gerzina does, “Built on the foundations of exclusion, intolerance, vilification, and domination, the Republican Party has always been ambivalent to the American democratic ideal.” It may have lost its way, but the party of the Great Emancipator still shows signs of respect for the Constitution, the written guardian of values which are critical to democracy. Constituents have a responsibility to publicly hold their representatives accountable, and once the Republicans who disapprove of Trump’s job in office encourage their representatives to stand up to him, they might just have the strength to fight for a return to the Party’s democratic roots.