In the blog post by Taylor Williams of Saint Louis University, she addresses Donald Trump’s usage of executive power to declare a “national emergency” in order to circumvent congress and secure funding for his border wall. Although it is not beyond his power to declare such an emergency and enact his executive powers, it does not make it right, and does beg the question of whether his actions are in favor of or directly harmful to democracy. Williams is accurate in her reference to Levitsky and Ziblatt, and I agree with her assessment of Trump as adhering to the four behavioral indicators of potential authoritarianism, but for this specific inquiry, I believe that there is much more evidence that could be addressed.
This blog post then, will act to further expand upon one question Williams poses in her post: is Trump taking advantage of the democratic system? Essentially, is he using it in an undemocratic way, resulting in potentially harmful effects to our American democracy?
A good way to judge the present is by looking at the past. Two authoritarian dictators who rose to power in democratic societies were explained in detail by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die: Alberto Fujimori and Adolf Hitler.
Fujimori was a populist, anti-establishment type politician (like Trump). Once he made his way into the President’s seat, a seat he did not really want in the first place, him and the legislator were constantly at odds, and in an angry attempt to pass legislation, Fujimori issued executive order after executive order. His passing of them became so frequent and so extreme that, in short, Fujimori was able to suppress the courts, render the legislator insignificant, and dismantle the constitution through his executive powers in roughly two years, becoming an authoritarian leader for the rest of his reign.
Another populist leader, the most infamous political leader in the history of the world, was also able to successfully rise to authoritarianism through his use of executive powers, in this case by calling a sort of “national emergency”. Four weeks after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany, an event known as the Reichstag Fire occurred, in which the building of the German parliament caught fire and the event was blamed on malicious communist terrorists. Hitler then used this event, inciting further the public’s fears of a communist takeover, to declare emergency and suspend a large majority of citizen’s rights. This event is often known as the event that allowed Hitler to begin his chain of authoritarian policies and truly begin his authoritarian rule.
Clearly, using executive powers extensively and exaggeratedly can certainly lead to authoritarian tendencies, making Trump’s use of a large executive order to over step congress and declare a “national emergency” particularly worrying. As is also mentioned by Levitsky and Ziblatt, the whole point of executive orders is not to circumvent the democratic process of elections on policy entirely, but rather the purpose of executive powers is to give the president decisive powers in times of extreme need, such as war. Using these powers in unextreme situations, like Williams said, only sets bad precedents for the future.
Other Theoretical Concepts
Nancy Bermeo has ideas that even further relate to this topic, and tie this article closer to the idea of democratic backsliding. According to her, there are three main ways in which a presidential leader will take over a democratic system and turn it authoritarian in the modern day: via a promissory coup, executive aggrandizement, or by manipulating elections strategically. In the case of executive orders and powers, executive aggrandizement is particularly relevant. Executive Aggrandizement is when the executive slowly yet legally weakens the checks on his/her own behavior, and slowly grants him/herself more power and abilities. The scariest part about this form of democratic backsliding is that it is entirely legal. Just as is the case with the current United States President Trump, the executive can exercise perfectly legal powers (such as calling for the building of a border wall on the bases of a “national emergency”) but exercise these powers in such a way that it begins to limit and delegitimize the abilities of the legislative branch, in turn building a precedent for the president to extend his powers further with the next executive order.
The final point I would like to make to solidify this idea that spur-of-the-moment use of executive powers is harmful to democracy is to bring up the theories of Seymour Lipset. Before, I mentioned the delegitimizing of the legislator. Lipset believes that one of the prime requisites for democracy is the Legitimacy of the government in terms of Effectiveness. If the legislator is being seen as illegitimate because they are ineffective, then democracy will begin to fray. This is precisely the message that is conveyed by Trump’s execute order of the border wall. By circumventing congress, he proves them to be ineffective and delegitimizes their ability and authority when it comes to monetary policy.
In the end, Williams was spot on in her interpretation of Trump’s executive order’s effect on our democracy, and numerous other political scientists, articles, and history further support this idea.