After the release of the Mueller report, many were shocked to see the number of White House officials, such as former White House counsel Don McGahn and former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who had prevented the president from possibly obstructing justice during the investigation. Levitsky and Ziblatt say that power can be kept in check through the mechanisms of political parties, but that process is weakening in the United States . However, as Hemmel and Posner state, the Mueller report may have demonstrated a new trend in gatekeeping that is closer to the source of power than parties: checks on an executive from within the executive branch itself, for reasons like fear of personal reputation and considerations other than keeping the President in power.
However is this trend likely to continue? And will it be enough to stop President Trump from pursuing some more of his backsliding trends? Recent developments in White House staff have pointed to signs that this form of gatekeeping will no longer be effective in ways that seem to point to trends that Levitsky and Ziblatt attribute to authoritarian behavior, although only the future will tell.
Since the release of the Mueller report, Congress has been subpoenaing former and current White House aides to testify. However, the President has stated that he may not allow any of his aides being subpoenaed to testify before Congress. One of Congress’s jobs is to check the president from disputing other branches and separation of powers , as James Madison eloquently stated in Federalist Paper No. 51 that the checks and balances of the government function when “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”. By not allowing his aides to testify in front of Congress, and especially by de-legitimizing the process by claiming that his aides would be testifying before a party rather than a branch of government, President Trump is effectively practicing two forms of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s indicators of authoritarian behavior: rejection of democratic rules of the game and a denial of the legitimacy of his political opponent, especially when it comes to those rules .
Additionally, the President instructed his staff to refuse to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner, an event that signifies the important relationship between the press and the government. While the president himself has been absent at the previous dinners during his presidency, this is the first time he has asked his staff from refraining attendance as well. During the dinner itself, President Trump held a campaign rally in Wisconsin, in which his remarks included attacks on the media, although he made no reference to the dinner he was skipping. While President Trump’s relationship with the press has always been contentious, instructing all of his aides to refuse to attend the dinner is another step in tensions with the press, and a further step towards Levitsky and Ziblatt’s fourth criterion for indicating authoritarian behaviors: showing a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of the media . While the President may not have quite reached that stage, making his staff, who now seem to be listening to him instead of gatekeeping, skip an important event for the press is an indicator that he is not far from reaching that fourth criterion if he has not breached it already.
Another concerning report that demonstrates the end of gatekeeping at the executive level comes from former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Secretary Nielsen reported that during a meeting with President Trump she was instructed by White House officials to refrain from mentioning election security concerns having to do with foreign meddling in the US election. With reports from the FBI that Russian meddling in the 2020 election is a serious threat, the fact that officials in the executive branch seem to be following the president’s lead in waylaying concerns of election meddling both seems to be ming towards Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concern of weak commitment to the rules of the democratic game, as well as Bermeo’s theories on an executive strategically manipulating elections, although in this case the president is not directly manipulating the elections, but allowing them to be manipulated in his favor  . The White House officials are stepping back and allowing the president to dictate how the rules of the democratic game should be kept or ignored.
Consequently, it seems as though the executive model of gatekeeping has little future in the current administration. Some in the Republican party are therefore attempting to return to the more traditional Levitsky and Ziblatt model of gatekeeping. Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld has announced that he will be challenging the president for the Republican nomination, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is mulling a presidential primary, as well as while other officials have announced they will switch parties due to the distortion of the party by the president. However, while this may seem promising, people like Weld, Hogan, and McKean are few and far between and face substantial challenges in questioning the president. With the more traditional model of gatekeeping seems to be weaker and weaker option, and the new theory of executive gatekeeping short lived, it remains to be seen which part of the government will take up the mantle of gatekeeping, or if it will simply be up to the electorate in the upcoming elections. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Gatekeeping in America.” In How Democracies Die. New York, NY: Crown Publishing, 2018.  Ornstein, Norman J., and Thomas E. Mann. “When Congress Checks Out.” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 6 (2006): 67-82. doi:10.2307/20032144.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018, pp. 23(4) Bermeo. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19, 13.  Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19, 13.
Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press