As the American president finished delivering his 2020 State of the Union Address, the highest-ranking member of the opposing political party got to her feet and ripped the President’s speech into pieces. Her display constituted a nonverbal accusation of illegitimacy; in the aftermath, she called his address “a manifesto of mistruth.” The events of that night were witnessed by 37 million Americans, and left many of us wondering how much the spectacle revealed about how well the democratic forces of American government are holding up. I argue that the 2020 State of the Union drama exhibits democratic erosion administered by the political leadership – specifically, by President Donald J. Trump.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi says that she ripped up her President’s speech because she wanted the American people to know it was rife with “falsehoods.” For example, President Trump claimed that his administration will “protect your Medicare and your Social Security always,” though, in fact, his policy has actively weakened the funds’ financial position. Such blatant disregard for the ostensible facts of the matter suggests a weakening of the values that have historically framed American democracy.
Political scientists Ellen Lust and David Walder catalogue the conditions that render democracies vulnerable to erosion with respect to the actions of political leaders: autonomy, relative lack of constraints, and the tendency to make choices based on personal attributes like temperament, intellect, or personal disposition. President Trump has established his autonomy and relative lack of constraints by making use of the unilateral powers granted to the American president. He’s issued more executive orders annually than his predecessor, famously made controversial executive agreements like with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, and vetoed significant and polarizing legislation. His tendency to make choices based on his personal attributes is widely documented; his own economic advisor wrote: “Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” As far as Lust and Walder’s model goes, then, the American commander-in-chief acts in a way that renders his democracy vulnerable to democratic breakdown.
Lust and Waldner further indicate the specific mechanisms that explain democratic breakdown in such a scenario. One explanation states that a leader with upholds their democracy by taking action against antidemocratic threats; conversely, a leader who fails to adequately defend their democracy enables the process of democratic breakdown. President Trump has demonstrated his inattention to defending his democracy from antidemocratic threats by indiscriminately engaging extreme ideologues in the interest of advancing his personal goals. At the commencement of the Trump presidency, the administration’s Chief Strategist was Stephen Bannon: the former executive chairman of a far-right news outlet called Breitbart News. Including extreme perspectives in the mainstream political discourse presents a threat to democracy by granting legitimacy to those views.
Another explanation of democratic breakdown as articulated by Lust and Waldner is: whether political leaders have a normative preference for democracy contributes to whether democracy survives. President Trump’s has demonstrative his prioritization of his own interests over those of American democracy through public excoriation of democratic mechanisms that have interfered with his personal goals such as Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. In the aftermath of the 2020 State of the Union, President Trump falsely claimed that Speaker Pelosi did something “illegal” by ripping up his speech. Further, he posted an edited video suggesting that the Speaker was ripping up stories of the Address’ honorees rather than the text of the speech itself. The American president demonstrates through these actions that he values his own interests over the principles of democracy.
Currently, rates of partisan polarization are higher than they have been in America since the civil war. This polarization serves President Trump by obfuscating the existential threat that he poses to democracy. The democratic breakdown occurring within governmental institutions under the Trump administration should be identified as such so that Americans of all political perspectives can unite in opposition to a common enemy: democratic erosion.
Brito, Christopher. “Facebook and Twitter Refuse to Take down Edited Video of Nancy Pelosi Shared by Trump.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 10 Feb. 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/nancy-pelosi-trump-video-state-of-the-union-turning-point-usa/.
“Executive Orders.” Federal Register, www.federalregister.gov/presidential-documents/executive-orders.
Graham, David A. “The President Who Doesn’t Read.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 Jan. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/americas-first-post-text-president/549794/.
Jakes, Lara, et al. “Fact-Checking Trump’s State of the Union Address.” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/live/2020/fact-check-state-of-the-union-02-04.
Timm, Jane C. “Trump Falsely Claims Pelosi Did Something ‘Very Illegal’ by Ripping up His State of the Union Speech.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 7 Feb. 2020, www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-falsely-claims-pelosi-did-something-very-illegal-ripping-his-n1132656.
“TV Ratings Declined for Trump’s State of the Union Speech.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/business/media/trump-state-of-the-union-ratings.html.
Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 93–113., doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.