The lasting impacts of President Trump’s impeachment are still emerging, notably in ways that threaten our already malnourished democratic norms. Democratic norms are the unspoken rules governing the behavior of individuals participating in our democracy. The fractured state of these norms highlights the dangers of dual legitimacy within the American system, which according to Linz, is the question of “which of the two [branches] actually represents the will of the people.”
A stabilizing factor in democracy is the idea of mutual toleration, with competing parties accepting each other as legitimate rivals in the political system and not treating political opponents as “treasonous, subversive, or otherwise beyond the pale.” Mutual toleration, along with forbearance, defined by Levitsky and Ziblatt as “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit,” help prevent the politicization of key democratic institutions. Mutual toleration, in addition to other benefits, helps prevent the widespread use of disinformation smear tactics by political elites while forbearance “has long served as a vital source of democratic stability.” Both of these norms are at risk of collapsing among party elites following the impeachment trial, ultimately threatening American democracy through the issue of dual legitimacy.
The hyper-partisan conduct at the recent State of the Union address reveals a severe breakdown in the notion of mutual toleration and is a drastic escalation when compared with previous hijackings of this event. President Trump snubbed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and essentially delivered a campaign rally speech while popular congressional Democrats exhibited the “not my president” mentality by refusing to attend and Speaker Pelosi concluded the evening by ripping up President Trump’s speech. This conduct can be further seen from President Trump’s assertion that “Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person…” and “[about his impeachment] It was evil. It was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers and liars,” and Speaker Pelosi’s assertion that “[President Trump] shredded the truth, so I shredded his speech.” These two instances represent a marked increase in the public displays of questioning the political legitimacy of their opponents by leaders from both parties. This suggests a shift in the Democrat’s strategy towards a more head-on, polarized approach when reacting to President Trump’s hyper-partisan rhetoric.
As we proceed along this path of violating democratic norms, the danger of hijacking established institutions for political purposes. The doctored video of Speaker Pelosi ripping up President Trump’s State of the Union speech reveals the danger outlined by Huq and Ginsberg that “a regnant regime or its allies (whether domestic or international) [would] strategically propagate false news stories about political opponents that are effective in defaming or discrediting them.”While certainly not the first, or likely even the last, time President Trump has hijacked free speech, this viscerally partisan public display by Speaker Pelosi has opened the Democrats up to new forms of disinformation attacks. This potentially spells the entrance to a new era of false news stories that was not previously possible with the up-till-now often more constrained behavior, at least in public, of the Democrat leadership. Future responses will determine whether this represents a one-off event or a step into a cycle of increasingly hostile public acts that provide further ammunition to be used in a disinformation vortex.
The consequences faced by administration officials that testified in the impeachment trial also reveals the significant deterioration of the norm of forbearance. While technically within the right of President Trump to remove individuals such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Yevgeny Vindman, and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, as has been highlighted by the president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill, this is an attempt to exact retribution on those now viewed as disloyal by using the executive’s constitutional powers. The manner with which this has been carried out, in the face of their attempts to quietly leave and statements that Lt. Col. Vindman “was very insubordinate,” reveal President Trump’s desire to punish those he views as responsible for his impeachment. Beyond having a potential chilling effect, this reveals a willingness to use the executive’s power to benefit himself. Furthermore, the idea of having any future Republican-controlled House undo his impeachment, and the lack of criticism of this idea by congressional Republicans, reveals a willingness to utilize any available institutional authority to ensure the realization of their political goals.
These instances demonstrate the broader issue of dual legitimacy within the American system when it operates in a period of weakened democratic norms. Elites in both parties, President Trump and Speaker Pelosi, are positioning themselves as the sole representative of truth and democracy in a period where fears of American democracy being under attack exist on both sides of the political aisle. Technically, both are correct in their assertion that they represent the American people but are ultimately incorrect in their refusal to grant this role to the other branch. This increased friction over which institution is the “true” representative of the American people can partially be contributed to this extreme breakdown in respect and cooperation among political elites. This provides an additional source of instability in the American system as we head into an incredibly contentious presidential election and threatens the loss of legitimacy of an entire political branch, which one depending on your partisan identity, among the American public. This scenario highlights a potential flaw in the American constitutional framework of that, when operating in an environment of disintegrating norms, can threaten the perceived legitimacy and validity of the main political branches.
 Linz, Juan J. 1990. “The Perils of Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy, Volume 1, Number 1 Winter 1990. pp. 63
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. pp. 175-176
 Levitsky and Ziblatt. pp. 182
 Lieberman et. al. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States” pp. 23
 Huq, Aziz and Ginsburg, Tom. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy” pp. 65