It is generally believed that checks and balances are fundamental to protecting a democracy from backsliding into a more authoritarian style of government. America’s founders feared a tyrannical government that put too much power into the hands of a single leader. To protect the democracy, they established a system of checks and balances that allowed each branch of the national government to check the power of the others. This process of balancing power has remained an important part of American democracy for over 200 years, but the recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump points to the possibility that the GOP-controlled Senate is no longer fulfilling its duties of checking presidential power.
While President Trump’s acquittal during his impeachment trial does not come as a surprise, it does highlight the increasing danger American democracy faces in this hyper-partisan climate. The House of Representatives acted to check the power of the president when it impeached President Trump for colluding with Ukraine to interfere in the upcoming presidential election. The Senate held a short trial in which the impeachment managers presented evidence of Trump’s attempts to convince Ukraine to investigate the son of his political rival, Joe Biden. Trump’s defense team did not argue against the evidence presented, but rather claimed that the president’s actions weren’t impeachable. After voting to block any witnesses from testifying, the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted the president, with only one Republican senator straying from the pack to vote with Democrats for Trump’s removal.
President Trump’s partisan acquittal is not unique, as both of the other presidents to stand for an impeachment trial were also acquitted by members of their own party. However, by voting to keep Trump in office, the Senate failed to check the bold reach of power displayed by the president. Nancy Bermeo defines the weakening of checks on executive power as executive aggrandizement. Executive aggrandizement concentrates power within the hands of a single leader and contributes to trends of democratic backsliding. In agreeing with Trump’s defense, Republican senators consented to the belief that the president is within his rights to use the power of the United States government to persuade foreign countries for his own personal benefit. With this action being deemed unimpeachable, senators are signaling their own approval of an extreme extension of presidential power, which could endanger American democracy. Trump’s Ukraine actions aren’t the first time he’s acted outside of his presidential authority, such his declaration of a national emergency to redirect money for his border wall and his choices to involve the US in international conflicts without congressional approval. These actions have gone mostly unchecked by Congress and speak to a pattern of presidential power expansion that has been confirmed by the Senate’s decision to acquit Trump.
While the responsibility of checking executive power falls to members of both parties within Congress, opposition within Trump’s own party is much more important in terms of regulating his behavior. The main gatekeeping role to restrain a potentially dangerous leader often falls to the elites within that leader’s own party. These elites must be willing to work with other political parties to ensure the general welfare of democracy. Before Trump’s election in 2016, many Republican senators were willing to criticize Trump, with Senator Marco Rubio even calling him a dangerous “con-man” and stating his fear over Trump controlling the nuclear codes. Unfortunately, since the election, Republicans have mostly refused to take any strong stances against President Trump, which is evidenced in their acquittal verdict. While it’s possible that the GOP would stand up against Trump if he made any large-scale power grabs that would obviously harm our democracy, not all moves towards authoritarianism are blatant. Ozan Varol explains that leaders can engage in stealth authoritarianism by using democratic laws for anti-democratic purposes that slowly degrade a democracy. This is why it is so important that the Republicans in the government take a stand against Trump’s expansion of power, but unfortunately the impeachment trial shows that most members of the GOP are unwilling to do that.
It would be unwise to claim that Trump’s impeachment acquittal has proved that we are living under the rule of a future authoritarian government. However, it has shown some of the growing weaknesses in our long-standing democratic institutions. It is hard to imagine much Republican uproar against President Trump in today’s extremely polarized political climate, but GOP members need to prioritize democracy when the president grossly oversteps his authority. Without putting country over party when it counts, our democracy could be in danger of moving towards authoritarianism.
 Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working Paper.
 Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
 Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4).
This article really made me think. I believe that what you claim is true, we should indeed hold country over party whenever trying to discuss politics and elect leaders, however I believe that this rule should be applied both ways. It has been shown historically that the Democratic candidates attack themselves leading up to a presidential election only to go back on their word and pledge full support and endorsement to each other once dropping out to ensure the success of the party, even when it may lead to the detriment of the country. This example of party over country on the DNC’s part shows the innate party oriented views of politics in America; ironically the complete opposite of what the founding fathers wanted.
I think that the situation with the GOP and the acquittal of Donald Trump are definitely warning signs about an ailing democracy. Not only that but the partisan nature with which the endure impeachment proceedings have taken place is concerning as well. As Republicans line up behind Trump to defend their party and democrats line up behind Pelosi to charge him with crimes, it does worry me that we are beginning to enter a time in which a president can be impeached and possibly be removed should Congress be dominated by the opposing power. I think Donald Trump is right when he said that impeachment has been cheapened, though not on the Democrats’ end. When Republicans voted to acquit trump of very real crimes it cheapened the impeachment process as a whole and opened the door to any House impeaching a president of an opposing party.
The Predictive Factors in Donald Trump’s Impeachment Acquittal
I agree that Trump’s acquittal is an indicator of weakening democracy under the current administration, but I would argue that this was far from surprising. The Senate’s refusal to stand up for democracy has much deeper roots than party over policy in a spur-of-the-moment vote and is directly tied to Donald Trump’s unique populist approach to politics. Jan-Werner Müller discusses in his novel What is Populism how populism in its nature is a rejection of Dualism, and this parallels both the PBS Frontline Documentary Trump’s Takeover and its claim that Trump had to defeat both parties to win in 2016, as well as Leviksy’s How Democracies Die and his call for more checks and balances to force parties to resist the pressure of populists to polarize. It is with this in mind that we have to look at the checks and balances both at the time of Trump’s impeachment and the attempts throughout the beginning of his presidency that lead to Mitt Romney’s position as the only GOP senator to stand up for the American Constitution at the Senate trial.
Trump began displaying populist qualities early on in his campaign through a few of Levinsky’s and Müller’s populist warning signs including attacking the media (“fake news”), delegitimizing/criminalizing opponents (“lock her up!”), and attacks on the Rule of Law. The three of these warning signs should have been enough to spur the involvement of political checks and balances, but due to the structure of Republican Primaries and financial frontrunning in primary campaigning, the opportunity for Trump’s success as an outsider was not rightfully controlled or questioned when it came to the actual institutions, donors, and process. From this perspective, the lack of power-checking during the Senate Impeachment Trial was not where the root problem in disregarding democratic norms arose. Levitsky argues that the openness in the initial primaries is dangerous and gatekeepers such as donors, endorsers, and political elites who are well versed on the importance of democracy are necessary. Less democracy initially saves potential backsliding from occurring later on, as recognized by your acknowledgement of Nancy Bermeo’s Executive Aggrandizement. Although others, such as Page and Gilens, may argue that the public is well-informed and educated enough as an overall population, an eye for and education in political theory is what is truly needed to preserve democracy, as seen by Trump’s wide success in the early primaries. I don’t believe that any uneducated member of the American population should be tasked with distinguishing between politicians truly working in the best interest of a social class and regurgitating talking points to pull the emotional levers of potential supporters.
Although you mentioned that there was pre-election unease about Donald Trump, using Marco Rubio as an example, there was actually distrust in the GOP that continued many months into his early presidency. For example, Republicans in high power including Paul Ryan, Jeff Flake and Mitch McConnell had high levels of conflict with Trump regarding his lack of interest in policy and lack of eloquence regarding John McCain and the Charlottesville display of violence. This brings us to Trump’s third populist checkmark: Supporting Violence or not Outrightly Condemning it.
Arizona senators Flake and McCain were the first to face the wrath of a president campaigning after his election. Trump held a rally in Arizona and dragged their names through the mud, while tastefully commenting on his way of addressing the situation as “very presidential, isn’t it?” Not long after this, three dozen Republicans in Congress decided not to run for re-election, a record number of retirees. The congress people who voted in the impeachment trial were not those who started out in power during the Trump presidency, as I believe your article suggested. The new generation of Republicans in Congress are those (except for Romney) who chose to give into the pressures of populism. This was paired with administration members such as McConnell and Ryan becoming complacent due to the increased chances of re-election.
Under Sarah DeLang’s Coalition Theory, the public success that Trump fortified was accomplished through the Minimal Winning Coalition. Republicans wanted the office, and Trump had better knowledge than anyone of business, relationships, and getting what he wanted. By choosing Donald Trump as their leader, the Republican party endorsed a shift to the political right and did nothing to prevent an electoral shift and alignment with the Radical Right Wing Populists. As the 2020 election approaches, it is imperative that the Democratic party recognizes that preserving American democracy is a greater priority than giving into the populist agenda and further polarizing our political parties.
Although there was no support for preserving democracy and acting in the interest of the Constitution during the time of the Impeachment Trial, this was no surprise in the setting of America’s current political climate. As discussed in this response, the result of the Senate vote was decided long before Trump was even elected; as soon as political parties begin to put power over policy and chose to achieve this through aligning with Radical groups, democratic backsliding was never far from developing.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy.
Lange, Sarah L. De. “New Alliances: Why Mainstream Parties Govern with Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties.” Political Studies
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
Page, Benjamin I. Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. Univ of Chicago Press, 2020.
“Chapter 1-4.” What Is Populism?, by Müller Jan-Werner, 2017.