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).