America has long been thought of by much of the world, and certainly by Americans, as the highest example of liberal democracy, a state governed by its people with overriding emphasis on individual rights and liberties. However, in “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy”, Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg tell us that American democracy is facing a “plural array of corroding crosscurrents,” brought about by cultural, economic and political factors (p.5). This essay is concerned with some of the political factors noted by the authors and with how President Donald Trump and his administration exhibit precisely the types of behaviors about which they warn.
Huq and Ginsburg posit five pathways to democratic erosion. The one which concerns us they refer to as “degrading the public sphere.” By this they are referring to an administration’s attempting to constrain a free press as well as to abandon truth as a standard (p.64). This degradation also takes the form of attacking political rivals.
Since Donald Trump became president, he has continually attacked the press. He calls any news stories not complimentary of him “fake news.” He has attempted to ban individual reporters from the White House. The president has formed such a symbiotic relationship with the opinion side of Fox News that it is almost impossible to tell where the opinions of Fox hosts end and the policy decisions of the Trump administration begin. In the first three full years of his presidency, according to The Washington Post, Mr. Trump told 16,241 lies or misleading statements, with no signs of slowing down. He regularly refers to the mainstream press as an “enemy of the people,” and has not-so-tacitly encouraged violence against members of the press by his hard-core followers at campaign rallies and speeches. At these same rallies and appearances, beginning during his 2016 campaign and continuing to the present, Mr. Trump has many times been seen smiling and nodding and basking in the glory of thousands of people chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!,” referring to his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. These are not behaviors designed to strengthen our democracy.
President Trump’s anti-democratic behavior may also be seen in the rhetoric he uses in referring to his political opponents and rivals, or to those he perceives as such. That phrase “enemy of the people” is also frequently bandied about by the president when he talks about his political adversaries. He has used words such as “horrible, terrible, lazy, dishonest, short, slow, stupid, low-IQ,” and has referred to House Democrat Adam Schiff as “shifty” and “pencil-neck.” Mr. Trump is so averse to any kind of criticism or oversight that the smallest hint of either will make an enemy for life of the person doing it. These behaviors are direct challenges to the authority and legitimacy of those he demeans. The Constitution expressly gives to the Congress powers of presidential oversight and Donald Trump seems to believe that these powers simply do not exist.
Another sign of democratic erosion is when the head of state ceases to rely on the knowledge and expertise of the bureaucrats in her employ, and replaces those she can with officials who are pliable for her use. In their book “How Democracies Die” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use the analogy of a soccer game to describe how autocratic-leaning leaders amass power. These autocrats-to-be must “capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players, and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage…” (p.78). By capturing the referees the authors refer to the leader’s getting rid of apolitical officials and replacing them with one’s amenable to her control and agenda (78).
Donald Trump has proven to be a master at this chipping away at the bricks in the wall of democracy. He has appointed untold numbers of inexpert loyalists to positions of responsibility in departments that have highly technical functions. Examples include Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with no expertise in housing policy or in running a large organization, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Gordon Sondland as ambassador to the European Union; Mr. Sondland’s claim to fame is that he donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. In many cases, the Trump administration has simply not filled positions of responsibility at all. Mr. Trump’s being essentially a non-reader, and his lack of interest in policy details and the day-to-day arcana of governing perfectly align him with the anti-elitist populism which animates his base. These are not attitudes or actions designed to strengthen our democracy.
We Americans like to think of our democracy as indestructible and everlasting, and it is still one of the most resilient in the world; and, the truth is that it is very unlikely that our system of government will simply collapse one day. However, as Huq and Ginsburg would have it, what they refer to as “constitutional retrogression,” (p.1) or, the gradual undermining of the norms of democratic governance, could, even in an old, established democracy like ours, occur. President Donald Trump has an egotistical unwillingness to take advice, a seemingly pathological aversion to criticism, an utter disregard for knowledge and truth and an ignorance of, and inability to learn, the norms of decorum, civility and common sense. As these are fundamental underpinnings of democratic life, it can be reasonably concluded that President Trump and his administration are responsible for a decided erosion of American democracy.
Huq, Aziz and Tom Ginsburg. 2018. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law
Review (65): pp. 1-76.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “How Democracies Die.” New York: Crown. Ch. 4.