Trump’s presidency has been questioned by many since the beginning. However, it is the recent impeachment trial that has forced more and more people to ask the question if democracy is being threatened and if America is starting to experience democratic backsliding.
Democratic backsliding is the decline in the quality of democracy, which some of the characteristics that define backsliding, have been demonstrated since the beginning of Trump’s election which eventually led to his impeachment trial (Lust,2015). Despite people from Trump’s own party speaking against him and a slew of evidence, impeachment is still a broken process which is why it failed in this case. How it was designed was outlined in the early days of the constitution. The process was supposed to be that the House brings impeachment, but it is the senate that decides whether to convict and remove. It was written that impeachment does not have to be only considered if a crime is committed but also if it “relates chiefly to injuries done “immediately to the society itself” (Taylor,2019). Even “legal” acts, such as repeatedly asking the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, can injure a society. This was the incident that led the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi to announce the start of an official impeachment inquiry on the account of an abuse of power and violating the oath of office. Trump used the power of presidency to pressure foreign government to investigate domestic political rivals and it was time for him to face the consequences. Trump’s actions demonstrated one of the most fundamental characteristics of democratic backsliding which is “changes that negatively affect competitive elections, liberties, and accountability (Lust,2015).”
Despite the trial not being as effective as many would have hoped, since Trump is still vying for a re-election, there are still some positives that came out of it. Impeachment is a process that can help provide information that the general public may not have had access to before, which will enable people to make a more informed decision when deciding whether to re-elect Trump. Despite being indicted, he is one of only four presidents in American history to refuse to step down, which can still severely affect his likelihood of re-election due to public approval rates decreasing.
For many, it is surprising that correspondence with Ukraine is what brought Trump to trial because he has been suspiciously involved with foreign allies for a while. In 2016, Russia was involved in helping Trump win the election and his actions since, such as praising Putin and undermining NATO have made American politics extremely polarized. These actions have caused people to call in to question the safety of the US democracy against backsliding because it opened up America to foreign corruption and reveals a lack of accountability on Trump’s part. Democracy requires the act of the participation of the people which means being active and speaking out, recognizing that leaders are not above the law.
Another early warning sign of democratic backsliding is a leader imposing tighter restrictions on press freedoms, something that Trump consistently attempts to do. Not only does he call the press the enemy of the people, but he believes he is above the law, and constantly polarizing people in the US based on their differences by recognizing rights of some groups of people (citizens) over others (immigrants), contributing to the reduction of freedom of speech. Even briefly after he was elected back in 2016, Trump tweeted “nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” This mindset is one typically seen in more authoritarian regimes. Democratic backsliding normally occurs within democracies, and while America is not authoritarian, some characteristics such as finding a scapegoat for the problems of a country, are indicative that backsliding is more likely than one may think. As an extreme comparison, Hitler blamed Jewish people for Europe’s issues and Trump blames Mexican immigrants. Authoritarian leaders identify themselves with one group to isolate people who disagree with him which is something that could be seen in Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” by keeping Mexican people out. His attitudes towards freedom of speech and the role of the media are concerning and act as red flags that democratic backsliding may be occurring.
In addition to this, Dahl outlines some of the key requirements for a regime to be considered a democracy, some of which are freedom of expression, right of political leaders to compete for support, and free and fair elections (Dahl,3). During Trump’s term, all these democratic characteristics have been called into question. America has been experiencing the early stages of democratic backsliding throughout Trump’s term however in this case, it can be easily reversed. With the upcoming election, there is still hope and as long as citizens still have the right to vote and are eligible for public office, and access to alternative sources of information then the people still have the power and democracy will remain intact.
This was an interesting argument on democratic backsliding and how it is prevalent in U.S politics. The blog post argues how President Trump’s tweeting and statements have deemed his presidency to more of an authoritarian regime. This take on his statements is aggressive but understandable. Although, President Trump can tweet out or say whatever he needs to to push his agenda, his words still has consequences. Based on the aggressive approach Trump is taking in fighting on people who burn who American flags or do anything he does not like for that matter, can equate to leaning more towards an authoritarian regime.
After reading your blog post, I was able to understand the negative perception on Donald Trump’s presidential term and the potential threat of democratic backsliding occurring in the United States. As a sitting President, Donald Trump has abused his authority by spewing negativity in his speeches and refusing to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. I found your points on the impeachment trial interesting because the threat of impeachment can hold him accountable. Also, comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler demonstrated that his conduct as President can be considered authoritarian.
What a fascinating argument you made about democratic backsliding and how it is showing an increased presence in the current presidential term. I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis on Democratic backsliding and how it pertains to our current political climate. I believe one of the main reasons why we see an increase in democratic backsliding in this current political term is because of the tools available to the president, such as executive orders, which he can use “if congress is blocking his agenda.” So, in theory, the president can circumvent Congress and rule on his own. This problem comes down to the laziness of Congress and their lack of ambition; Congress can check the executive, but yet we rarely see that, and that’s because Congress just doesn’t care anymore especially. After all, partisanship is increasing at a substantial rate. It’s party vs. party, and it continues to get worse.
Next, because of Congress’s inaction and as stated in the article “Congress is weak because it wants to be” by Yuval Lenin, we see a “shortage of ambition” by members of Congress. We may see a rise in what Nancy Bermeo of Princeton University discussed in her 2016 article on democratic backsliding called Executive aggrandizement, which is when an authoritarian executive branch of a government legally weakens the checks set on the executive branch. Executive aggrandizement makes the power of the judicial branch and legislative branch weaker while the executive branch increases in strength. We see this happening currently President trump has Major support in the senate because it has a Republican majority, this, in turn, makes it easier for Trump to get his agenda passed without little opposition, of course, he has to worry about the house. Still, let’s face it the house is weak in comparison to the senate so they can try to impeach him or to derail his plan, but in the end, it is like a filibuster, only prolonging the inevitable.
In conclusion, if we want to stop democratic backsliding, then Congress must get its act together. If President Trump or any president continues to have powers that let them rule with impunity, then democracy has genuinely eroded. That is why I believe that we will continue to see an increase in executive aggrandizement. We as a nation must not allow this to happen; the government should be checked, and we shouldn’t let presidents promote cutting off aid to a country just because they want to investigate a political rival. If democracy continues to backslide and erode, I fear there will be future president’s that have even more power than what Trump currently has.
First of all, I would like to thank you Erica, for an excellent analysis of democratic backsliding for the purpose of demonstrating that a careful examination of the executive branch allows great insight into the strength of a democracy. Your post is focused on two crucial aspects of Trump’s behavior: his actions leading to impeachment and his relationship with the press. I would like to elaborate on both points to further emphasize the importance of what you stated.
Former President Trump can be analyzed not only as a person, but as a symbol. Professors from John Hopkins, Cornell, and Swarthmore, published the work “Trumpism and American Democracy,” to show just that. Liberman, Robert C, et al., argue that to analyze democratic backsliding, we must look past Trump as a person, and look to a historical and comparative perspective on American politics to see what he represents: a polarized, two party presidentialism, a divided electorate in more ways than one (simply look to economic and social inequality), and an erosion of democratic norms by the elite population. Trump’s open derision of these norms are a symptom of how these three sectors of American politics interact. One of the most obvious ways that Trump derided core institutions is by his blatant disrespect for them. The press is claimed to be “fake,” the elections “stolen,” and his opposition (ie, the democrats) “evil.” Liberman et al., cite the “doubtless safeguards” that are present, namely the Constitution and traditional norms, but Trump has openly found ways to circumvent this supreme document. A poignant example of this is the Emoluments Clauses of the United States Constitution. This clause was written by the Founding Fathers for the purpose of preventing corruption in government by prohibiting federal officers from taking advantage of their power and accepting monetary gain. While we don’t know if there was a payment exchanged on behalf of the relationship between Goya and Trump, we do know that Trump was posing in the Oval Office with Goya products in the form of an endorsement. No president in the history of American politics has been seen endorsing products in the Oval Office while being a sitting president. This is a clear violation of norms and possibly the Constitution. While this did not get Trump impeached, I think this action demonstrates how he views his platform as president.
Additionally, democratic backsliding is visible in the appointees Trump decided to choose, and effectively, the amount of people who were fired/ quit servicing his administration. The norm regarding officials at the White House is that each individual is highly qualified and experienced for the job they earned. While the replacement of public appointees is normal within rotations between presidents, Trump attempted to disassemble these institutions from within by removing those with expertise in their field. He employed mass clientelism which can be used to inconspicuously breach the emoluments clause in the United States Constitution (Article 1 Section 6 Clause 2, Article 1 Section 9 Clause 8, and Article 2 Section 1 Clause 7) because they either provide material (bribes, govt contract) or immaterial (social mobility) benefits to those who are employed, yet not qualified. This can be seen in Trump’s appointments of family members such as Ivanka and Jared.
In regards to your point on Trump’s relationship with the press, you rightfully point out that he has made the press seem like an enemy of the people. With Trump’s frequent use of social media during his presidency, his rhetoric, and the capital riot of January 6th, it is clear that communication can be weaponized and made even more powerful by dangerous demagogues. It is one thing to make baseless and harmful claims while no one listens and no one acts. However, when a leader employs weaponized rhetoric, as seen in the widespread use of ad baculum, the negative impacts permeate the social networks that citizens are embedded in; in other words, these words permeate the citizens’ very identity, creating an apocalyptic-like clash of values. Jennifer R. Mercieca articulates that “conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones and Donald Trump” employ rhetoric that clearly erode democracy. Their self-imposed image of being “leaders of the people” supports their narrative that the press fail to take into consideration what is best for “the people.” By publicly denouncing the press and committing themselves to what is “true,” these demagogue leaders, an example of such being Trump, are able to gain and retain power. The spread of “fake news” creates the illusion that the press is lying, and Trump is not. Some of the negative impacts of this have already materialized. The culmination of this can be seen in the disaffected citizen losing faith in the government and becoming more belligerent. When this happens, it takes more time, effort, and resources from the government to roll out programs and execute the actions it needs to in order to adequately respond to the electorate, while citizens grow more outraged and form organized resistance to the government. When government action increases and people grow even more disaffected, this is what has materialized in the mob that stormed the Capitol building, destroying a part of the integrity of our democratic institutions. An integral part of this analysis stems from the lack of trust and accountability that Trump’s presidency presented to the public.
I truly believe that while Trump’s actions violated the norms of the presidential office, it was a deviation. The democracy that we have is a gift that we must cherish. When it is taken for granted, we must act along the lines of democratic resilience and reestablish trust and transparency in office. Regardless of the political party of the president or their ideological agenda, it is of utmost importance that the executive not take advantage of their power.