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.