In my lifetime, democracy has been heralded as the premier form of governance. The will of the individual in concert with others legislates their prerogatives. Historically, democracy has manifested in three separate but equal branches of government where power is distributed amongst the three. Almost all democracies ascribe a singular representative to govern over the executive functions of the country. Like a monarch, chief executives enact policy for the executive branch without any tedious committee hearings, votes, or politicking. Thankfully, the other branches of government provide a check and balance to overzealous chief executives who enact policies outside the boundaries of the executive branch. However, key institutional precepts such as checks and balance, and separation of powers are diminishing in power, while the chief executive’s powers are aggrandizing and subsequently going beyond the call of the constitution. As a result, singular rulers are supplanting democracy.
Around the world, strong democratic countries have been electing chief executives who have steered their government into authoritarian-Esque regimes (e.g., Bolsonaro in Brazil, Maduro in Venezuela, or Erdogan in Turkey.) Primarily, the inability of the electorate to discern the honorable politicians from entrenched bureaucrats in elections result in democracies reverting into tyranny. At home, President Donald Trump is considered a fascist, an invader of tradition, and everything wrong with politics. In contrast, others think of him as a messiah, the panacea to the Washington establishment, and the voice of the common man. Is President Donald Trump the shepherd or destroyer of democracy – a hero or a nero?
Shepherds of democracy navigate among the confines of constitutions, ensure the mandate of the people, and follow the rule of law. In the US, President Calvin Coolidge is synonymous with staying within the boundaries of democracy. During his Presidency, Coolidge did not use the executive branch to grow the size of government, nor undermine the powers of other federal branches of government. Coolidge followed what powers were explicitly delegated to him: appoint judges, set the budget, and (if needed) defend the sovereign. As a result, in the 1920s, the executive branch was seen as insignificant and the least consequential of the three federal branches. However, staying within the confines of the constitution does pose challenges for the chief executive.
President Jimmy Carter is often characterized as a good and honest man who always acquiesced to constitutional constraints. As a result, Carter’s presidency is thought of as inept, ineffectual, and a steward of economic and geo-political erosion for the US. The fast-changing climate of the world where oil prices, terrorism abroad, and run-away inflation overwhelmed the milquetoast Carter. Instead of taking an active role in shaping policy and ensuring US reverence on the world stage via executive order, bully pulpit, or just bending the rules, Carter bowed to Congress – the repository of squabbles and inaction. As a result, President Carter got lost reelection.
Conversely, destroyers of democracy scoff at tradition, desecrate norms, and abuse power. These transgressors use false pretexts to justify illegitimate actions. Without question, Donald Trump fits a destroyer of democracy more than a shepherd. Donald Trump has engaged in quid pro quos with foreign powers, has influenced judicial outcomes, and has negated the ability of legislative oversight. In a vacuum, President Donald Trump’s conduct spells out the end of democracy. However, Donald Trump is following the precedent of his predecessor.
Whether it is Obama or Bush, Clinton or Reagan, US Presidents have routinely violated the constitution. For example, President Obama launched a drone war in the Middle East, where American sympathizers of ISIS were killed. These citizens did not get a trial, jury, or any of the constitutional rights of the accused. President Bush signed campaign finance reform in 2002, even though he believed it violated the 1st amendment free speech right. President Clinton committed perjury. And President Reagan funneled hidden money to the Contras in Nicaragua, a power exclusively vested in the purse of the legislative branch. In short, history is replete with Presidents bending the rules to respond to the everchanging geo-socio-political environment of the world.
Therefore, Donald Trump is not the death knell to democracy. Donald Trump has acted in the same gradation as wrong as his predecessors. The sentiments by the media, the left, and political elites, which are fueled by a growing number of backsliding democracies worldwide, are not ill-founded but, under my estimation, are incorrect. Likewise, Kurt Weyland also finds the same conclusion in Populism’s Threat to Democracy: Trump’s behavior will not erode the constitution into an authoritarian regime.
Now, I am not excusing any of Donald Trump’s harmful behavior to the republic. But to suggest that Donald Trump is what Putin is to Russia is not true. Our bedrock constitution, which has survived the Civil War, pandemics, and financial crisis, will undoubtedly be able to survive an at-most two termed presidents.