On September 23, 2020, Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power in the event that he loses the 2020 election to Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The Trump Presidency has been plagued by several rather minor but increasingly substantial instances of democratic erosion and injustices––the inhumane locking of migrant children in cages, the forced payment of hush money to women with whom he allegedly had affairs, the obstruction of justice through Robert Mueller’s investigation on Russian interference, and his most recent antics regarding possible opposition to ceding power, to name a few. However, each of these actions have been undertaken with an unwavering confidence and staunch dismissal of that fact that any of the President’s actions could be anything other than ‘correct’. Trump’s veiled and incremental creep towards authoritarian tendencies under the guise of mostly procedural democracy evoke sentiments of constitutional retrogression. If a liberal constitutional democracy can be defined in three areas––a democratic electoral system with periodically free and fair elections and cessation of power, liberal rights to speech and press, and the rule of law––then the Trump presidency has caused incremental erosion to democracy in each of these areas.
As the election approaches, Trump has become noticeably worried about its outcome, and has begun to take measures that encroach on being undemocratic. The first example of this are his assails on the Postal Service beginning in late July and early August. Due to his opposition to mail-in voting, demonstrated by his repetitive and unsubstantiated claims that it is fraudulent, the President admitted that he opposed further funding to the USPS to make it more difficult to collect mail-in ballots. Additionally, the bizarre removal of USPS mailboxes and reduction in operating hours further substantiated these claims that the President attempted to engage in some form of voter suppression. Further, his carefully crafted rhetoric surrounding the illegitimacy of mail-in voting during a time when it is so crucial is worrisome; making unsupported claims about illegitimacy regarding voting before the election results are available seems to be laying the foundation for a contestation of the election should it not be in his favor.
In many definitions of procedural democracy, elections are not the only marker by which one can measure democracy. Other features essential to democracy can include freedom to form and join organizations, freedom of expression, the right to vote, universal eligibility for public office, the right of political leaders to compete for votes, and the availability of alternative sources of information. The ambiguity of fair elections constitutes one marker of democracy that may be endangered. Another notable marker that has begun to erode more and more over the course of the Trump presidency is the availability of alternative information and freedom of the press. There is simply not a non-partisan, unbiased source of information available to Americans. We have created media silos that disallow those on differing ends of the political spectrum from even existing in the same spheres of news. President Trump’s use of the “Fake News” claim whenever he is presented with a piece of––often accurate––information that he disagrees with further contributes to this polarization. Additionally, the President has often referred to the news media as “the enemy of the American people” and the “opposition party” to his administration, attacks that have been considered unprecedented even for an executive who often criticizes journalists. Delegitimizing the press and any other form of opposition in an attempt to silence them is both engaging in dangerous demagoguery, and eroding a very fundamental part of our democracy.
Trump has also continually exhibited a desire to centralize and politicize executive power. As of May 25, 2020, 415 members of his administration had either been dismissed or chose to resign. The reasoning behind this is two-fold: first, the President has made a point of firing anyone in his cabinet who demonstrates any level of dissent from or opposition to his opinions. Second, he has aimed to pack his administration not only with Republicans as most Presidents would do with their party, but with staunch supporters who are members of his inner loyalist circle, as well as with his own family members, much like dictators in autocratic governments. During the first Presidential Debate, Trump was corrected on a false claim using the words of his appointed FBI Director, and he was quick to condemn the words of his colleague as wrong without any basis for doing so. Trump has also been quick to blast his former Attorney Michael Cohen, who is currently serving a three year sentence in federal prison partly because of his willingness to lie on Trump’s behalf. During the debates, the President also dismissively referred to the Constitutional process of his Impeachment Trials as a “hoax”. Following these trials, he tweeted campaign slogans for elections several years beyond his term limits. I would argue that any President who refers to democratic processes of checks on power as illegitimate is contributing to the erosion of democracy. One major strategy of power centralization is the abuse of the power of appointment. In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nullified President Obama’s Supreme Court selection following Justice Scalia’s death, under the rationale that “It is a president’s constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate’s constitutional right to act as a check on the president and withhold its consent.” However, following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump was quick to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the SCOTUS, despite the ruling on the previous administration that an appointment this late in the term would be unconstitutional. This stealth authoritarianism in the area of judicial review threatens democratic erosion before our very eyes.
While four years ago, President Trump’s agenda seemed unconventional but not particularly threatening to American democracy, his presidency has incrementally transformed into one that’s often compared to that of world authoritarian and populist leaders such as Bolsenaro, Modi, and Erdogan. It is worth mentioning, also, that many of these leaders started out with loyal popular support. One of the major features of constitutional retrogression is that individual actions may be harmless, or at points even justified on a stand alone basis, yet it is their collective and simultaneous sum that poses a threat. Through his use of controversial actions and remarks regarding the upcoming election, assails on press and information, consolidation of his political supporters, and oppressive behavior toward his opposition, President Trump has contributed to the erosion of one of America’s greatest ideals: democracy. And the most threatening part of this backsliding is its stealth and subtlety; it is happening under our very noses, under the guise of America’s standard legal mechanisms, such that it is almost unrecognizable on a case by case basis. The implications of incremental changes in an administration are severe: erosion of partisan alternation, restriction of civil liberties, and movement toward the creation of a political monopoly. These consequences are the antithesis of American liberal democracy, and the 2020 election will determine whether our next president will contribute to the dissolution of these core constitutional facets, or aim to shift America back towards the democratic end of the democracy-autocracy continuum.
 Huq, Aziz and Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law Review 65(78): pp. 80-169.
 Huq and Ginsberg, 9.
 Dahl, Robert. 1972.Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
 Mercieca, Jennifer R. 2019.“Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.”Rhetoric Society Quarterly 49(3): pp. 264-279.
 Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.”Iowa Law Review100(4): pp.1673-1742.
 Huq and Ginsberg, 9.
 Varol, 1738.
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