Since President Joe Biden’s Inauguration in January, many have speculated about the American ‘return to normalcy’ where his administration will aim to reverse many of the policies of former President Donald Trump. Although Biden has suggested America is “better than” the events of the last four years, the impact of Trump’s legacy has already undermined democracy in the United States. The implications of his time in office presents many challenges to the future of American democracy. Trumpism is all but going away, and reinforcing democratic norms and mitigating disinformation and violence should be a top priority for the current administration.
One mark of concern over a nation’s democracy is the rejection of democratic norms. Historically, some violations of norms, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s serving four terms in office, have been faced with stark criticism and Amendments to the Constitution. Norms often serve a more critical role in preserving democracy than formal rules do given the stark contrast between the modern world we live in and the one in which this country was founded. President Trump’s political rise in and of itself is unlike most of his predecessors- and resembles the rise of populist leaders worldwide. A short-list of Trump’s actions which broke presidential norms include: failing to release his tax returns, insulting allies, making excessive false claims, and dismissing scientists. These norms, more so than formal institutions, are responsible for ensuring the checks and balances the government relies on to function fairly, as concluded by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, How Democracies Die.
Most significant of President Trump’s defiance of political precedent was his neglect to concede the 2020 Presidential election. Following several official announcements that Joe Biden had secured enough electoral college votes to win, Trump behaved as if he had been re-elected. He even tweeted on November 16th, over a week after the election was called in favor of Biden, “I won the Election.” Although this sparked alarm, many warning signs were dismissed before this point.
Two unwritten agreements of American democracy are mutual toleration and forbearance. The former refers to the agreement to accept competitors’ rights to exist and govern as long as they abide by the Constitution while the latter refers to politician’s restraint and submission to institutional limits. During his tenure, President Trump operated with little forbearance, thus violating one of the most basic historic preservations of American democracy. To a certain extent, many Americans enforced the norm of mutual toleration in regards to the Trump presidency, although his two impeachments are a demonstration of attempting to hold the President accountable to violations of his Oath of Office.
Straying from traditions and sacred norms is just one piece of the chunk Trump and his followers has broken off of American democracy. Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign displayed a refusal to commit to a democratic electoral process and free and fair elections. Political theorist Robert Dahl emphasizes the necessity of fair and free elections as a key attribute of democracy. Regression from the typical process is a sign of democratic backsliding, not simply Trump’s determinism to be re-elected. The former President made many false claims regarding the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. Several Republican-led states, including Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi required residents to provide an excuse to request a mail-in ballot in the midst of a pandemic. Other obstacles voters faced included excessive wait times of up to 10 hours, the closest polls being up to an hour’s drive away, and ‘missing’ or damaged ballot boxes. While the United States also lacks universal suffrage and has strict identification measures for voting, voter suppression is nothing new here. However, modern democracies should be expanding voter rights, not restricting them. Moreover, restrictive voting measures signal a lower quality of democracy, one where the privileged are more likely to vote. The Trump campaign’s efforts to specifically target Democrats, who were more likely to vote by mail in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is an example of the third mechanism of stealth authoritarianism, according to author and law professor Ozan Varol. When the restrictions on voting shape who turns out to vote, there is not fair and balanced representation in government. This disenfranchisement is heightened by violence against Black, LGBTQ, and other oppressed Americans.
Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of a politician who ‘tolerates or encourages violence’. President Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, and the increase in hate crimes during his time in office demonstrate that violence against minorities is spreading. The Capitol riot on January 6th, 2021 further indicated that Trump and several other top Republican politicians are willing to incite violence to ignore the outcome of a democratic election. This poses a threat to democracy because violence comes out of instability and can decrease political legitimacy. A lack of cooperation with socio-political culture also signals trouble for a democracy. This event shook the nation, appearing to suddenly awaken the country to the threat Trumpism poses to our democracy.
The countless threats to democracy by Trump and the conservative movement at the moment should be heeded by the next administration. However, after strong condemnation of the attacks in January, the event has receded from the headlines. President Biden wants to move on, and most Democratic elected officials are primarily ignoring the events of the past four years. They are suggesting to the American people that the fight to preserve democracy is over now that Biden has been sworn in. The notion that democracy has been preserved by Biden’s election is naive because Trump and his follower’s violation of norms, inflammatory efforts to resist the election’s results, and violence affect how constituents view policy.
As much as Trumpism presents a substantial threat to democracy and peace in the United States, there is an argument that bolstering our democracy is not the top priority right now. The country just reached the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. Hospitals are overwhelmed, people are unemployed, and children are out of school. From the Biden administration’s perspective, they need to focus on getting the pandemic and the economy under control first. They want to reverse most of Trump’s policies and pursue their own healthcare, immigration, and foreign policy agendas first. When the nation needs unity more than ever, working to reign in the far-right could make President Biden seem unsympathetic to the magnitude of the times for all Americans.
However, this prioritization of a ‘return to normalcy’ fails to recognize the severity of the damage inflicted by Trump. The collective understanding of America’s problems was altered by Trump’s rhetoric and continues to impact the political landscape. “According to Trump, it is exports from China and the influx of migrants from Mexico that are at the heart of the problems encountered by white American workers and middle classes” says Öniş, in her article, The Age of Anxiety: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy in a Post-Hegemonic Global Order. People are receptive to this strategy because it articulates their fears and appears to offer a simple solution. Until this audience is assuaged of these fears, they will continue to support politicians willing to undermine democracy to achieve power. Politicians must work to mitigate the damage inflicted by the Trump administration not just through their policies but in their appeals to the people. Only when democracy is prioritized by the government, and Trumpism is purged from the GOP can we again have confidence in truly free, fair, and competitive elections.
Joshua Emmanuel Ramos
This is a well-written article. Crucially, it recognizes the role of different administrations in a democratic country, especially the ones which administrations whose chief executives had authoritarian tendencies. Democracy is about a myriad of things; not just about defeating Trump in an election. For all we know, the Republican Party might allow him to run again in 2024.
This foregrounds the importance of institutions in ensuring that politicians and leaders like Trump are held accountable for actions that sought to destroy or erode democracy. I, for one, was disappointed when President Biden appeared lukewarm (at least publicly) in ensuring that Trump is convicted by the Senate. While I recognize as valid his concern that convicting Trump would further divide the already deeply divided American nation, allowing him to go unpunished means that the US has an extremely able populist-autocrat on the run.
What happened in the US Capitol in January – which severely damaged American democracy – is a testament to how dangerous a mob is when led by a demagogue (who weaponizes rhetoric) in power. Not only did Trump incite violence, he also (1) failed to take steps to immediately quell the riots, (2) legitimized the violence by telling the perpetrators he loves them, and (3) denied any responsibility for what happened.
For the sake of recovering the deficiencies in a democracy that the US has incurred under Trump, the Senate, as an impeachment court, should have convicted Trump and penalized him. One significant way to “return to ‘democratic’ normalcy” is by making those who are previously unaccountable accountable.