The United States has the most durable, longest-lived democratic constitution in the world. It has withstood the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, two presidents’ impeachments, and one president’s resignation. Why then should anyone worry that American democracy could be threatened by the antics of an entertaining, oft-comical, reality-TV star turned President?
The answer lies in a deeper understanding of democracy than we usually follow. We generally put our faith in the U.S. Constitution—a marvel of political theory made practical. It has been fine-tuned with a couple of dozen amendments, but otherwise held steadfast for two hundred and thirty years. To this day, all federal officials and military officers take an oath to defend the Constitution. And that is considered sufficient to protect our democracy.
Yet the first great student of America’s democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in explaining to his European compatriots why American democracy not merely existed, but thrived, observed that this was not mainly due to America’s laws and institutions. Instead, he pointed to how Americans treated each other, and the expectations they held for their officials—their “manners and customs”—as the key to the survival of democracy in America.
Many countries have adopted constitutions modeled on those of the United States. Almost all the Latin American states that emerged in the nineteenth century did so, as did many African states. Even today, China and Russia have constitutions that promise many of the same political liberties as those found in the United States. The difference lay in the attitudes of leaders and people to those constitutions. Leaders argued that their main job was to speak for the people and preserve stability against enemies. People were willing to flatter and obey their rulers in return for small rewards and persecution of their enemies. That meant that in practice, none of the other states operated as real democracies in which the political liberties of citizens were fully protected and leaders were held accountable.
America’s triumph of democracy has always rested on the manners and customs of their leaders and people. Leaders, whatever their vices, would not exalt themselves above the law or persecute American citizens as enemies (unless they took to violence against the government.) People would always demand that leaders be held accountable for personal self-enrichment, or for behavior that was illegal, immoral and contrary to the spirit of the American ideal.
The peril that Donald Trump brings to American democracy is his frontal attack on those manners and customs.
As President, Trump has on many occasions asked for his justice department personnel to express loyalty to him personally, rather than to the U.S. Constitution. This in itself is a violation of the norms that uphold the roles of officers under that constitution. In addition, he has placed his children in high offices for which they had little preparation or qualifications (his son-in-law still has difficulty simply in accurately completing the paperwork required for high-level security clearance.) He and his daughter continue to benefit from businesses operated in their names while they serve in high office. Unlike all other recent Presidents, Trump has refused to release his tax returns, concealing from the people whether or not, and how much, he has personally benefited from the policies and tax laws he has promoted while in office, falsely maintaining that “nobody cares.”
When faced with unpleasant truths reported by the free media, Trump’s response is not to counter with facts, but to impugn the reported facts as “fake news” and offer “alternative facts,” often simply bald lies, instead. Whether tweeting out stories from marginal social media sites associated with fringe groups, or making up false accusations (e.g. that President Obama wire-tapped his phones), Trump acts as any good authoritarian leader naturally does: with a complete faith in his ability to have the people accept his lies and to reject other people’s truths.
In almost every action, Trump behaves as if he believes his main job is not to protect the Constitution, but instead to speak for “the people” and protect them from their “enemies”—carving out the classic role of an authoritarian leader. For Trump, these “enemies” are mainly immigrants, Muslims, countries that have trade surpluses with the U.S., and Democrats or moderate Republicans who criticize Trump. In recently labeling as “traitors” those members of Congress who did not react with enthusiasm to his applause lines, Trump reinforced his pattern of treating those who object to his actions as “enemies” who threaten the safety of all Americans.
Not only is Trump’s own conduct more typically authoritarian (self-serving and equating loyalty to himself with loyalty to the country) than democratic, Trump encourages anti-democratic behavior in the people. He has encouraged police officers to violate the rights of those arrested as suspects; he has encouraged violence against protestors and defended those who would violate the constitution in pursuit of enemies (the “many fine people” marching under Nazi flags in Charlottesville). He has advanced unconstitutional and discriminatory measures against those he labels dangerous “enemies” in his repeated efforts to restrict immigration, and attacked judges who found those measures unconstitutional.
Trump has even persuaded the entire GOP establishment to go along with his attacks on the integrity of the FBI and Justice department—the very institutions vital to upholding federal laws and holding himself and his associates accountable.
He has—so far without consequence—even fired the FBI Director under false pretenses, falsely impugning him for failing leadership and disarray within the FBI, and then later publicly admitting the firing was because Trump was unhappy with an investigation that targeted Trump appointees.
Whether it is exaggerating the size of his inaugural and State of the Union audiences, planning a giant military parade, exhorting his supporters to fire athletes who don’t salute the flag, lying about the dangers of immigrants, or seeking to undermine popular respect for government agencies and actors that do not support his actions, what Trump is doing is not harmless entertainment. In his own actions, and especially in persuading the GOP leadership and his followers to accept such actions as “normal,” Trump is laying the groundwork for habits of mind that undermine democracy and support dictatorship. All of these actions promote the idea that loyalty to Donald Trump is the highest value in politics, that loyalty to Trump is loyalty to the U.S.A., and therefore anyone disagreeing with or opposing his actions is an enemy of the people.
We last saw such behavior from a Senator—Joseph McCarthy—in the 1950s, when the “enemies” in the U.S. were communists. At least at that time, the U.S. was in a real cold war with communists abroad. Still, when McCarthy’s actions were recognized as threatening the values essential to American freedoms, he was called out and his conspiracy theories were restrained. Today, it is not a Senator, but a President (unsurprisingly, one who learned directly from one of McCarthy’s close associates), who is carrying out such attacks. And his enemies are not merely “communists,” but Democrats, Muslims, and America’s major trade partners. Meanwhile, the real enemies of freedom and democracy—dictators such as Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Sisi in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, and others—get no objections to their locking up journalists, imprisoning political opponents, and military aggression.
When will the GOP leadership stop flattering Trump and supporting his fanning of hatred toward key U.S. institutions and fellow Americans, in return for small rewards and persecution of their enemies? When will they call out his behavior as undermining the habits and manners that have been the critical support of American democracy and freedom for hundreds of years?
Unless they do so, America may follow the slow drift of other states that have allowed elected Presidents to cultivate personal loyalty and undermine their institutions of accountability. When that happens, despite the wonderful U.S. constitution, we will see our treasured liberties take flight, perhaps not to return.