Trump, Republicans, And The Future Of Our Democracy

Yesterday Yascha Mounk had an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Past Week Proves That Trump Is Destroying Our Democracy”. Mounk is also the co-author of an article in the Journal of Democracy entitled “The Danger of Deconsolidation” which describes the increasing dissatisfaction with democracy in developed countries around the world.

It is clear that Donald Trump has created a unique threat to American democracy, with his blatant disregard for political and governing norms, his lack of understanding and assault on the separation of powers, and brazen violations of law, essentially daring the other branches of government to try and rein him in. As Mounk says in the very first sentence of his op-ed, “America is on its way to a full-blown constitutional crisis”.

Mounk documents the attacks on the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, and Jeff Sessions and the trial balloon of the President pardoning himself. He cites the use of the Boy Scout Jamboree as a political rally, the encouragement of police to abuse those they arrest, despite the constitutional presumption of innocence, and the threats to indict Hillary Clinton. All of these occurred last week and all are direct attacks on our democracy.

Says Mounk, “This is worrying. The Constitution cannot defend itself. If Congress does not stand up to Mr. Trump because Republicans are afraid of their own base, the president may be able to obstruct the course of justice with impunity. Worse, he may then conclude that he can get away with violating even more basic limits on his power…And since nobody can say for sure that the Constitution will become toothless if congressional Republicans let yet another infraction pass, their instinct will be to defer their patriotic duty to some more opportune moment in the future. But that moment may never come. There may never be a time when we know for sure that this decision, today, will determine whether the American republic lives or dies.”

It is right and proper to take Republicans to task in the way they have handled Trump with kid gloves. And their unwillingness to vigorously and vociferously oppose Trump is, as Mounk says, clearly threatening our democracy. But it would have been more helpful if Mounk had also documented the over two-decade effort by the Republican party to attack the institutions and norms of our democracy. Starting with Reagan’s “government is the problem”, to Newt Gingrich’s assault on congressional norms, to the with hunt and bogus impeachment of Clinton, to stealing the 2000 election, to illegal gerrymandering and voting restirctions, to lying about the Iraq War, to Katrina, to the delegitimization of Obama, to Merrick Garland, the Republican party has transformed itself into a reactionary white nationalist party and has been a primary factor in creating what Mounk describes as “democracy deconsolidation” here in the US.

According to Mounk’s this trend of increasing loss of faith in democracy is not unique to the US. “Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.”

I have already written about Mounk’s findings that younger citizens across a wide range of countries are far less enamored with democracy and increasingly support other forms of government including authoritarian rule. Equally disturbing is the trend to not believe that many of the cores values of a democracy, such as civil rights or even fair elections, are even necessary. This is not just the ignorance of youth, as the study confirms the steady increase in these trends over time.

One might think that these trends might be a reflection of the disruption that globalization and automation has created in advanced Western economies. Younger people are seeing that their futures are far less secure and prosperous than the previous generations and are reacting accordingly. It might also include the prototypical white working class Trump voter as well. But one of the surprising results of Mounk’s study is that the trend is actually highest among the rich.

The people who have benefited the most from democratic expansion, globalization, and automation are increasingly less likely to support democracy. What they fear most of all is having their riches taken from them and given to those “undeserving”, in other words, the redistributive powers of democracy. As Mounk says, “with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.”

This finding, of course, tracks the transformation of the Republican party, and, to some extent, the Democratic party as well. As both parties came to rely on the rich, the wealthy, and corporations in order to fund elections campaigns while at the same time the power of unions were decreasing, the acceptability of anti-democratic actions became more and more acceptable in order to protect the parties’ benefactors.

Our democracy, as Trump has clearly illustrated, is far more fragile than we think. And with not only younger people but also the powerful wealthy increasingly unconcerned about the deconstruction of our democracy, the future of our democracy looks as grim as any period in my lifetime.

Originally published at on August 2, 2017.



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