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So much for the strength of our democracy

At the outset of the Trump administration, a discussion began about how our democracy would react to the new administration. This discussion was a reaction to several unique characteristics of President Donald Trump: his unwillingness to disclose his personal finances, his nonrelationship with truth, his enthusiastic embrace of racism and cruelty, and his complete lack of political and policy experience. Recognizing that we were in uncharted waters, some commentators opined that our institutions had been challenged before, and survived.

Neil Kraus

We were reminded of the Civil War, Great Depression, the fight for civil rights, and Watergate, among other events that tested the nation in critical ways. In each instance, American democracy survived. Thus we could sleep better at night, even as we watched the new president as he steadfastly refused to separate from his businesses, appointed his unqualified family to high-ranking positions, and dominated the daily news cycle with false and inflammatory claims. And the fact that the world’s leading democracy was being governed by the preferences of a distinct minority of the population was quickly forgotten.

Well, here we are, a year and a half later, and is it just me, or are our democratic institutions looking pretty feeble? Congress, led by the Republican Party, has refused to offer up even a token check on the president. So we hear predictable platitudes from Capitol Hill Republicans about how “President Trump has a unique style.” 

Republican leaders now openly carry water for the president and his cronies by repeating White House talking points like “It’s time to wrap up the Mueller investigation” and “The investigation has gone on long enough.” And watching House Republicans recently berate Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, demanding that he finish the Russia investigation – an investigation that has already produced 22 indictments and 5 guilty pleas – was beyond demoralizing. This display revealed total disregard for the rule of law among congressional Republicans. Meanwhile, the president insists he has the power to pardon himself. This is actually happening.

Within this context, prioritizing the defense of the nation against future attacks on our elections is nowhere in sight. Remember way back in 2016, when Sen. Ted Cruz told the truth about then-candidate Trump? Seems like a lifetime ago now. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, I suppose. Does anyone else recall President Barack Obama’s mortal sins, like attending Reverend Wright’s church, or giving American students a pep talk at the beginning of the school year?

Thus the first family’s use of the White House to increase its own wealth is going completely unchecked. While the emoluments clause case is in federal court, don’t hold your breath that anything significant will come of it. Does anyone actually believe that a court is going to order the president to legally separate from his businesses? I can easily see the Supreme Court punting on ruling on the merits, as it does when it’s asked to declare a war unconstitutional. It’s a “political” question, we will likely be told. So the elected branches — as opposed to the courts, which are ostensibly apolitical — should work this out. But clearly the elected branches are incapable of working this out. And obviously the Constitution isn’t self-executing.

Thankfully, very little in terms of legislation is happening. But that’s just because of divisions within the Republican Party, not because of any shining democratic norms or adherence to rules, written or unwritten.

The Republican Party has hitched its wagon to a lying, corrupt, incompetent, openly racist president, and the only hope the nation has at this point is for the Democrats to win elections this fall and offer some sort of check on Trump. But I don’t want to bet the ranch that the Democrats will win both houses of Congress this fall, and it seems highly unlikely that a sitting president will be indicted. Given Capitol Hill Republicans’ complicity in all things Trump, unless the Democrats control both houses of Congress by huge majorities, impeachment and removal seem only a remote fantasy.

Finally, it is certainly not inconceivable that President Trump could win re-election with a repeat of his 46-ish percent of the vote, provided it is geographically dispersed enough to secure a majority in our 18th-century institution, the Electoral College. (Like a cockroach, this very undemocratic institution seems quite durable). And once Trump is re-elected, it will be official: The U.S. won’t be a democracy in the traditional sense any more. No more rule of law, accountability in government, and the firm separation of public service from wealth accumulation. These values, once sacred, taken as a given, will be antiquated. Ethics will officially be for losers. Facts and science will be seen as so 20th century. U.S. presidents palling around with dictators will be all in a day’s work.

And we will then realize that we patted ourselves on the back a little too much in early 2017. We will realize that our democracy wasn’t very strong at all. It couldn’t even survive a reality TV star who declared bankruptcy six times.

Neil Kraus is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.  He is the author of two books, including, most recently, “Majoritarian Cities: Policy Making and Inequality in Urban Politics,” and is currently writing a book about economic inequality and education policy. 


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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/11/2018 - 09:52 am.

    My 2¢

    It’s going to be “interesting.” With the current president insulting our geographic neighbors, not to mention European allies of half a century and more, while complimenting a somewhat diminished world power that was our sworn enemy over that same period, it seems plausible that, by presidential fiat, we might find ourselves increasingly aligned with Russia, and in contentious disagreement with countries in a NATO Alliance through which there has been mutual support for decades.

    Perhaps declaring Russia, after its proven hacking of the 2016 election, our “friend,” will finally stir the Republican Party to wake up to the demise of the very things people who like to call themselves “conservative” usually beat liberals over the head with. Having followed authoritarian instincts down the rabbit hole exemplified by the demagogue who is currently president, lulled into self-satisfied stupor by accumulated wealth and power, if and when the GOP wakes up, it may well be too late.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/11/2018 - 01:41 pm.

      I’m not hopeful

      After all, if they don’t go along with “the base”, they might not get re-elected! And that self-interested priority “trumps” everything else.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/11/2018 - 10:44 am.

    This sober analysis of what’s happening to American democracy under Trump puts a lump in my throat because I recognize its truth.

    “Frontline” last night ( Tuesday July 10) on PBS had an hour-long documentary on how Donald Trump has successfully taken over the Republican party since 2015 and most forcefully since his 2016 election; the pitiful “squeaks” from this or that Republican elected official in Washington about his many failings and transgressions are shown to be insignificant in the now-transactional political world of Trump: He will scratch the Republicans’ backs [tax cuts, destruction of government regulation of industry and business, restrictions on voting rights for certain demographics] if they kowtow to everything he does, and even publicly “suck up” to him in embarrassing rituals. “Frontline” summarizes for viewers Trump’s effective threats against Republican outliers who see him for the democracy-killer he is and oppose anything Trump.

    Implicit in Professor Kraus’s eloquent essay here is acceptance that the Fourth Estate–the press, or the media–is impotent to help salvage our democracy, now that neither Congress nor the federal court system have the independence or the will to check Trump Executive Branch outrages.

    God bless Amerika.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/11/2018 - 11:43 am.

    Not a word of believability comes out of Trump’s mouth.

    Having a president that you can’t trust a word he says is uncomfortable. The Trump administration is chaos and he is the king of chaos and self-inflicted wounds. Nothing gets done to completion. If he fails, which is often, he just moves on to the next project destined for failure. The problem isn’t that Trump is a sick man. The problem is how many sick people are following a sick man’s lead. The President’s sickness is being looked at by some in the public as authorization for them to also speak in unbecoming language using racist, bigoted, misogynistic, and xenophobic terms, just as Trump does.
    A total disrespect and distrust of our institutions and media by Trump is causing long term damage to our democracy. It won’t go away just because Trump goes away. The others that feel emboldened now to do the same will continue. Because Trump is a racist and a xenophobe he wants you to hate everyone as much as he hates them. Trump’s base are the only ones falling for it. Trump is a very weak individual that uses bluster and chaos to hide his weakness. Trump’s base is just as weak because they are letting an ill individual, Trump, think for them. You can see Trump being played by Putin, Kim Jong Un, and even our allied leaders. Trump’s extremely naïve thoughts on North Korea’s compliance to denuclearize is very evident after the first negotiation meeting. North Korea’s assessment of the meeting was that it was regrettable that the US unilaterally thinks North Korea will denuclearize. Who is surprised by that response? I think it’s just Republicans. It is another case of false Republican “Mission Accomplished”.
    Conservatives are leaving the Republican Party in large numbers. Some are even requesting other voters to vote against the Republican Party to destroy it before it can be rebuilt. The Republican leadership is just as complicit as Trump is because they stand on the sideline trying to stay out of the way of Trump rather than leading the country to a better spot. Their silence equals complicity, authorization, and ignorance. This is not surprising, however, as conservatism has been leading the GOP down this path for nearly the past 40 years. The Republican mess that is Washington and the insanity of its actions or inactions is being broadcast around the world for all to laugh at.
    It seems to me that anyone running for President and Vice President should be required to pass a comprehensive psychological battery of tests to make sure a Trump-like person never has access to the White House again. Trump is proof that the President has too much power, especially when the Republican-led Congress is abdicating their equal power to the President. Who is the base that Trump works for? It appears the base is made of those willing to stroke Trump’s ego, relish his immature and inappropriate humor, and they don’t care about the future of America and the world stage. All for nothing in return. The Republican leadership of Congress is very weak and afraid of the President. They are afraid they will get one of his demeaning nicknames, which makes it hard to run for re-election. They continue to put party ahead of country and don’t deserve to be re-elected. Ironically, it is the Republicans telling the electorate to vote for the Democrats because not even they can stand their party.

    Our current hope is Mr. Mueller. The special investigator, Attorney General, and head of the Justice Department are Republicans and it is the Republicans that don’t trust Mr. Mueller is doing a fair job of investigating Trump. They are doing all they can to discredit his investigation. How ironic is that?

  4. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/11/2018 - 04:40 pm.

    Nothing to see here…

    The above article was a recap of the past two years. Anyone could have written it. Instead of stating what we already know, what does the author propose that the Democratic party should do?

    Given enough of these articles, Trump will win another election and Democrats will have four more years of pointing fingers at those darned pesky Republicans when Democrats should be focusing on themselves and the future of our country.

    The last sentence of the article was condescending to our democracy. The author takes the short-term view in order to paint a dour picture, but our democracy, with all of its imperfections, continues to lead the world.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/11/2018 - 05:17 pm.

      A start

      Well, the DNC just voted to reduce the power and influence of superdelegates. They won’t be allowed to vote “on the first ballot during the party’s presidential nominating convention, ‘unless a candidate has already earned enough pledged delegate votes from state primaries and caucuses to win the nomination.'”

      I guess it’s a start . . . . . . . . .

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/12/2018 - 08:00 am.


      Mr. Wallin, how do you define “leading the world”?

      I’m thinking there are many metrics for that. We could measure that as access to personal fire arms, turn out in national elections, access to healthcare, life expectancy, GDP per citizen, GDP per worker, average income per person/worker, median income per person/worker, rates of poverty; I could go on.

      But in what way do you see us leading the world? And perhaps just as importantly, in what areas do you see us as in need of improvement?

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/12/2018 - 04:50 pm.

        … tried to keep it short …

        Per the subject of the article, our system of democracy is copied all over the world. People keep talking about what Trump is tweeting and saying, but he remains confined by our system of government.

        Yes, he is talking about stemming immigration, but he simply overturned an executive order, which is not law. He cannot build his wall. He is changing the way children are treated at the border. He wishes the Russia investigation to end. He is not getting his way on many issues. Why? Because of politics and the rule of law.

        Our system can overcome any one person, yet we keep concentrating on this one person.

        We are at a time where Republicans control the House, Senate, and Presidency. When this changes in the fall, people will say that more Democrats were elected because Trump is such a bad president, but such shifts are standard-fare as mid-term elections favor the party opposite the president. This happened to Obama as well. This is all a sign of a healthy democracy.

        This is how a good democracy works. We see one party going too far, we vote the other way. Trump getting elected does not indicate that anything is wrong with our system, it reflects a desire for a different result.

        When you ask what needs improvement, above anything else, it is you and I. Look at the derogatory terms used to describe Republicans and Trump in the comment sections of MinnPost. The same types of comments are found on Republican blogs, etc. We hate each other. We publicly say that we could not possibly talk to this or that person because he or she believes what we don’t. What a mess. No one gets that they are the problem. Our society is more polarized than ever before. I have studied it and have seen graph after graph after graph showing the polarization.

        Here is a good starting point (Pew Research center):

        The MinnPost article above seems to indicate that one person, our president, is the problem. But from the YouTube video, it becomes apparent that it is our society. Together, we are strong, and can build a better world. We just have to learn to work together.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/14/2018 - 11:30 am.

          We Have Not Been Copied

          No other democracy has copied pour electoral college, not even close. No other constitution is as difficult to amend as ours is. No nation has emulated the manner in which less populated states have such an out sized influence, which occurs in the House, the Senate, and the electoral college. No other nation has staggered term for the lower legislative body, the upper legislative body, and president.

          Now, you may or may not like our system and think it’s the best. But copied by around the world? Not even close.

          If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as much as e may fancy ourselves, ain’t nobody flattering us.

          • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/16/2018 - 12:09 am.

            Nazis ans moving forward…

            Ah, yes, the cherry-picking begins. Referring back to my initial comment, you are doing what the author of the above article did. You made a nice list of negatives, yet you provide no forward movement. Forward movement is what is lacking from the Democrats. (btw, our Constitution has been used by other countries. It has helped them move forward.)

            I mean, even as I write, I see a comment below comparing Republicans to the Nazis. What is that supposed to accomplish? It divides, it accomplishes nothing, and it brings everyone down a notch.

            • Submitted by Matt Haas on 07/17/2018 - 09:49 pm.

              What then?

              If a person or group of persons hews toward an ideology that smacks of the tenets of fascism, what SHOULD we call them? Nazism existed, it’s a real thing, and was about far more than the genocide of Jews, communists, gays, and Roma. If we see that a segment of the population is trending toward similar path, what would you do, ignore it? Pretend that history does not repeat itself? Civility in the face of barbarism is nothing more than an invitation for that barbarism to fester and expand. The forward motion you are looking for cannot occur until the regression has been halted.

              • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/18/2018 - 08:52 am.


                I would point out Nazis STILL exist… IN THIS COUNTRY and we have a president to refuses to condemn them and their violence. That’s a documented fact… we have a POTUS who is literally a Nazi sympathizer. And Republicans literally have a Nazi on their congressional ballot in IL. So yeah, we’re not comparing them to Nazis… they ARE Nazis.

                • Submitted by Matt Haas on 07/18/2018 - 01:21 pm.

                  Yes, yes

                  I was merely referencing our supposedly “civil” friend here, who was most assuredly NOT including those groups, in his denouncement of the labeling of today’s fascist movement as Nazis. Historical Nazism has apparently been made off limits as a referential descriptor as its “too extreme” a criticism, despite it being an apt one. Calling fascists what they are might hurt their feelings after all.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/11/2018 - 05:41 pm.

    Au contraire, Ray! Trump wants us all to take the short-term view–his daily tweet storms, outbursts to reporters, or sullking bout at G7 and NATO meetings of our allies–so we don’t see the autocratic forest for his jam-packed trees.

    This author takes the long view, and it is scary. All we can do is elect a Democratic Congress this fall. We must elect it.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 07/12/2018 - 08:49 am.

    I can only speak for myself but

    weaponizing our Federal Government for political use scares me more than offending NATO. Using the IRS to target political foes is scary, Trump renegotiating NAFTA is not. Top officials inside the FBI claiming to have the capability of stopping a Presidential candidate scares me, strong borders don’t. Having a sitting AG (Holder) being held in contempt for lying to Congress (which has congressional oversight) and having nothing happen scares me, tax cuts don’t. Using the EPA to legislate through litigation really scares me, declaring war on MS-13 doesn’t.
    If we can survive the past few decades we will survive Trump.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/12/2018 - 09:45 am.

      I Am Concerned About

      A presidential candidate who’s campaign abetted the meddling of a hostile foreign power in an American election. And now in office, that same candidate now president fiddles while that same hostile foreign power meddles in our current elections.

      Because it suits his purposes, Don Trump denies what the nations spy agencies & the GOP run House & Senate Intelligence committees all know to be the truth, that Putin’s trolls are disrupting our democracy. This all patriots should be very concer.ned about

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2018 - 08:42 am.

    This didn’t start with Trump

    The Republican challenge to our “democracy” really began earnest under Reagan, Trump didn’t spring out of nowhere. You can draw a straight line from Reagan to Gingrich, Bush II, McCain/Palin right to Trump. And of course there was Nixon.

    Serious challenges to Democratic institutions almost always emerge from the Right for a variety of reasons suffice to say that Trump personifies the core conservative mindset (he just does it openly). In the end the Reason so many Republicans have fallen in line with Trump is that they simply find so little to take issue with at the end of the day. He’s doing what they’ve always wanted to do, and he’s saying what they’ve always thought out loud.

    Progressives have recognized this reality and danger for decades and we’ve been sounding the alarm, but liberals have been complacent and Democrats have sat on their hands pretending it’s just normal politics. I many ways American liberals sank into what could only be described as a form of collective denial. With the exception of gay rights every liberal initiative from labor rights to women’s rights and living wages has been stalled or even rolled back for decades. Whenever Democrats got into power in a serious way they rolled back their own agendas instead of rolling back Republican agenda’s (out of fear of “over-reach”) so the net effect has been decades of antidemocratic drift to the Right.

    It’s vitally important to understand that to the extent Trump represents a threat to our democracy, that threat isn’t JUST Trump, “Trump” has been in the making for decades. Just look at all the other Republicans that were trying to get on that ballot. Which one was the “reasonable” one? Ben Carson? The guy who couldn’t remember which all of the government agencies he wanted to abolish?

    And I hate to say it but at a critical juncture when we needed to keep Trump out of the White House Democrats blew it by putting a catastrophically bad candidate on the ballot.

    I’d say our democracy is in crises, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump will more than a really bad POTUS. If we focus on Trump rather than the constellation of issues that brought Trump into power our democracy is remain in peril until it collapses. I know that’s not a comfortable thing to think about, but American liberals need to leave their comfort zones and step away from their denial.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2018 - 09:03 am.

    Brings to mind a twitter quote about Nazis

    There’s a twitter personality who goes by the name of: “Julius Goat”. As look at this article and the comment thread one a quote from his springs to mind:

    “Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi Party, not because they hated Jews, but because out of a hope for restored patriotism,or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed.

    That word is: “Nazi”. Nobody cares about their motives anymore.

    They joined what they joined. They lent their support and their moral approval. And, in so doing, they bound themselves to everything that came after. Who cares any more what particular knot they used in the binding?”

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