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.
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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