One of the defining characteristics of Donald Trump’s presidency is the assumption that the majority of voters in America put him in office. This, of course, is not the case: Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, but Trump’s political rhetoric — that he represents majoritarian rule — has created a continuous crisis of legitimacy for Trump’s political agenda. Despite tweets and political pronouncements with phrases like “everyone” and “everybody” designed to promote the aura of legitimacy for his presidency, Trump’s political agenda is focused solely on maintaining his political base, a distinct minority of the American electorate.
According to the Gallup President Approval Ratings, Trump has averaged 39 percent approval ratings during his time in office. The average for presidents over the period 1938-2018 has been 53 percent. As Trump enters the third year of his presidency, he has become increasingly disconnected from the majority of the American population on a host of important domestic and foreign policy issues that will shape the 2020 election — like health care, immigration, the environment and America’s role in the global political arena. Trump’s hard-line position on the border wall that led to the government shutdown is a case in point. Sixty-two percent of Americans were opposed to setting off a government shutdown over a border wall, according to a Quinnipiac Poll in December 2018. A December 2018 NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist Poll found nearly 70 percent of Americans think building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is not an immediate priority for the new Congress.
Health care policy
One of the most important issues confronting Trump’s re-election prospects is health care policy. Republican pollster V. Lance Tarrance claims health care “may have been the key activator of a significant swing vote” in the midterm election. Gallup polls prior to the midterm election found only 36 percent of adults approved of Trump’s health care policy. Tarrance identified a faction of health care “swing voters” who approved of how Trump was running the economy but didn’t agree with his health care policies. Although this group makes up only 16 percent of the overall electorate, 48 percent were Republican or Republican-leaning. The majority of these Republican voters were male, had slightly higher earnings than Trump’s hard-core base, but were more politically moderate. Tarrance theorizes these “swing voters” could have helped Trump expand his base. However, Trump’s unwillingness to create policies to improve The Affordable Care Act or provide an alternative health care initiative drove them to Democratic candidates in the election.
Trump’s continuous degradation of political norms and civil discourse is concerning to many Americans. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their seminal work “How Democracies Die” have argued that Trump’s breaking of political norms has corroded democratic institutions. They note, “His continued norm violation has expanded the zone of acceptable presidential behavior, giving tactics that were once considered aberrant and inadmissible, such as lying, cheating, and bullying, a prominent place in politicians’ tool kits.” Such abuse of civility has not gone unnoticed by the American electorate. In a Pew poll undertaken in January-February of 2018, 54 percent of those surveyed said that Donald Trump “has not much or no respect for the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions.”
Trump and autocracy
Since the 2018 midterm election, Donald Trump continues to push extreme policies that cater to his 2016 electoral base. As he pushes forward a policy agenda designed to benefit political loyalists over the interests of the majority of Americans, Trump instigates a serious dereliction of democracy. The end result is a classic characteristic of authoritarianism — rule by a corrupt, self-serving oligarchy with Trump as its titular leader.
One of the principal tenets of Trumpism is an executive with absolute power in decision-making. Trump certainly has not been the first president to seek expansive powers. He is unique, however, for his infatuation (perhaps admiration) for autocrats and the consolidation of power they possess. An argument can be made that Trump sees autocratic leaders like Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as exemplars who accomplish their agendas and become transactional figures. Trump, however, must confront a variety of constitutional and institutional checks on the executive branch. Still, he continuously pushes the normative boundaries of presidential power.
As reported in Axios, Trump has become “enamored with the powers he can exercise … without the approval or consultation of anyone else.” Two types of power stand out: presidential pardons and executive orders, both of which allow Trump to avoid congressional approval. Trump’s unitary display of power is a form of governing Ohio State University legal scholar Peter M. Shane has called “presidentialism.” In his book “Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy,” Shane states that presidentialism is an “ethos of government” that ignores specific values that are critical to a functioning democracy: “the rule of law, respect for coequal branches, and divergent political outlooks.” In the world of autocrats, these institutional values become an inconvenience, a distraction, something to ignore and eventually contravene. This is the political world to which all autocrats aspire. It appears to be the world Donald Trump would like to create as president.
Democracy is messy. More than two centuries of democratic norms and institutions cannot be destroyed on a whim. The 2018 midterm election was the first step in a majoritarian pushback against the authoritarian impulses of Trumpism. A resurgent wave of liberalism has emerged through the power of the vote. If a complicit Republican Party will not restrain Trump’s autocratic impulses, the people will. His many missteps — Syria, the Wall, trade wars, kowtowing to Putin, attacking the chairman of the Federal Reserve, his assaults on the environment, his volatile and vile demeanor based on racism and misogyny — have conjoined to unite a grand coalition against the Trump presidency. A mid-November 2018 poll from Morning Consult shows majorities disapprove of his leadership in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the three Midwestern states that catapulted Trump into the presidency.
The 2020 election will ultimately be a verdict on the essence of democracy. As the campaign begins, the majority is flexing its collective political muscle to proclaim: Enough is enough.
Thomas J. Scott is a Twin Cities writer who analyzes international affairs, globalization, and education issues. He is a frequent contributor to Truthout, a nonprofit news organization, and an adjunct professor of world politics at Metro State University; his views are his own and do not reflect the position of the university.
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