Lots of commentators, including yours truly, have been sounding the alarm that Donald Trump poses a threat to American democracy. Since I don’t like to repeat myself, I’m not going to re-state the case for viewing Trump as an aspiring autocrat. His disdain for the constraints that democracy places on his power is abundantly clear. I don’t think that Trump has any master plan for trashing American democracy, but I do believe that he will do everything he can to hamper the institutions that get in the way of his self-aggrandizement—an independent judiciary and law enforcement apparatus, independent, critical media, and the “deep state” (i.e., a civil service that in principle utilizes disinterested, non-partisan expertise to carry out governmental functions under the law). Trump’s opportunity for abuse would be less if another of the institutions that limit presidential power—Congress—could be relied upon to do its job. But the Republican Party, which controls Congress, is clearly disinclined to restrain Trump’s transgressions.
But how would it happen? How could Trump bring us from the admittedly imperfect democracy that we have now to one that is further markedly diminished?
We can rule out one theoretical possibility: Trump won’t pull off anything resembling a coup d’etat. Trump loves generals, but our military wouldn’t cooperate in such a foolhardy enterprise, which would encounter massive resistance around the country. (Even Republicans would resist.)
But anyway, coups d’etat are a disappearing phenomenon around the world; aspiring autocrats have found ways to gradually neutralize democratic safeguards without immediately cataclysmic violations of legality. It’s happened, for example, in Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Venezuela.
So, how might it happen here? Let’s use some imagination. Start with the unthinkable: Trump gets re-elected in 2020. That victory would almost surely be accompanied by continued Republican control of Congress and of most state legislatures across the country. One certain consequence of this calamity: the federal judiciary would be dominated for at least a generation by judges whose reverence for the Constitution takes a back seat to their fervor for the radical right-wing policy agenda that Trump has faithfully pursued.
I think a Trump re-election would also prompt a change in tone and even content in our mainstream media, which have been pretty good about chronicling Trumpian misbehavior. A re-elected Trump would enjoy a legitimacy that he was unable to get from the tainted election of 2016. There would be a powerful tendency, finally, to concede that the president after all is the president and that he deserves respect as such, even if he doesn’t. (And what use is there in pointing out, over and over again, that he lies a lot?) The media, anyway, are not invulnerable to political pressure. If Trump were re-elected with an obsequious Congress at his back, some of his preposterous twitter musings—like changing liability laws and using licensing to intimidate critical media outlets—might suddenly look plausible. The American Prospect’s Paul Starr notes that
Many newspapers and other publications have already been weakened financially as a result of diminished advertising and subscriptions; those financial pressures make them less capable of standing up to pressure. In addition, libel suits and hostile regulatory decisions can chill criticism, put independent media out of business, or drive their owners to sell out to companies that reliably support the government. (The suit bankrolled by Trump supporter Peter Thiel that shut down Gawker is an American example of the strategy.)
Starr also warns, “The independence of the civil service is only a matter of tradition, and if some agencies such as the FBI haven’t capitulated to Trump, it may just be a matter of time….”
A GOP sweep in 2020 would also enable the party to double down on its efforts at voter suppression and gerrymandering at the state level, efforts a sympathetic judiciary won’t hamper.
In short, we are looking at the prospect of one party—a party of the radical reactionary right–entrenching itself in power indefinitely by tilting the political playing field decisively in its favor.
So, I think Starr is correct to call our current situation a democratic emergency—an emergency that will continue as long as Trump is president. I strongly recommend his article, which concludes
Before we have a full-blown national crisis, we need a vivid sense of emergency about the danger American democracy now faces….[W]hat we need now is realism about the Constitution’s limits and all the political alarm we can muster. There is no counting on the courts, much less the Deep State, to save us. The fate of our democracy is going to depend above all on what Americans do to organize at every level of society and whether they show up at the polls and perhaps in the streets. This is democracy’s stress test, and we only have a limited amount of time to pass it.