Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
Democracy is bigger than partisanship. Therefore, this is not a critique of Trump’s policy proposals. Rather, it’s a sober assessment of American democracy at a pivotal moment — and a call for Americans of all political stripes to press all politicians to agree, at minimum, on preserving the bedrock principles that make the United States a democracy.
The call is urgent. In just 50 days, Trump’s presidency has already threatened American democracy in six fundamental ways:
1. Trump has attacked the integrity of voting, the foundation of all democratic systems. Without any evidence, Trump has repeatedly claimed that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. This claim is not true. Every serious study that has assessed voter fraud, including studies conducted by Republican presidents, has concluded that the scale of the problem is negligible.
Nonetheless, on his sixth day in office, Trump called for a major investigation into voter fraud — now largely forgotten by many Americans. Unfortunately, his assertion has not been forgotten by a large swath of Trump’s base. Tens of millions likely now believe Trump’s claim — which will certainly prove an important “alternative fact” when, in the future, attempts are inevitably made to make it harder for certain Americans to vote.
2. After attacking the integrity of his own election, Trump has also undermined the credibility of his own office. Democracy will not function if Americans cannot be sure that the president’s claims are at least grounded in evidence-based reality. And yet, in just 50 days, Trump has made at least 194 false or misleading claims — an average of about four daily. (March 1 was the only day without one, so far.)
Recently, Trump’s early morning tweet-storm alleging that former president Barack Obama personally ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower has not been backed up by a shred of evidence. Key Republican senators and representatives have expressed their bafflement at the accusation. Yet there have been no consequences for the president baselessly accusing his predecessor of criminal action. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went so far as to chide reporters for asking questions about the wiretap claim, saying, “I think a lot of the things he says, I think you guys sometimes take literally.” How can democracy function when people can’t take the president literally?
3. Trump’s administration has repeatedly flouted ethics guidelines without consequence. When Trump failed to discipline Kellyanne Conway for brazenly giving a “commercial” for Ivanka Trump’s jewelry and clothing line, the Office of Government Ethics had to send an extraordinary letter reminding Trump that ethics rules apply to the executive branch. Trump has also failed to meaningfully separate himself from his business interests. Most recently, Trump received 38 lucrative trademarks from China, not just a likely violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause but also a benefit that will call into question whether Trump’s foreign policy will pursue what is best for the American people or what is best for his profits. That conflict of interest is precisely why democracies set ethics guidelines — and why it threatens democracy to violate them.
4. Trump has attacked the independent judiciary. When U.S. District Judge James Robart defied Trump’s travel ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge” and insinuated that he would lay blame for a terrorist attack squarely at the feet of the judiciary. Presidents routinely object to individual court decisions, but it threatens democracy to go one step further and demonize any judge that dares cross the president. After all, the judiciary is charged with upholding the law and the Constitution — not blindly affirming the president’s worldview.
5. Crucially, Trump has accelerated a long-term trend, prodding tens of millions of Americans to further lose faith in basic institutions of American government. Any experts in federal agencies are now the “deep state.” Trump’s team has begun suggesting that the nonpartisan, independent Congressional Budget Office — a trusted authority for Democrats and Republicans since 1974 — is simply a group of hacks. There is virtually no authority trusted by both Democrats and Republicans anymore. Instead, the opposing sides are all too inclined to view government as captured by evil partisans rather than disagreeing patriots. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) made this view explicit, recently calling for a “purge” of leftists from government in an astonishingly totalitarian tweet. Public trust is part of the lifeblood of democracy, and it is draining faster than ever.
6. Finally, Trump has attacked a cornerstone of every democracy: the free press. He has called legitimate media organizations “fake news” no fewer than 22 times on Twitter in the first 50 days — and many more times in speeches. Worse, Trump called the press the “enemy of the American People,” language that echoes Mao and Stalin rather than Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.
Trump only views the press as a legitimate player in American democracy insofar as it is willing to affirm his narrative. To Trump, negative polls are fake. Unfortunately, his attacks are working. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 81 percent of Republicans agree that the media is “the enemy of the American people.” Eighty-six percent of Republicans trust Trump to tell the truth rather than the media (up from 78 percent just two weeks earlier). Throughout history, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction has been a critical precursor to the breakdown of democracy and the creeping advance of authoritarianism.
Whether these six attacks are a deliberate long-term strategy to erode American democracy, or simply a political ploy to poison the electorate’s view against any anyone that is willing to defy the president, remains to be seen. Certainly, Trump is not fully to blame; he is capitalizing on long-term divisions and a long-term erosion of American institutions. But he has accelerated those trends.
The Constitution and checks and balances are not magical guardians. Documents don’t save democracy — people do. American democratic institutions are only as strong as those who fight for them in times of duress. This is one of those times, and this is just the beginning. It will be a long fight. To win it, Democrats and Republicans must set aside policy divides and unite in the defense of democracy.