First, he has undercut the integrity of U.S. elections. Trump falsely claimed that millions of people voted illegally last year. That’s not true. Every serious study into voter fraud has concluded that it is a minuscule problem. North Carolina conducted a vote audit for 2016, and found one case of in-person voter impersonation — out of millions of ballots cast. And yet tens of millions of Americans now wrongly believe that millions voted illegally. That is a serious challenge to public faith in the bedrock of American democracy.
Trump also actively solicited and took advantage of Russian meddling in U.S. elections. He invited Russia to hack and publish Hillary Clinton’s emails. He mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times in the final month of the campaign (Trump’s CIA director subsequently labeled WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service“). The hacking of the Democratic National Committee was a brazen cyberattack on U.S. democracy and yet Trump has consistently been an apologist who plays down the hack rather than working to ensure it never happens again. (By the way, there is still an active FBI investigation into whether he or his campaign colluded with Russia in that attack).
Second, he has attacked democratic institutions such as the free press and the independent judiciary. He has repeatedly dismissed credible, corroborated, truthful reporting as “fake news.” But Trump has also maligned judges in highly personal and reckless ways simply because they ruled against his administration. His White house claimed that some judges (who were simply doing their job) provided a “gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country.” He has called others “so-called judges” and claimed that it would be the fault of the courts if a terrorist attacked occurred during his presidency. This incendiary language is unacceptable and erodes public trust in checks and balances that are at the core of the U.S. democratic system.
Third, he has brazenly violated basic standards of transparency and government ethics. Democracy requires transparency. If citizens are not informed about the workings of their government, they cannot hold it accountable.
Just take his continuing refusal to release his tax returns — something that has been done by every presidential candidate since the 1970s. At first he used the extraordinarily flimsy excuse of an audit, but now he has even abandoned that fig leaf. Until Trump issues his tax returns, we don’t know whether he is governing for American interests or his bank account.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has announced that it won’t release White House visitor logs — so nobody can see who is coming and going to meet the president. Is there an endless stream of lobbyists? Or perhaps some high-profile foreign agents, like the ones he previously hired for his campaign? We have no clue, because Trump reversed an Obama-era policy to tell the American people who is coming to the taxpayer-funded White House.
This lack of transparency also bleeds into ethics violations and conflicts of interest that have gone unpunished — from using taxpayer dollars to promote Trump businesses to currying favor with foreign leaders apparently to receive lucrative trademarks abroad.
Fourth, Trump has hurt democracy abroad by leaving pro-democracy reformers out in the cold. When protesters took to the streets in Belarus and Russia demanding democratic reforms, Trump said nothing. That was a strategic mistake. These were protests in favor of democracy and against regimes that oppose the United States, so it should have been a no-brainer. Instead, Trump stayed silent as protesters were beaten in the streets. It was a missed opportunity and a gift to the forces that seek to undermine democratic reform abroad.
Fifth, Trump has endorsed and applauded dictators and despots, giving awful rulers a free pass to destroy democracy and violate human rights. He uncritically embraced President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt, a military dictator who routinely tortures dissidents. He called to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on winning a rigged referendum that dismantled democracy in a NATO member state. Those signals have certainly not been lost on authoritarian rulers around the world who recognize that Trump does not care about democracy or human rights abroad. As a result, a decade of decline for democracy around the world will almost certainly accelerate.
Donald Trump is a unique threat to democracy in a way that we haven’t experienced before. Initial fears may have been overblown, but it’s clear that he already is slowly but meaningfully eroding democracy at home and abroad. We must be vigilant. There are 1,361 days left.