The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to vaccinate U.S. democracy against Trump-style authoritarianism

Eudora Carter inserts her ballot into a drop-off voting box in Seattle on Aug. 2. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

President Trump is an existential threat to American democracy. He has infected our politics with authoritarian populism. Thankfully, his version of the disease is a weak one — he’s an unpopular, undisciplined president who alienates persuadable independent voters by disgracing the office he holds.

That’s good news for our democratic immune system. In the same way that cowpox can be contained and then used to stave off future infections from the more dangerous strain of smallpox, Trumpism could be used as a vaccine for American democracy, alerting us to the dangers of an authoritarian-minded demagogue — but with ample time to adapt.

So how should we go about it? Democrats might well be poised to ride a “blue wave” back to power in November. But no matter the outcome in the midterms, Americans of all political stripes should start working today to inoculate American democracy not just against Trump but also against the more virulent strains of authoritarian populism to come.

To start, Congress should codify countless broken norms into unbreakable laws. For example, it should be illegal for presidents to fire law enforcement officials who are investigating them (absent an independent assessment of professional misconduct). Special counsels should also be legally protected from presidential interference.

We also need two new constitutional amendments. First, to declare that the president is not above the law and can therefore be indicted while in office; and second, to ensure that a president cannot pardon anyone that is involved in an ongoing investigation related to the president, their family, their campaign or their business interests. If Republicans resist, it will lay bare their cynical protection of criminal behavior and impunity in the White House — and voters should overrule them.

Future presidential candidates should be legally required not only to release their tax returns, but also to fully divest from businesses that pose a significant conflict of interest. Even if that bill could not pass a Republican-held Senate or get past a Trump veto, states should attempt to make ballot access contingent on that low baseline of ethical compliance and basic financial transparency. And, the disgrace of having Trump’s unqualified son-in-law and daughter overseeing huge, consequential portfolios cries out for stronger anti-nepotism laws.

A transformation of norms into laws occurred after Watergate. A more expansive Trumpian update is overdue.

The Trump era is also alerting us to the dangers of long-standing systemic flaws of American democracy that predate Trump but now require urgent and sweeping reform. For example, American turnout rates are a national sickness. In the 2014 midterms, voter turnout was about 42 percent. That put the United States 185th out of 196 countries in terms of recent legislative elections turnout, finishing below Nigeria, Afghanistan and El Salvador.

The problem persists in presidential elections, albeit to a lesser extent. About 62 million Americans voted for Trump; roughly 100 million American adults didn’t vote at all.

Low turnout is partially due to apathy, a lack of voter education and a cultural fixation on entertainment above politics. But it’s also by design.

Gerrymandering reduces turnout by carving out uncompetitive districts that make voters (rightly) feel powerless. The average margin of victory in 2016 House races was a 37.1 percent landslide. And while both parties are guilty of extreme gerrymandering, Republicans have been the worst offenders recently, a practice that likely netted them as many as 22 additional seats in the House. Their current majority is held by a margin of 21 seats.

Gerrymandering is easily fixed with citizen-led, bipartisan, independent commissions charged with drawing fair, compact, competitive districts absent any whiff of partisan opportunism.

Furthermore, voter suppression efforts have intensified, led by a president who routinely peddles the lie that voter fraud is widespread (it’s not). Suppression reduces minority turnout and makes minority voters six times more likely to wait more than an hour to cast their ballot.

And states — as policy laboratories that can test different democratic vaccines to see which works best — should begin trials to boost turnout. From automatic voter registration, to expanding early voting, to providing more resources to areas with long wait times, to expanding voting by mail, or making Election Day a government holiday, there are readily available, proven solutions that only lack the legislative majorities to implement them.

The virus of authoritarian populism can infect even the most robust democracies. Trump gave us the bug. But the infection can still become a vaccine. If Democrats sweep the midterm elections, they should work with reform-minded Republicans to bolster our democratic institutions to protect us from the even more virulent Trumpian strains yet to come — before it’s too late.