We should not underestimate the damage President Trump might yet do to our democratic institutions, political norms and civic discourse. As multiple investigations (on collusion, obstruction of justice, Trump’s foundation and his inaugural committee) close in on Trump, the risk for him to behave in outlandish, illegal and anti-democratic ways increases.
Of late, we’ve seen Trump come unglued when court filings revealed bits and pieces of his association with a Russian real estate project during the 2016 campaign and with efforts to conceal hush payments to women before Election Day. His banishing of CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House, groundless claims of fraud in the Florida Senate and governor’s races, willingness to accept lies about from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, creation of a phony migrant-caravan crisis to juice up his base and justify deploying the military, and incessant lying tell us his authoritarian mind-set and contempt for democratic institutions and values, if anything, have hardened.
Moreover, the descent of the Republican Party into a know-nothing, reactionary and nativist party is disconcerting, even to nonconservatives.
Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who specializes in democracy and governance, tells me, “I’m worried about the collapse of the Republican Party. Rather than a conservative ideological group, which any democracy needs to represent those views among the citizenry, it has become a group seemingly committed simply to power seeking and trying to diminish democracy to achieve power.” She adds, “The end of the Weekly Standard and the wagons circled against those who disagree with the directionality of the party today is particularly worrisome, as that blocks future renewal.”
Nevertheless, with all those worries, those who have waged political and legal battles against efforts to undermine democratic institutions and norms have several grounds for optimism.
For starters, Trump is losing far more often than he is winning. He lost control of the House of Representatives in a landslide, was compelled to let Acosta back into the White House, was rebuked by the Senate on Mohammed bin Salman, hasn’t been able to shut down a single investigation, watches as Cabinet members (Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, to name two) leave in disgrace, and faces at least two formidable lawsuits on foreign emoluments, one in which the court has ordered discovery to begin. He can tweet or rant directly to the press corps, he can insult women and attempt to smear the special counsel, but to what effect?
“The good news is Trumpism is losing,” says Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, which has conducted a valiant legal war against Trump’s unconstitutional conduct. “His popularity is at historic lows for a president, the American people rejected his politics overwhelmingly in the midterms, and despite his attempts to corrupt the Justice Department and rule of law, the investigations into Trumpworld continue and continue to find criminal wrongdoing.”
Second, the courts and the Justice Department are doing an admirable job of enforcing the laws and the Constitution (e.g., siding with Acosta, indicting and obtaining plea deals from Trump associates, shutting down his assault on “sanctuary cities” and on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. publicly rebuked Trump for claiming there are “Obama judges” (and presumably “Trump judges”). The courts issue orders and, while Trump and his lawyers may raise specious appeals, he is forced to abide by their rulings. Likewise, the mainstream free press continues to report, track his lies and uncover governmental wrongdoing.
Third, a large majority of Americans woke up, came to understand Trump is a liar and saw the necessity of giving control of the House to the opposing party. Polls show they don’t buy Trump’s “Hoax!” claims about the Russia probe and don’t think climate change is a ruse. Moreover, they turned out in historic numbers in the midterms. Kleinfeld says, “I am given confidence by the immense amount of civic energy going into our democracy, from the unprecedented amount of new people running for office, to new organizations like Protect Democracy and Bright Line Watch, to the concerned conversations I overheard about the basic functioning of our democracy in coffee shops.”
Finally, House Republicans' refusal to fulfill their constitutional obligations was not rewarded. Congress, which has been AWOL in the battle to defend our democratic norms and institutions, will now have a critical role to play in oversight, investigation and legislation. At least for now, Democrats have maintained a responsible tone, an interest in ethics reform and, as we saw on display in the Oval Office last week, determination to defend objective reality and hold Trump accountable for his lies. The joyous reaction to a likely speaker of the House willing to look Trump in the face and tell him he’s not telling the truth suggests the public hasn’t been blinded by Trump’s blizzard of lies. So long as a majority of Americans are determined to defend objective reality, which is essential to hold leaders accountable in a democracy, there is hope that Trump and his sycophants will continue to shed support.
In short, American democracy has been stress-tested. “American democracy in 2018 was like a house on the Kansas plains getting battered by an autocratic tornado. The walls shook, the windows rattled, but the structure held,” observes Bassin. "But the Trumpist winds are still hammering at the door so we’d be foolish to stay seated in our rocking chair. We need to get the wood boards, the sand bags, the duct tape — and reinforce the guardrails that will keep our democracy stable.” Whether the house remains standing, or comes through the storm sturdier than ever will be up to the voters. We still have a republic — if we can keep it.