Donald Trump is not even president yet and already it’s the end of America as we know it. At least, that is the conclusion one could draw from the reactions to Trump’s post-election hires and meetings and tweets. And to be fair, it’s been somewhat difficult to keep track of the various norms and ethical guidelines that President-elect Trump has violated while he’s busy planning how to make America great again.
In no particular order, Trump has:
- Restricted press pool access to his movements;
- Settled lawsuits against Trump university for $25 million;
- Raged against protesters, the press, the cast of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live on Twitter;
- Had his family, including those who will be running his global business operations, sit in on meetings with foreign leaders;
- Met with business partners while he was president-elect;
- Seems guaranteed to run afoul of the emoluments clause of the Constitution because he won’t liquidate his business holdings;
- Announced his plans to nominate someone who appears to be a big fan of torture to run the CIA;
- Hired someone on the best of terms with white nationalists to be his chief White House strategist.
This seems like a lot — or, in the words being repeated so often that SNL has already satirized them, this is not normal. And we haven’t even got to the policies that Trump, as president, could implement, including plans on trade protectionism and curtailing civil service protections in the government.
The combined effect of all of these actions has been to freak out a lot of experts.
The excellent political science blog Duck of Minerva is running a series of posts about the possible effects of a Trump administration on American democracy. A post by two comparative politics scholars sounds pretty ominous: “Developments in the United States bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those that fore-shadowed the decline of democracy elsewhere in the world (Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and earlier, Latin America in the 1960s and interwar Europe).”
At the same time as these warnings are occurring, some contrarians are suggesting that such freakouts are counterproductive. Even #NeverTrump conservatives are bathing in schadenfreude, pointing out that liberals and academics and Democrats made hyperbolic warnings about past Republican candidates for president, and so current warnings seem like crying wolf too many times.
Politico’s Jack Shafer, reacting to the Hamilton kerfuffle, thinks that Trump’s critics are falling right into his trap:
For anybody who has read a half-dozen of Trump’s tweets, the pattern is obvious. He compiles these tweets precisely in order to elicit strident protest. It doesn’t matter to Trump that the cast of Hamilton was polite and respectful to Pence. It doesn’t matter that being rude to office holders is an inalienable right — hell, a responsibility! — of all Americans. To Trump’s followers the content of any one of his rebukes matters less than whom it’s directed at — New York liberals and their fellow travelers in this instance.
Shafer focused on Trump’s antics on Twitter, but as someone who shares my colleagues’ concerns about what Trump means for our constitutional democracy, I want to raise a deeper issue. Because if Trump’s critics are going to be trying to constrain someone whose mindset is that “politics is war,” it might be worth thinking about tactics for a spell.
Donald Trump’s political critics will face some huge challenges in dealing with someone so good at demagoguery. The first problem is that some of his proposed policies will be popular. Those who work in the private sector are unlikely to feel tremendous sympathy for threats made against public sector employees, for example. Most of the American public either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the norms that Trump is breaching. Indeed, since Trump promised to change the way things are done in Washington, it will be easy for his loyal acolytes and toadies to embrace these transgressions as positive change.
A related problem is that the people who are saying that “this is not normal” are experts, and experts are finding that it’s a bearish market for their services in the American public right now. When someone like Henry Kissinger (??!!) says, “The Trump phenomenon is in large part a reaction of Middle America to attacks on its values by intellectual and academic communities,” you know something has shifted.
The most serious challenge is that Trump’s critics will have a big problem with counterfactual reasoning. The basic argument of those who oppose Trump is that, in violating small norms, he is laying the groundwork for violating bigger norms and laws down the road. It’s a slippery slope argument, one that evokes the most obvious parallels about the rise of fascism in the interwar period.
The thing about this kind of argument is that the critic is trying to convince the listener that the slippery slope exists. That listener, who might be sympathetic to at least part of Trump’s message, will naturally be more skeptical. Every time Trump backtracks on a minor issue, it will be easy for sympathizers to persuade themselves that his critics are hysterical and have overreacted. Indeed, it is quite possible that they have overreacted. We don’t know the future. We don’t know if full-blown Trumpism would lead to the end of liberal democracy as we know it.
The economic parallel to this problem is when someone claims that we are experiencing a financial bubble before it has popped. If the Federal Reserve listens, intervenes and successfully slows down the economy, it receives criticism for causing a downturn without any actual evidence that a bubble existed or would have popped. If the Federal Reserve does nothing and a bubble does pop, everyone recognizes that the warnings were correct — but it’s too late to do anything but clean up the mess.
Warn Americans about Trump too early, and most Americans will believe that you are overreacting. Warn Americans about Trump too late, and it’s too late. The challenge to those worried about Trump’s threat to liberal democracy is to figure out the best moment to sound the alarm.
I don’t think we can possibly be at that point until after Jan. 20. But what worries me is that I don’t know that for sure.