The Republic at Risk: American Democracy One Year into the Trump Administration

A joint report by Protect Democracy and Stand Up Ideas

Executive Summary

America is now one year into the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

While many have followed his presidency as a seemingly unending series of unrelated scandals, a more coherent narrative shows that all of his unorthodox actions are part of a singular story of a president with disturbingly autocratic tendencies presiding over a democracy at risk.

And yet, the United States remains one of the strongest democracies in the world. There is every reason to believe, if we the people rise to the challenge, we can sustain our democracy for generations to come. This is a call to all of us to, in the words of Barack Obama, “further perfect our union” in our continuing quest to be “the shining city upon a hill” invoked by Ronald Reagan.

This moment provides an opportunity to look back at the year, and then beyond, to see what we have learned about America’s democratic institutions and how this President’s illiberal instincts have impacted and imperiled them, so we can successfully chart the course ahead.

The Decline of American Democracy Before Trump

In hindsight, it has become clear that democracy has been gradually weakening throughout the post-Cold War era. This is not unique to the United States. Similar forces have been at play across the world. Economic and demographic changes have put pressure on the social contracts and status quo of many nations. Technology has reshaped how we communicate and how the media represents our societies.

While many have followed his presidency as a seemingly unending series of unrelated scandals, a more coherent narrative shows that all of his unorthodox actions are part of a singular story of a president with disturbingly autocratic tendencies presiding over a democracy at risk.

In many cases, American governing institutions have not responded well to these challenges. Congress has largely recoiled, becoming insular and inwardly focused through increased partisanship and polarization. The growing influence of special interest groups and the flood of money into politics have enticed Congress away from its constitutional responsibilities. Both the executive and judicial branches have filled the gap left by this congressional abdication. This has strengthened the power of the executive and set up a conflict with the judiciary as the remaining functional check, a role for which it is poorly suited institutionally and democratically. Even before Trump’s presidency, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy.”

The Decline of American Democracy in the Trump Era

Donald Trump was elected President in this context. Americans had lost faith in our democracy. Many institutions of government were perceived by Americans as dysfunctional. This report poses the question: how are America’s democratic institutions holding up? And while the challenges we face go beyond one man, it devotes particular attention to how the Trump presidency has impacted these institutions.

This report assesses the current state of American democracy, evaluating Mr. Trump’s actions against six basic markers of democratic decline. These markers—politicizing independent institutions, spreading disinformation, amassing executive power, quashing dissent, delegitimizing communities, and corrupting elections—mirror those that scholars have observed in declining democracies around the world, in countries such as Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and others. If Donald Trump were to follow these models of emerging authoritarianism, he would first erode the norms and ideals integral to a democratic society, then move into actual institutional changes once the public is sufficiently distracted, exhausted, and cynical.

On each of these markers, we see signs of a democracy clearly
at risk, evident in the following attacks:

Politicizing Independent Institutions

Healthy democracies have strong independent institutions, such as law enforcement and the civil service, that operate with a degree of insulation from the whims of political leaders, thereby constraining a power-hungry ruler. They exist to execute and enforce properly promulgated laws and regulations based on facts and evidence. In the United States, the Justice Department and many administrative and enforcement functions of federal agencies are meant to stand above and beyond partisan politics. Millions of federal civil servants pledge their loyalty not to any given president, but to the American public and Constitution, with many remaining in their positions from one administration to the next. But Mr. Trump has shown little respect for these traditions. He has tried to undermine the independence of the Department of Justice and the FBI and may have obstructed justice in an attempt to stop an inquiry into whether he and his aides colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. He has also weakened the federal bureaucracy — threatening perceived enemies, pushing to gut agency budgets, leaving an astonishing number of government positions empty, and seeking to further undermine trust in public servants by accusing them of disloyalty or bias.

Spreading Disinformation

Truth is indispensable to constitutional democracy. Shared acceptance of facts allows people to hold their government accountable — to point out when its policies are having adverse effects, or when its words do not match its deeds. This is a norm of democratic society that enables functional governance. In democratic societies, a free press plays a crucial role in informing the public and speaking truth to power, a role America’s founders enshrined in the First Amendment. But Mr. Trump has carried out a consistent assault on truth, and Americans’ ability to discern it, about current events and public policy. He has attempted to discredit the press, harassed reporters, threatened to change libel laws and subpoena journalists, and dismissed any source of information — however nonpartisan — that he perceives as unfavorable to him personally. He has also spread lies indiscriminately and disputed objectively provable facts.

Executive Power Amassing

A strong democracy benefits from the separation of powers within government. When the system works properly, the legislature and courts prevent the executive branch from amassing too much power. In federalist systems, states or regional governments play a similar role. In the United States, the separation of powers is designed to ensure that Congress or the courts can stop an overreach of presidential power. Mr. Trump has done his best to enfeeble this system, undermining checks and balances by viciously attacking the judiciary, treating Congress as a subordinate branch of government by withholding information and demanding it act according to his will, and punishing states that have opposed his policies.

Quashing Dissent

Strong democracies have strong oppositions, who offer policy alternatives and alert the public when those in power are abusing their positions. The United States has a long tradition of vibrant dissent, a robust civil society sector, and healthy opposition politics. The existence of these dissenting voices are a norm that we can no longer take for granted, as they are often the first to be attacked by authoritarian leaders. Reflecting his autocratic tendencies, Mr. Trump has demonstrated virtually no tolerance for those who disagree with him. He has threatened political opponents with imprisonment, fired or threatened to fire government officials who criticize him or his policies, pressured private employers to restrict the speech of their employees, and cultivated an atmosphere of fear that prevents many from speaking out against him.

Delegitimizing Communities

Democracy in diverse societies depends on protecting the rights of minorities. These can be political minorities who have lost at the ballot box, and especially include groups who identify as different from traditionally dominant majoritarian groups along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States has an ugly, tragic, and far from perfect history of living up to its founding principles in protecting the rights of all Americans. And yet, most modern American leaders have expressed an inclusive vision of the United States, acknowledging our imperfect past while holding out hope for a better future. In contrast, Mr. Trump has shown a willingness to attack minorities, to scapegoat specific groups of Americans, and to appeal to divisive and hateful strains in our society. His reluctance to condemn violence against racial and religious minorities has emboldened perpetrators of that violence, reinforced barriers against the full participation of minorities in our democracy, and deepened the sense among some citizens that their government doesn’t count them as true Americans. Mr. Trump’s attacks on Americans on the grounds that they are different poses a danger of allowing him to define who “the people” are, and what qualifies as American.

Corrupting Elections

Free, fair, informed, and regular elections form the cornerstone of the American experiment, allowing citizens to exercise their most basic political right: the right to choose who governs them. In a democracy, the people are the best constraint on the abuse of power; if they are unhappy with a leader, they can vote him or her out of office. Yet even before he became president, Mr. Trump showed little respect for U.S. elections, threatening, for example, to reject any outcome that resulted in his loss. Since taking office, he has continued to undermine the legitimacy of elections, exaggerating the prevalence of voter fraud, refusing to condemn Russian interference in the 2016 election, and neglecting adequate measures to prevent its recurrence.

President Trump has exhibited the habits and actions of a budding authoritarian in each area of potential democratic decline in just his first twelve months.

On each of these markers, President Trump has taken actions to substantially deteriorate the quality and integrity of our institutions. Beyond his actions, his anti-democratic rhetoric has itself undermined long-standing norms, which are entirely dependent on the respect they are accorded by the presidency for any force they have to constrain others.

Moreover, in each of these areas, his attacks on democratic norms and institutions echo similar behavior by autocrats who have undermined democracies around the world in recent years, from Hungary to Turkey, Poland to Venezuela. This report highlights some of those parallels.

In a comparison that is especially striking, recall that in both Recep Erdoğan’s and Vladimir Putin’s first years of national leadership in Turkey and Russia, respectively, they were seen as democratic reformers. Erdoğan was to lead Turkey into the European Union as a model of Islamic democracy and Putin presented himself as the torchbearer of Russia’s shift towards democracy. It took several years into each of their reigns before their authoritarian tendencies were fully exposed. In contrast, President Trump has exhibited the habits and actions of a budding authoritarian in each area of potential democratic decline in just his first twelve months.

That he has done this is not necessarily a sign of deliberate planning. Quite the contrary. Trump seems to rely on autocratic instincts out of either a lack of understanding of or, lack of respect for, the norms and structures that have undergirded America’s constitutional democracy.

The Impact of Foreign Interference on Our Democracy

As Mr. Trump and longer-term trends threaten our democracy internally, we are also increasingly vulnerable to foreign interference. Russia is in the midst of a sustained campaign to undermine Western democracy, and American intelligence officials have now concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

In short, we can no longer take America’s democracy for granted. In countries around the world, authoritarian leaders have dismantled democracies that once seemed stable. The turn away from democracy need not be premeditated; an incompetent leader with authoritarian tendencies can pose as much of a threat as one with a systematic plan to dismantle checks and balances. The worst-case scenario is that Mr. Trump uses a crisis — a terrorist attack, for example — to consolidate power. But even absent a crisis, he can still do lasting damage to America’s democratic norms and traditions.

Standing Up for Our Democracy — A Roadmap for the Future

Still, there remains cause for hope. Even under threat, the United States has strong and durable democratic institutions and a civil society that has proven itself ready and able to defend democratic ideals. We can prevent further backsliding during the Trump administration if each of our institutions — Congress, the courts, the civil service, the free press, law enforcement, and the private sector — makes protecting our democracy central to its work.

We also can lay the groundwork for a series of broader and more systemic reforms that address the longer-term challenges threatening our democracy. In this report, we lay out an initial roadmap for the kinds of reforms we might consider as a starting point for what we hope will be a broader discussion aimed at fleshing out the specifics. We now know that America is susceptible to a shift towards more authoritarian leadership. Now that the stakes have become clear, we must be prepared to enact reforms to reinforce and strengthen our commitment to the rule of law and, ultimately, our democracy as a whole.

The full report can be read here.

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