I have tried to evaluate Donald Trump’s presidency fairly. I’ve praised him when he has appointed competent people to high office and expressed support for his policies when they seemed serious and sensible (even though this has drawn criticism from some quarters). But there has always been another aspect to this presidency lurking beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into full view as it did this week. President Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy.
The United States has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, one that has survived the test of time and given birth to perhaps the most successful society in human history. What sets the nation apart is not how democratic it is, but rather the opposite. U.S. democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of power by any one person or group. But there is one gaping hole in the system: the president.
During his famous interviews with David Frost in 1977, Richard Nixon made a statement regarding Watergate that has been mockingly quoted ever since. “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” he said to Frost. Nixon was a smart lawyer and a close student of the Constitution. He was basically right. The president, in effect, sits above the law. The Justice Department, after all, works for him. Refusing to follow certain ethical guidelines in separating himself from his business empire, Trump told the New York Times, “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Most lawyers say he is right. The rules don’t really apply to the president.
There is just one real check on the president — impeachment — and it is political, not legal. Since Trump’s own party controls both chambers of Congress, there has been little resistance to him there. One might have hoped for more, and perhaps we will see it. So far, it appears that the Republican Party is losing any resemblance to a traditional Western political party, instead simply turning into something more commonly found in the developing world: a platform to support the ego, appetites and interests of one man and his family.
There are other, less potent checks on the power of the president. Some are structural, others simply a matter of morality or precedent. Trump has sought to weaken many of these, both before the election and now in the White House.
During the campaign, Trump said that he would like to change laws to make it easier to sue journalists. He announced that he hoped to jail his opponent. He spoke approvingly of the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1950s. He proposed a travel ban on an entire religion, to bar all Muslims from entering the United States. He advocated that the U.S. military torture prisoners. And he called into question the integrity of a judge because of his Mexican heritage.
Once in power, Trump has continued in this vein, taking actions that weaken all sources of resistance. He summarily dismissed FBI Director James B. Comey, reportedly over his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. If true, the firing would be a shattering blow. The nonpartisan agencies of the executive branch are jewels of the modern U.S. system. They were not always impartial, and they are certainly not perfect, but in recent decades they have acquired a deserved reputation. When I travel from Eastern Europe to China to Latin America, democratic reformers tell me that they look to these agencies as models when trying to strengthen the rule of law in their own countries.
There are only two forces left that can place some constraints on Trump — the courts and the media — and he has relentlessly attacked both. Every time a court has ruled against one of his executive orders, the president has ridiculed the decision or demeaned the judges involved. To their enormous credit, the courts have not been deterred from standing up to the president.
That leaves the media. Trump has gone at them (us) like no president before, smearing news organizations, attacking individual journalists and threatening to strip legal protections guaranteed to a free press. We will survive, but we must recognize the stakes.
The media should cover the administration’s policies fairly. But they must also never let the public forget that many of the attitudes and actions of this president are gross violations of the customs and practices of the modern American system — that they are aberrations and cannot become the new norms. That way, after Trump, the country will not start the next presidency with tattered standards and sunken expectations. The task is quite simply to keep alive the spirit of American democracy.