President Donald Trump has said some crazy things — things that a strongman from a dictatorship in the developing world might say, but not a U.S. president.
Among other things, he’s denigrated federal judges, challenged the independence of our intelligence agencies and described the media as “the enemy of the people.”
Trump’s surrogates have been no better. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, insisted that the media should “keep its mouth shut.” His son Eric Trump recently confessed that to him, Democrats are “not even people.”
These kinds of comments should be disturbing for anyone concerned about the vitality of American democracy. The U.S. has a longstanding tradition of respecting not just the rights of dissenters, but also the legitimacy of political opposition — the idea that political opposition is not just inevitable, but “normal” and even desirable in a representative democracy.
The president and his surrogates should be signalling, in word and deed, their commitment to this tradition of legitimate opposition (as so many Republican and Democratic presidents in the past have). Instead, the country and the world have witnessed five months of senseless bluster, much of it emanating from the president’s Twitter account, directed at the administration’s critics.
To many, Trump’s hostile rhetoric begs a fundamental question: Can citizens of a modern, representative democracy elect an autocratic character like Trump to the highest office in the land and continue to call their country democratic?
I’ve heard versions of this question asked repeatedly over the last five months or so. It’s a reasonable question. When assessing the vitality or “health” of American democracy, who gets elected certainly matters; but how the political system responds to the election of an anti-democratic president is equally important.
Just as the health of human bodies should be judged by the strength of their immune systems, so should the health of our representative democracy be judged by the vitality of the system’s response to an undemocratic elected official.
The political and institutional responses to Trump’s rhetoric has been largely encouraging.
Take, for example, the abuse that the president has heaped on federal judges. He’s described a federal district judge who was born in Indiana as incapable of impartiality because he’s “a Mexican”; he attempted to discredit the judgment of another federal judge who blocked Trump’s first travel ban, describing him derisively as a “so-called judge.”
Thus far, the courts do not appear to be intimidated by Trump’s temper tantrums. His travel ban has lost in two federal appeals courts and may be headed for the Supreme Court.
The media has been equally resilient. This strength may be the result of the changing nature of the media in the information age. Gone are the days when “the news” was what we heard broadcast nightly, on ABC, NBC and CBS.
Today’s media landscape may be too varied and cacophonous to be intimidated. The president might succeed in bullying news outlets that already favor the administration, but attempts to intimidate have largely backfired with all other news sources. A casual reader of The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, or the wide range of news sites online, will note that there’s been no shortage of critical coverage.
The president’s ham-handed attempts to silence potential critics within the executive branch have also backfired. Troubled as he was (and reportedly still is) by the progress of the FBI’s investigation into the “Russia thing,” Trump took the extraordinary step of firing the FBI Director James Comey.
How did that work out? Was Trump able to thwart the investigation?
Not even close. The public outcry led to the appointment of a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is now leading the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. And the investigations already underway in Congress show no signs of abating, making daily headlines with testimony from former Director Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as a host of others.
Thus far, the judiciary, the media and civil servants in our intelligence agencies, have played their roles as political counterweights to this administration. Indeed, they’ve responded to Trump’s autocratic posturing with firmness and professionalism.
Trump simply lacks the power within our political system to be a dictator; he may have no choice but to become a president.
Jeffrey S. Selinger is an associate professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College and the author of Embracing Dissent: Political Violence and Party Development in the United States. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.