Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Democracy

With his attacks on judges, journalists and critics, U.S. President Donald Trump is chipping away at the foundations of democracy. Is the American Constitution strong enough to withstand the assault?


The man who has found himself on the United States president's bad side this week bears the quaint name of William Horsley Orrick, a 63-year-old who -- in his frameless glasses and side part -- has the classic look of a civil servant. Orrick is a District Court judge in San Francisco and on Tuesday, he blocked Donald Trump from penalizing those cities that provide immigrants special protections, such as making it more difficult for them to be deported. Trump had ordered that federal funding be withheld from these so-called "sanctuary cities." But with his ruling, Orrick has slapped a temporary stay on the order.

It was just the most recent defeat in the courts for the president, following the suspension of his travel ban targeting the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries -- and it didn't take long before the president went public with his rage. The ruling, Trump wrote in one of his early morning Twitter eruptions, is "ridiculous." He added: "See you in the Supreme Court!"

Trump has never made a secret of his intense disdain for the institutions that are necessary for a vigorous democracy: an independent judiciary, a critical press and a healthy opposition. Essentially, Trump would be happy to do away with all of that, or at least marginalize it. Following the ruling from San Francisco, he indicated that he is broadly dissatisfied with the federal judges there and threatened to curtail their power.

The president's anger with people who contradict him and institutions that stand in his way does not fade with time. On the contrary, the more resistance Trump is faced with, the harder he fights and the more deeply he believes that he is right. But in a democracy, it is necessary to establish alliances and build coalitions. The president, too, must defer to these constraints: He is reliant on Congress, his power over the states is limited and judges are independent.

Democracy lives from the ability to forge compromise, but that is a skill that Trump appears not to possess. As such, his first 100 days in office can be interpreted as an attack on the foundations of American democracy.

The independent organization Freedom House, which monitors the state of democracy worldwide, recently criticized the U.S. in its annual report due to the erosion of democratic ideals. Trump's approach to fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of opinion, was of particular concern to the researchers.

The Risk of Authoritarianism


"The institutions have become more vulnerable," says Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard University. Levitsky has taken a closer look at the first months of the new administration and concluded that there is a risk that the U.S. could become more authoritarian under Trump's leadership. Levitsky speaks of "competitive authoritarianism," a kind of top-down democracy, in which the president controls state institutions and the media and the opposition is put at a structural disadvantage. Levitsky has been researching autocratic regimes for years and found that "periods of intense polarization are often followed by the collapse of democracy." And there is hardly any country in the West that is as deeply divided as the United States.

Trump exploited this polarization to get elected and is now doing the same in office. He is able to do so in part because his supporters have remained loyal no matter what he does. And the list of irregularities is long: He has essentially transformed the White House into a family fiefdom by installing his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in the halls of power; he has refused to release his tax returns as has been standard practice for presidents since the end of the 1960s; and he has been decidedly half-hearted about separating himself from his business interests, allowing him to profit from decisions he makes in the White House.

The president's priorities were revealed particularly transparently in the tax plan that he presented Wednesday. The heart of the tax-code overhaul is a cut to the corporate tax rate from the current 35 percent to just 15 percent. It also calls for the elimination of the inheritance tax in addition to income tax cuts. Together, the cuts would cost the state $2 trillion in tax revenue every year -- an enormous hit to the budget for a tax reform that primarily benefits the rich. People like Trump and his family.

Worse, though, are the president's regular attacks on judges, journalists and his opponents. Trump goes after his critics with irascible fits of temper, yet he harbors admiration for autocrats. He has often praised the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of his first visitors in the White House was Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Furthermore, he could hardly congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fast enough following his victory in the recent constitutional referendum that brought the country a giant step closer to becoming a dictatorship.

'Going Bananas'

Trump's advisors and cabinet members are likewise scornful of all who would dare stand in the way of the president. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of all people, recently criticized a judge in Hawaii for blocking Trump's travel ban for people from majority Muslim countries. "I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power," Sessions said. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said simply that William Orrick and his court were "going bananas."

Trump and his team can feel encouraged by the results of a February survey which found that 51 percent of the president's supporters believe he should be able to override judicial rulings he doesn't agree with. When both the government and its people are united in their disdain for democratic institutions, it represents a clear danger.

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