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By Thomas B. Edsall,
The New York Times,
4 December 2017

The Self-Destruction of American Democracy

President Trump has single-handedly done more to undermine the basic tenets of American democracy than any foreign agent or foreign propaganda campaign could

"Trump is a political weapon of mass self-destruction for American democracy - for its norms, for its morality, for sheer human decency," Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at Brookings, wrote by email:

So if Putin backed him, and if he did it to damage the United States, then he dropped one extremely smart bomb in the middle of Washington.

For the moment, let`s put aside the conclusion of "Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections," the F.B.I., C.I.A. and N.S.A. joint report that was released in January, which said that:

The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin`s regime.

This determination, disputed by Trump and others, pales in comparison to the ruinous record of Trump`s 10 months in office.

First and foremost, Trump has gravely damaged the premises and procedures that undergird American democracy.

Partisan polarization, which helped give rise to Trump in the first place, is getting worse as discord intensifies with every slur and insult Trump hurls.

On Oct. 5, the Pew Research Center reported that partisan conflict on fundamental political values reached record levels during Barack Obama`s presidency. In Donald Trump`s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger. And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.

In the introduction to their forthcoming book, "How Democracies Die," Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, political scientists at Harvard, write:

Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States - but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can`t really be that bad here.

Their attempt at reassurance is not comforting:

American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as `laboratories of democracy,` are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

In an email, Levitsky argued that "it is important that we understand that the U.S. has largely been doing these things to itself," before adding, "obviously we should investigate Russian meddling to the fullest, but to blame Putin for the mess we are in today would be ridiculous. We Americans created this mess."

Along similar lines, Ryan Enos, who is also a political scientist at Harvard, suggested that the question of Russian involvement in the election is a secondary issue:

It might be that all the distrust and rancor we see today would have happened without Russia`s meddling. There is reason, of course, to believe this is true: after all, the dysfunction in the US political system that put Trump in office existed long before Putin`s 2016 interference.

In addition, Enos noted,

Trump`s ability to diminish the United States` international standing is also made possible by flaws in our political system, for example a weak Congress that has ceded too much power to the executive.

Trump has not only taken a hammer to the code of behavior underpinning democracy at home, he has simultaneously diminished the international stature of the United States - and arguably accelerated the rise of this country`s major competitor, China.

Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T. and a co-author of "Why Nations Fail," argued in an email that he believes

the battle between the Chinese-Russian axis and Western democratic institutions to be the defining struggle of the next century. And now the US is in an ambivalent position, led by a flawed character much more sympathetic to the Chinese-Russian axis.

Trump`s chaotic approach to foreign affairs has, in turn, served to strengthen both Russia and China, in the view of several experts.

Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, emailed:

As America is seen as an increasingly volatile and unreliable partner, the reduced credibility that follows creates new international opportunities for people like Putin - who can promise relative stability.

The net result?

"We now have reduced leverage in many international settings."

A Pew survey of adults in 37 foreign nations released in June provides the clearest evidence of Trump`s effect on America`s international stature. It found that a median of just 22 percent has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama`s presidency, when a median of 64 percent expressed confidence in Trump`s predecessor to direct America`s role in the world.

As the accompanying chart shows, confidence in Obama was higher than confidence in Trump in 35 countries. Tellingly, Trump did better than Obama in only two, Russia and Israel.

Critics of Trump`s foreign policy contend that the drive by Rex W. Tillerson, Trump`s Secretary of State, to "streamline" the department by forcing out as many as 2,000 State Department employees has had the effect of diminishing America`s international presence. By the end of this month, the number in the two top ranks - career ambassadors and career ministers - is scheduled to be cut in half, from 39 to 19.

In a Nov. 15 letter to Tillerson, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, wrote:

Taken together, questionable management practices at the Department of State; the attitudes of some in the Administration on the value of diplomacy; declining morale, recruitment and retention; the lack of experienced leadership to further the strength and longevity of our nation`s diplomatic corps; and reports of American diplomacy becoming less effective paint a disturbing picture.

Their verdict:

These factors lead us to conclude that America`s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.

Trump`s assault - and that of his appointees - on democratic standards and principles is the central element of what might be called a brutalizing or "decivilizational" process. That`s part of what underlies the eternal return of the president`s mendacity, reappearing this month in his behind-the-scenes recitation of lies about Obama`s birthplace and the Access Hollywood tape on which he can be heard bragging about what you can do to women "when you`re a star."

These developments have revived open discussion of Trump`s mental health.

There are "signs that Trump is sometimes incapable of discerning real life from fiction," David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic on Nov. 27.

On Wednesday, Trump pushed the envelope even further, retweeting videos from an ultranationalist group in Britain "purportedly showing Muslims committing acts of violence." Prime Minister Theresa May explicitly faulted Trump, saying "It is wrong for the president to have done this." As The Times reported, "No modern American president has promoted inflammatory content of this sort from an extremist organization."

Trump`s extraordinary record of prevarication calls the truth into question. As Hannah Arendt famously put it, when this happens, nothing can be believed anymore:

One could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Or as Arendt told a French interviewer in 1974:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie - a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days - but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

Add to Trump`s list of lies his race baiting, his attacks on a free press, his charges of "fake news," his efforts to instigate new levels of voter suppression, his undermining of the legitimacy of the electoral process, his disregard for the independence of the judiciary, the hypocrisy of his personal posture on sexual harassment, the patent lack of concern for delivering results to voters who supported him, his contempt for and manipulation of his own loyalists, his "failure of character" - and you have a lethal corruption of democratic leadership.

On Nov. 15, Acemoglu wrote in Foreign Policy:

It`s been one year since the election of Donald Trump as president and, despite his questionable commitment to the country`s political traditions, American democracy is still standing.

Acemoglu then asked, "Is it time to rejoice in the strength of American institutions?" Short answer: no.

Political norms that are the bulwark of our democracy cannot be easily repaired once damaged, even if Trump`s most dangerous policies are stopped. Nor can white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and nativist rhetoric be swiftly sidelined once condoned by the U.S. president.

In the face of these threats, Acemoglu continues, "the performance of U.S. checks and balances so far gives no comfort."

The test facing our democracy now is whether the rules of engagement that make the system work can be restored. Trump trampled on those rules and won the presidency. That precedent may, in and of itself, have inflicted irreparable damage.

Is there a legal remedy? From the Mueller investigation, for example?

"Executive authoritarianism and lawlessness can be hemmed in and checked but not fully constrained by courts, the criminal law, or the written Constitution," Jacob T. Levy wrote this week in "The Limits of Legalism," published by the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center:

They ultimately have to be confronted by elected officials: co-partisans willing to exercise serious restraint, or if not, an opposition voted into office who will do so instead.

At the moment, Trump`s co-partisans, House and Senate Republicans, have shown little willingness to confront him. The longer Trump stays in office, the greater the danger that he will inflict permanent damage on the institutions that must be essential tools in any serious attempt to confront him.


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