As a political scientist I’ve always believed in the importance of accepting election results as legitimate, and treating whoever is elected with respect. Democracy rests on a belief that opposition and disagreement are good, and that it is a good idea to have power switch between parties – one party in power for too long leads to corruption.
The election of Donald Trump is forcing me to question my long standing belief that American democracy has a political culture and institutions capable of protecting democratic principles regardless of who is President.
It’s not just that I don’t agree with Donald Trump. I disagreed with George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, but never thought he lacked respect for America’s core ideals. I disagreed with his method and some of his beliefs about how the world works, but knew that at base we shared a respect for democracy and individual rights.
I’m not convinced Donald Trump shares that. After his election I wrote “don’t panic.” Well, panic is never good so yes, don’t panic. But I believed that the Republican party would need to help Trump cope with his new role, and thus experts and advisors would lead him to a series of policies that respected democracy.
Oh, there might be big fights. There always are. But if you lose fights now, that just means working harder to win the next election so you can win the next battle. Those loses might be really painful; the choice of war in 2003 has lead to tragic consequences globally, including many of the problems in the Mideast today. Politics involves fights about consequential things.
But this seems different. Alternate facts. Fights about crowd size. An immigration executive order that shows no empathy for the well vetted people who in good faith have waited for a visa to immigrate, or who are fleeing a war zone. Calling a Judge who temporarily rescinds that order a “so-called Judge.” Twitter rants aimed at the media and normal citizens, a President who thinks it’s OK to insult and ridicule others.
Or the role of Steve Bannon, who is on record predicting a war with China within five years, a PR maven movie maker, now given a seat on the National Security Council. The President having angry phone calls with other world leaders, and who by all accounts lives to seek revenge against those he considers “enemies.” Utter disdain for the press, talk of toughening up libel laws (really – does he think the President can sue someone for libel?)
Republicans say he’s still learning the job. Others say he is psychologically unstable. But for the first time, I wonder if consumerism and nationalism may finally be overcoming our core American values.
This has happened before. Joe McCarthy launched a proto-fascist witch hunt that went on for years before he was stopped. Then it was a mix of courageous reporters like Edward R. Murrow and people in his own party, like Margaret Chase Smith, who brought down McCarthy.
If President Trump keeps up this behavior, we’ll need to rely on the media to report everything and not be intimidated by the White House. We’ll have to rely on Republicans, many of whom are silently fuming at Trump’s antics, some of whom have already spoken out. I believe that the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a moral conscience and a strong belief in American democracy. So do most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate.
President Trump can only do so much without Congressional support. Most Republicans want to work with the President to promote conservative ideas. But they need to stand up to him if he maintains his current reckless approach. They need to recognize that democracy trumps party loyalty. Democrats and liberals will protest and resist, and that’s important. But when it comes to governmental power, Republican legislators have a responsibility to step up should Trump’s behavior continue to defy the norms and values that define American democracy.