If we shout "Holy Mackerel!" every time Trump says or does something objectionable, the public will soon ignore all such outcries. Above all, we need to differentiate between Trump the ultra-conservative and Trump the Democracy-Wrecker. To suggest that there is a world of difference between, on the one hand, gutting regulations, cutting taxes for the rich, and undermining Obamacare, and on the other hand, voter suppression, chilling free speech, misinforming the public, avoiding press scrutiny, and accepting bribes from foreign governments--is not splitting hairs.
Ultra-conservative policy changes and acts of Congress are a part of legitimate democratic politics. Undermining the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, hollowing out the public trust in democracy, and weakening already fragile institutions, is not. Conservative policies can be reversed (though, granted, they have a lingering effect). However, once the public gives up on the democratic form of government and embraces the kind of destructive populism Trump is practicing, recovery will be very difficult to achieve.
Democracy requires an informed public, at least about basic matters. If the highest authority in the land keeps exposing the public to bold-faced lies, such as that millions of people voted illegally or that most immigrants from Mexico are criminals, and if these lies follow fast one after the other, the electorate will be unable to hold elected officials accountable.
Democracy requires a people engaged in public affairs, and hence people who follow the news. At first one may think that tweeting--and more generally the use of social media--is merely an update of the Presidency to new modes of reaching out to the public. And the avoidance of press conferences and ditching the press pool that followed other presidents is small potatoes. Actually it is a major form of democracy-wrecking. This stands out when one compares tweeting to press conferences: when tweeting, the President chooses what topic to cover and can avoid those that reflect poorly on his judgment. Through Twitter, the President regularly is sending messages to the public without the context the press would provide if the same messages were delivered at a press conference. In the world of tweets, there are no follow up questions, indeed no questions at all. Above all, it allows the President to appeal to the raw emotions of the masses, without any opportunity for reflection or deliberation.
When Trump berates an individual, as he did to Chuck Jones, a local union leader, he does much more than bully him for a day; he gets hordes of his fervent supporters to send death threats and even threaten the children of whoever incurs Trump's ire.
One may argue that even when Trump attacks Boeing (after its CEO had the audacity to extol free trade), Boeing will do fine. However, as The Economist reports, such barrages have a chilling effect on free speech. In pointing to Trump's vindictive and corrosive missives, it adds that "...prudent business leaders will make it their priority to curry favors with the president and avoid actions that might irk him." Indeed, since the attack on Boeing, we have heard little about the merits of free trade from other CEOs, and even less from business groups that have long advocated for it.
Politicians are not known for being immune to temptations. Corruption, frankly, is far from unknown in Washington or in state assemblies. Practically all members of Congress leave as millionaires, regardless of what assets they had when they were first elected. In the past, though, the White House largely adhered to much higher standards of integrity. However, it now seems that Trump will, after throwing up one smoke screen after another, continue to enrich his family, on a large scale, from the White House. It is hard to assess the full extent of the damage such wheeling and dealing will have on the public trust in our political system; however, it is sure to be quite corrosive.
Those concerned with the destructive effects of the incoming administration will have to pay special attention to the treatment of voter rights, which are the bedrock of democratic regimes. The Supreme Court already gutted significant parts of the Voting Rights Act. Trump's Justice Department may well not even enforce the diminished protections that the Supreme Court left standing, and may give states carte blanche to pass even more restrictive voter ID laws which suppress turnout among minorities and the poor.
The opposition to Trump had better make it clear when it challenges him along the liberal/conservative axis and when it is out to protect the foundations of the democratic system. Democrats and others concerned about the ill effects of the Trump administration are debating whether the best way to counter the destructive populism he exploits and nurtures is to appeal to class differences (the Bernie Sanders camp), to the traditional coalition of minorities, women and youth (the Obama camp), or to focus on promoting economic growth (the centrist, old New Democrats). All these camps may find that Trump the Democracy-Wrecker is such a threat to the basic rights of all the people, that the most urgent and compelling message is to protect the Constitution and its Bill of Rights and to shore up liberal democracy. Moreover, for any of the different camps to be able to advance their various causes, they may first need to unite to prevent Trump and his associates in Congress from continuing to undermine the already fragile American political system.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message. To contact him, write to email@example.com. You may also follow him on Twitter.
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