This January, I hosted a City Visions radio discussion on the state of democracy in America. The show’s two guests have researched public opinion on democracy and found alarming trends, with declining belief in the value of this system across many demographic groups.
President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey has now raised alarm bells among democracy experts, including my guest on that show, Harvard’s Yascha Mounk. Vox.com caught up with Mounk, who had this to say in the wake of the firing:
“Trump has talked like a would-be authoritarian since day one. … This is the first clear warning sign that he’s attempting to [act like one].”
“We now have to watch out for two things,” Mounk says. “The first is whether [Trump] nominates a clear partisan hack, like Rudy Giuliani [to run the FBI],” and the Senate confirms that pick instead of blocking it. “The second thing to watch for,” says Mounk, “is whether this is the beginning a whole series of similar appointments to similar institutions.”
But how likely is it that someone with authoritarian leanings like Trump can actually end our democracy, short of the traditional coup? Our system is famously designed to decentralize power, not just within the three branches of government, but devolved to 50 semi-autonomous states. And erosion is certainly different from actually overturning democracy.
If I were try to “game out” such a takeover (minus the possibility of the aforementioned military coup), it would probably look like this:
- Consolidate control over the executive branch. That would mean firing anyone not loyal (a la Comey) and exerting control especially over agencies like the Justice Department, FBI, and CIA — in short, any power center that could threaten the executive with oversight and intelligence gathering/leaking. That would also mean firing or monitoring employees within the agencies who are disloyal.
- Interfere with congressional oversight or elections. Congress represents the one giant check on the presidency. Right now, due to partisan loyalty, the congress is not exercising that authority, but that dynamic could change if Trump’s support erodes among the Republican base (although those voters so far appear not to have lost much faith in their leader). But due to voter suppression and gerrymandering, the House of Representatives is already skewed in favor of Trump’s party, while the Senate has long been counter-majoritarian by design. Whereas it used to favor small states, it now favors rural voters at the base of Trump’s support. But could an authoritarian take further steps to interfere with congressional elections? Two worrying signs: Trump’s recent executive order to create a “voter fraud commission,” which could lead to partisan legislation or appointments that interfere with state election processes, and the recent resignation of the U.S. Census Bureau head, which could portend changes in how population is distributed and counted among congressional districts, which in turn could weaken opposition party representation.
- Control the judicial branch. Due to an unprecedented degree of obstruction of Obama’s judicial appointments by Senate Republicans, they’ve now handed Trump control over the U.S. Supreme Court with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, as well as many district court-level vacancies. It’s not clear that appointed judges would necessarily support authoritarian or anti-democratic maneuvers, but we’ve generally seen Republican-appointed judges uphold efforts on partisan gerrymandering and rolling back of Voting Rights Act protections — a worrying trend.
- Generally undermine voter confidence in democratic institutions and the media. Trump has been following this pattern by disparaging institutions and leaders, as well as the media, as corrupt and illegitimate and deliberately spreading falsehoods to undermine confidence in government (like lying about the population count at his inaugural, for example). These efforts engender apathy and distrust among the voters, possibly making them more willing to allow greater transgressions of democratic norms over time.
Trump has four years to make headway on these strategies, if that’s his intention. And with a strong economy and no war in 2020, he potentially has eight years, with his family members now positioned to follow him into power, should he get too old to serve. He also has a partisan majority in government to support these efforts.
On the flip side, an active press, emboldened media, and judiciary with integrity can remain a bulwark against authoritarian moves. And the voters ultimately have the final say. If Trump loses support among his base, as I mentioned, enough Republicans would then be likely to support checks on the presidency through proper and independent oversight.
America’s democracy has a lot of built-in safeguards, but it’s hard to deny that it is under duress and really has been for at least the past few decades, as my guests on City Visions described. But the rot doesn’t come from the top — it comes from voter apathy and disillusionment with our government. Unless democrats (with a small “d”) make headway against those trends, the fight to preserve this system as we’ve known it will be that much harder.