During the raft of protests following Donald Trump’s election victory, one of the frequent chants was “this is what democracy looks like.” Protesters chanting that were correct to remind us of the centrality of freedom of speech and assembly to any meaningful notion of democracy. Unfortunately, almost two months before Donald Trump will be sworn in as president we are beginning to see what democratic rollback looks like as well. A lot has been written about what might happen to democracy during a Trump administration, but we should not let that overshadow what is already happening to our democracy.
Donald Trump has not been President-elect for a month yet, and he is already making good on his campaign pledge to limit free speech. Thus far he has demanded an apology from actors who spoke with respect, and concern, to Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage, has suggested that Americans in a public setting do not have the right to boo a politician, has called a meeting with the press to castigate them for their coverage, and sent streams of nasty Tweets to the New York Times. These are not the actions of a President who respects freedom of speech and understands that critical stories are just some of the punches with which any President in a democratic system must roll. We have also seen the elevation of Breitbart Media head, and noted bigot, Steve Bannon to a senior position in the White House and it is widely expected that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who also owns the the Observer, will be one of President Trump’s most influential advisors. Breitbart and the Observer have been largely uncritical of the President-elect in recent weeks suggesting that they may emerging as government media organs, another sign that the institution of free media is imperiled.
Republican control of both houses of congress means that President Trump will likely encounter little trouble passing any conservative legislation. That is not a failure of our institutions; that is how the institutions are supposed to work. There is, however, reason to be concerned about the legislature remaining an effective check on presidential power. The breadth of Trump’s conflicts of interests that has become evident since his election, including his evident desire to use the office to promote Trump business ventures in various parts of the world, is extraordinary. This is something into which a functioning legislature, particularly one that is interested in working with Trump to pursue shared partisan interest, should look. The silence from Republicans in Congress on this issue demonstrates that Congress is no longer capable of, or interested in, acting as a check on executive power in this way. They are either too afraid of what President Trump might do to them or believe that their efforts would be dodged by the President-elect. The result is that these obvious conflicts of interests will go unexamined and one more check on the executive will fade away.
Since the election, many state and local leaders have indicated they will resist attempts by the Trump administration to mistreat immigrants or limit civil liberties. Almost all of America’s biggest cities, as well as several of its most populous states, are run by Democrats. Democrats like Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, as well as progressive mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio will be the first line of defense for many immigrants and others who feel threatened by the ugly bigoted tone of the administration.
Given this, we can expect Trump to begin to weaken the power of cities and states. This is ironic, given that for many years the GOP claimed to believe in states rights, but things are different now. In some respects this has already begun. For example, because Donald Trump’s wife and youngest son will continue to live in New York, while he may continue to use Trump Tower as a kind of auxiliary office, the City of New York will need to spend an estimated $1,000,000 per day on security. While the President’s family needs to be safe, this amounts to an unfunded mandate of nearly $400 million a year that New York’s progressive mayor, and outspoken Trump opponent, Bill de Blasio could have used to help more New Yorkers. Trump, therefore, is using Trump Tower as a way to weaken a locally elected political opponent. We can expect more gambits like this from the President in the coming months and years. Additionally, the security around Trump Tower has created traffic problems for blocks around the building. It is apparent that the security is there not just to keep him safe, but to keep us quiet.
It is possible that the institutions will rebound, the worst of Trumpism will be reined in and Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 will minimize the damage of a Trump presidency, but the early signs suggest that is not likely to happen. The institutions, after decades of slow erosion may finally be collapsing entirely. It is still too early to know definitively, but the early signs cannot be ignored.
Photo: cc\Ben Alexander