It is apparent from the first few weeks of the Trump administration that many fears of what this would look like were well founded. This administration has been vitriolic, angry, reactionary, patently dishonest, unconcerned about democratic norms, rarely competent and very dangerous. The bad news is that this is not likely to stop soon. The Republicans in congress have shown no interest in checking executive power or probing Trump’s financial conduct, the role of Russia in our election or anything else. Those hoping to impeach President Trump misunderstand this political environment where that is almost impossible. Others, promising that the President will soon snap and lose all contact with reality thus forcing somebody’s hand, are missing the key fact that Donald Trump snapped months ago.
In general, we now have a pretty good idea of where the Trump presidency is headed. We have much less of a sense, however, of how or where it will end. It is possible, albeit extremely unlikely, that Donald Trump will begin acting like a President, or even a rational adult, but betting on Trump to become more mature or rational has been a bad bet for well over a year. Another possible scenario is that 2020 will look more or less like a normal election and that a Democrat will unseat Trump, but that also looks more like a fond hope than a likely outcome. Given what the Trump team has done in less than a fortnight in power, including asserting that millions of illegal votes were cast against him in November, it is evident that if you are still wondering who will win the 2020 Democratic caucus in Iowa, you are not asking the most relevant question, and perhaps one with no meaning at all.
The road back to normalcy, that is to the nasty hyper-partisan, name-calling, gridlocked political life of the last 20 years or so that ended on January 20th, and that now looks pretty good, will be difficult, with no guarantee that we will ever get there. It is, therefore, valuable to ask where, in the bigger picture, our country and our political system is going. There are two likely directions, and outcomes. The first is the gloomy prospects of Trump and his Bannonite followers that now hold sway over the Republican Party successfully consolidating a non-democratic regime. This not to say that we are heading towards fascism or Naziism, but there is plenty of room between democracy and fascism and a good chance Trump will take us to that space. In this scenario, efforts to weaken media freedom and limit access to government data and other information will be relatively successful, other branches of government will continue to fail to act as checks on executive power, the administration continues its aggressively divisive politics and Trump appointed judges support efforts of Republican legislatures to limit voter rights. This is a very distressing scenario, but anybody who has seen what has been happening in the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, must recognize this is not only a real possibility, but the path of least resistance.
That is why resistance, whether through marches, the courts, the media or other means, is so important. In the coming months and years, American politics will either be framed by consolidation of a non-democratic regime or an intense struggle between those seeking to consolidate that regime and those opposing it. This language is strong, but it is not hyperbolic. I could be wrong, but given what we have seen the last ten days or so, I fear that I am not. If that struggle indeed emerges, it will be extremely difficult for American politics to go backwards. The bell of authoritarianism that Trump and the Bannonites have rung may be smashed by a resistance, but it cannot be unrung through the tools and tactics that have been at the core of our democracy for decades. Sadly, those days are probably over.
The process that will defeat Trump’s efforts to impose a non-democratic regime will unavoidably highlight many other undemocratic aspects of our political system. One obvious example of this is the electoral college, but if this failure of our institutional checks and balances continues, post-Trump America will need new institutions, as well as a new party system, to check future aspiring despots. Those institutions are extremely difficult to craft; and impossible to get one hundred percent right, but the American appetite, for example, for state governments that can limit freedoms, as well as the franchise and electoral and legislative structures that give disproportionate influence to conservative rural states will most likely be very diminished if the Trump regime is successfully brought down. Moreover, while there will be a need for an electoral component to defeating Trump, the increasing awareness that waiting for the next election is not enough will also accelerate the search for different and better checks on the executives and institutional structures upon which to build our democracy.