Donald Trump has only been in office 79 days. And yet he has already dug himself into such a deep hole that a large number of commentators are declaring victory—or ridiculing the idea that there was ever good reason to worry about him in the first place.
Writing in New York, Jonathan Chait argues that Trump’s popularity is likely to fall further still, leaving Republicans to pay a heavy price in the coming years:
Trump mortgaged everything to win the election by making promises that he lacked any remotely practical plan to fulfill. The gains for him and his party will be scant, and the political costs of obtaining them high. … By the time Trump has departed the Oval Office, they will look longingly at a staid, boxed-in Clinton presidency as a road not taken.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, crestfallen at the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare, is consoling itself with attacks on scholars who pointed out the risks of a Trump presidency:
Not too long ago our leading media lights were using Mussolini and Hitler analogies to describe the new American President’s threat to “democratic norms.” … So much for all that. The real story of the Trump Presidency so far is that the normal checks and balances of the American system are working almost to a fault. … His Presidency is young, and perhaps Mr. Trump will still find his bearings and make some progress on his reform agenda. We can’t say the same about the lost credibility of the many worthies who sold American institutions short while predicting fascist doom.
So have people like me, who have long warned that American democracy might be in danger, come down with a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome? Is it time for us “worthies” to get over our collective freak-out?
No, we haven’t. And no, it isn’t. It’s true that there’s been some good news over the last months. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a moment to celebrate our successes—if only because we owe them to the millions of courageous citizens who have been doing their bit to stop one of the scariest moments in American history from turning into its most tragic.
Here’s a list of the positives:
With impressive speed, a massive protest movement has emerged against Trump. #TheResistance is hard at work calling attention to the worst actions and policies of the administration. So long as this movement can remain energized for the coming years, it will be an important bulwark against a potential power grab by the executive. With a bit of luck, it might even help Democrats win back the House or the Senate in 2018.
More broadly, checks and balances are, for now, holding up reasonably well. The judiciary has done a great job at reining Trump in. Though they have repeatedly drawn the president’s ire, the country’s judges show no sign of being cowed by him. Federal courts have halted two executive orders on immigration and seem likely to take an active role in curtailing executive overreach in the coming years.
The executive branch, whose functioning could most easily be sabotaged by decrees from the White House, has so far preserved its independence as well: The intelligence community has resisted pressures to alter its findings to protect the president from allegations of collusion with Russia. The FBI is investigating Trump. For now, the neutrality of key state institutions remains on full display.
Finally, though Republicans control both houses of Congress, even the legislature has frustrated Trump at multiple turns. Democrats in the House stood united against the GOP health care plan. Democrats in the Senate stood united against confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. While those parts of the far left who seem to hate moderate Democrats more than they hate extremist Republicans like to accuse Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer of being cynical corporate shills who never find the courage to stand up for anything, their determination has, over the last months, been clear to anybody who cared to take a look.
The story is, unsurprisingly, a lot more bleak when you look at congressional Republicans. Some, like Devin Nunes, have demonstrated that they are willing to stoop to any low, and to break any democratic norm, to support their president. Many, like Paul Ryan, have made occasional noises of displeasure before falling into lockstep whenever it comes down to an actual vote. Only a few, like John McCain and Ben Sasse, have criticized Trump in clear terms, and indicated that they might—at some as yet unknown point in the ever-receding future—be willing to walk their talk. But while courage mostly continues to be missing in action among GOP officeholders, the incongruence of their ideological coalition has so far been just as effective in frustrating Trump’s most ambitious plans.
Trump has mostly blamed the failure of the American Health Care Act on a small band of legislators from the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus. But resistance from the Coverage Caucus, made up of Republicans from swing districts who refused to vote for the bill because it would have taken away health care from many of their constituents, were just as important a reason for its failure. This both spells trouble for the current attempt to revive health care reform—since any attempt to buy the votes of the Freedom Caucus is likely to grow the ranks of the Coverage Caucus—and gives a preview of the difficulties Trump will face in passing other legislative priorities.
But there’s also been plenty of bad news. This of course includes lots and lots and lots (and lots and lots) of terrible laws and executive orders—from employment to the environment—that will make the lives of millions of people worse. But it’s not just policy; I’m still worried about the effects that Trump’s presidency will have on basic democratic norms as well.
For one, Trump has effectively demolished the safeguards that are supposed to ensure that citizens do not profit financially from holding office. Since he has neither released his tax returns nor established a blind trust, we cannot know which of his policies are intended to boost his private wealth—or what foreign powers might hold considerable sway over him. There is every reason to fear that he may be profiting from the office he holds or changing his foreign policy to please his creditors. Even if he’s not, his example will make it easier for officeholders at all levels to engage in corrupt practices in the future.
For another, Trump’s rhetoric continues to violate every basic norm of decency and democracy: Even as president, Trump has spread blatant lies; undermined the press; attacked judges who ruled against him, implied that political adversaries from Susan Rice to Hillary Clinton should be behind bars; and endorsed authoritarian strongmen from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Egypt’s Abdel el-Sisi. In Trump’s campaign, the one constant was that he sounded like a would-be dictator. And as president, the one constant is that Trump sounds like a would-be dictator.
And then, of course, there is the sheer impulsiveness of his administration. A few days ago, Trump seemed to indicate that he was willing to leave Bashar al-Assad in office in Syria. On Thursday, Trump started to bomb Assad’s troops. If a major shift in foreign policy announced on a Monday is superseded by an even more radical shift in foreign policy carried out on a Thursday, the past actions of the Trump administration seem to have little predictive value for the future. So while Trump has mostly refrained from running roughshod over independent institutions in his first seventy-seven days in office, it would be naïve to think that he might not decide to do so in the years to come.
So what does all of this add up to? There are now two paths forward. On the optimistic scenario, Trump will continue to lie, to break democratic norms, and even to benefit his own businesses. But despite his outrageous rhetoric, he will respect the functioning of independent institutions. When a court strikes down his executive order, he will tweet angrily—and comply. When Congress thwarts his plans, he will blame Paul Ryan—and move on to see the next item on his agenda falter.
Even on this optimistic scenario, the damage will be real. But it will not be beyond recovery. There’s also the pessimistic scenario, however. In this scenario, Trump will get increasingly frustrated by the media, by the courts, by Congress, and by the FBI. His extreme rhetoric will make more and more of his supporters willing to attack independent institutions head-on. And when some big crisis comes along—a terrorist attack, perhaps, or a confrontation with a foreign power—he will start to ignore checks and balances: Claiming that terrorists were somehow aided by the media or by the judges or by Congress, he will expand libel laws or pack the Supreme Court or pass executive orders that vastly outstrip the bounds of his rightful authority.
In countries like Russia and Turkey, the warning signs were there from the beginning. But though their democratic institutions had always been weaker than they are here in the United States, it took Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan a long time to consolidate their power—and even longer for observers to recognize that they were well on their way toward becoming dictators. Three months into their rule, each one of them was celebrated as a big chance for democracy by mainstream American publications from the New York Times Magazine to, yes, the Wall Street Journal.
All in all, I am a little more optimistic now than I was a few months ago. So far, Trump really has proven to be all outrageous talk and no real action. As Chait points out, the chances that Democrats might beat him handily in 2020 and banish his noxious influence from our political system are higher now than they were a few short months ago. But by the same token, it is about four years minus 79 days too soon to declare victory. The danger Trump represents for American democracy is far from banished.