Trump Might Not Destroy Democracy. But He Can Do Plenty of Damage.
Good news, everyone! According to Shadi Hamid, writing last week in The Atlantic, Donald Trump isn’t going to destroy America’s democratic republic, razing what generations of political genius and sacrifice have so carefully and assiduously built. So there’s no need to worry.
If only it were so.
“Conspiracy with Russia wasn’t the only thing that commentators – both liberals and NeverTrump conservatives – got wrong,” Hamid writes. “There was another, related charge that was graver and, on its face, more implausible: that Trump would (or could) destroy American democracy.”
His logic goes something like this: Some people thought Trump was going to destroy democracy in America. They were wrong; he can’t destroy it alone. Therefore there’s nothing to worry about, and Trump’s transgressions are actually good things. Well then.
Hamid might be right about a narrow sliver of leftward commentators who warned of apocalyptic doom upon Trump’s election. They were wrong, but no more and no less wrong than anyone who over-inflates the results of a single election by comparing it to Flight 93 or prophesying the return of slavery.
However, Hamid never provides an example of a NeverTrumper predicting the disintegration of the constitutional order. The journalists he cites include Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, Matt Yglesias of Vox, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, and Chait again. The one journalist he quotes who could reasonably be called a NeverTrumper, Jamie Kirchick, agrees with Hamid: Calling your movement “the Resistance” is overheated, unless you’re “burying weapons in the forests of Poland or hiding in the basements of French country houses.”
Kirchick’s example is probably representative; to the degree they can be generalized, conservative NeverTrumpers generally don’t think Trump is literally Hitler. Even the arch NeverTrumper Max Boot has stopped short of such extreme claims:
History suggests that economic upheavals such as the Industrial and Information revolutions [currently threatening democracy around the world] eventually play themselves out and leave the entire world better off. Refugee crises also abate sooner or later… Buckle your seat belts. The entire world is in for another bumpy ride.
If Hamid’s point were only that millenarian rhetoric is irresponsible, he shouldn’t have lumped in NeverTrumpers with the likes of Krugman and Chait.
In fact, it’s Hamid who proves Godwin’s Law. He finds fault with the comparison of modern America to Weimar Germany, the chaotic and unstable inter-war republic that Hitler eventually took over. But Hamid isn’t clear about who exactly makes this comparison. “Germany is a touchstone for any conversation about the fragility of democracy,” writes Hamid, raising the very comparison he then disputes.
While pummeling his straw man, Hamid aims a glancing blow at Yale historian Timothy Snyder. Snyder’s 2017 book, On Tyranny, written before Trump took office, is a how-to manual for countering authoritarian movements, which is useful for anyone who doesn’t want to live in an authoritarian country. The prologue places the book in the long tradition of the American experiment:
As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire… [They] sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny…It is thus a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled. If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny, we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies and republics. The good news is that we can draw upon more relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome.
Hamid never quotes Snyder as comparing modern America to Weimar Germany directly, but apparently continuing the American experiment of opposing tyrannical government is the same as calling Trump Hitler. Go figure.
Hamid decries Synder’s chapter titles, “Be Wary of Paramilitaries,” “Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed,” “Make Eye Contact and Small Talk,” “Establish a Private Life,” as “rather dramatic.” If small talk and eye contact are too dramatic for Hamid, perhaps the constant contest of democracy isn’t really his speed in the first place.
Snyder having been vanquished, Hamid turns to the question of Trump’s violation of democratic norms. He quotes Columbia Law professor Jedediah Purdy:
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits – which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.
It follows, argues Hamid, that breaking norms is really a pro-democratic act because democracies need to evolve. “All transformative figures,” he writes, “are, by definition, norm breakers, whether that was the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the abolitionists if the 1800s.” Hamid’s notion of political transformation has no direction, so Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. would be considered just as pro-democratic as Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Lenin by such a definition.
In total, Hamid argues that American democracy is strong enough that Trump isn’t a threat to it, that publishing a book about how to protect democracy is melodramatic, but also that breaking the norms of that democracy is a positive good for democracy.
Hamid breezily elides the true danger of Trump: that even if he can’t single-handedly destroy American self-government, he can harm it. He can and has damaged its institutions so as to make it a less free country. Other presidents, especially his immediate predecessor, did the same. It is entirely proper to decry the destruction of public morals and the corruption of public office that are Trump’s signature. We shouldn’t tolerate any more of it.
Hamid also all but ignores the possibility that Trump isn’t one man acting alone, but a man who is gradually accumulating a following that disrespects many aspects of the American democratic process in favor of its preferred policy outcomes. “In policy terms, outside of immigration,” he asserts, “the Republican Party has more co-opted the Trump administration than the other way around.” On that score, he may or may not be right.
But what about non-policy terms? What about process terms? What about accomplishing the right policy through building coalitions, rather than unilateral national emergencies and acting secretaries of everything? And what about the future? Is the Republican Party becoming fonder of legal immigration, or more hostile? More in favor of free trade, or more against? More patriotic in the best sense of the word, or more sectional and partisan?
American government was designed not to prevent demagogues, but to withstand them.
“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 10, continuing in No. 51, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The Constitution has survived its own ratification, the crisis of slavery and secession, two World Wars, the Cold War, impeachments, crises, and all the travails of two centuries. It can survive Trump. But there’s no guarantee it will thrive.