“Is Donald Trump a threat to democracy?” That’s the title of an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which poses the wrong question, proceeds from a false definition, meanders through skewed partisan reasoning, and arrives at a myopic conclusion. Other than that, it is a fine essay.
The salient inquiry with regard to Trump is not whether he’s a threat to democracy, because democracy does not constitute the sum total of the American system that Trump could endanger. Democracy—the right of the people to choose their leaders—is but one item in our basket of political values, wisely limited by the Founders lest it be used to upend everything else. A better question would be “Is Donald Trump a threat to liberty?” or “Is Donald Trump a threat to the republic?”
America’s system of government is revolutionary because it’s rooted in a constitution that intentionally limits concentrations of power, creating a breathing space in between where liberty can thrive. Trump, many worry, poses a threat to these intricacies. Levitsky and Ziblatt, though they lump all this under “democracy,” seem to agree. They accuse Trump of having “authoritarian tendencies,” which he does, but then fail to recognize that this hardly makes him unique. Trump is unusually forthright about his willingness to abrogate constitutional protections and his caprice poses a possible danger, but other presidents were authoritarian, too—they just don’t get criticized as such because they played by Washington’s rules.
Our current president believes he has the authority to point at illegal immigrants and make them citizens, order drone strikes on American citizens, and force individuals to purchase health insurance regardless of whether they want it. His predecessor argued he could indefinitely imprison Americans without suspending habeus corpus and coerce telecom companies into surrendering their customers’ private information. Presidents going back decades have ransomed states with the withdrawal of federal funds if they don’t comply with various mandates. The Obamacare law handed extensive power over one sixth of the American economy to a single unelected health bureaucrat. The EPA does what it likes under the ubiquitous Clean Air Act. Police literally steal people’s stuff through the wicked and vindictive license of civil asset forfeiture.
All of this has chipped away at the American system, inflating its authority, desecrating the Fourth Amendment, ignoring the Tenth, and turning our federalist pyramid upside-down. It’s created a government that bestows awesome power upon its executive, a position Donald Trump is about to occupy.
Yet none of this is acknowledged as a threat by Levitsky and Ziblatt. The real danger, they say, comes from infractions on “norms of partisan restraint,” meaning the inability of Democrats to advance their agenda with sufficient alacrity. They exhibit as evidence Norm Ornstein’s and Thomas Mann’s migraine-inducingly tedious work, which offers the wildly revolutionary conclusion—please observe the fasten seatbelt light here—that everything is all the fault of…conservative Republicans! It was that damned GOP, which tried to exert its power of the purse during the 2011 budget fight and refused to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, that brought us to the brink. Oh, and Ann Coulter is is an unprecedented menace for employing the sort of rhetoric that James Callender used to publish on a regular basis.
This is less missing the forest for the trees than missing the forest for the moon. The problem we face today isn’t that we’re as partisan as the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were; it’s that we’ve dismantled the Founders’ delicate scaffolding meant to protect against our passions, beam by beam, until we’ve ended up with an almost omnipotent presidency buttressed by a lumbering deep state. This is the real threat to the republic. You can’t stay silent for decades as our government makes itself more susceptible to authoritarianism and then suddenly yelp when an authoritarian comes along.