Does Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States, believe in democracy? A couple of years ago the idea that we’d be discussing whether a President-elect is a democrat would have seemed ludicrous. But then little about American politics has been normal in recent times. The American republic was founded on liberal-democratic principles, albeit not initially applied universally, and I’m confident that these principles have contributed to America’s exceptional success.
America hasn’t had a President since WWII, and probably not in her history, who didn’t at least pretend to adhere to democratic values. This could be about to change. The current President-elect has violated just about every core democratic principle, whilst going out of his way to befriend authoritarian dictators. Little about his politics has remained consistent, beyond an admiration for raw power. In short we need to confront what is staring us in the face. Donald Trump is not, by any sensible definition of the term, a believer in democracy. Only when we have acknowledged this uncomfortable truth can we appreciate what must be done to protect American institutions, and the republic itself, over the next four years.
For a democracy to succeed and remain stable certain democratic principles must be adhered to. Candidates must accept election results, conceding freely if they are electorally defeated. They should reject violence as a political tool, and encourage their supporters to do likewise. A free and independent media must be supported, acting as a link between candidates and the electorate and trying to hold candidates to account/ensure debate is rooted in objective truth. Finally where possible a degree of respect should be maintained between candidates, with argument focused on policy rather than personal attributes, whilst criticisms should be accepted.
During the Republican primaries and Presidential election Donald Trump smashed all these principles with all the subtlety of a rampaging gorilla. He repeatedly refused to say he would accept the result if he lost the Presidential election. At the Presidential debate in Las Vagas, when asked if he would respect the result, Trump replied ‘I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense’. He later pledged to accept the result ‘if I win’. Trump combined this with the aggressive promotion of the conspiracy theory, presented without any evidence whatsoever, that the election was rigged against him. He kept asserting, on social media, at rallies and during interviews, that the election was rigged in favour of Hillary Clinton. On 16 October he claimed that the election ‘is absolutely being rigged’ whilst on election day itself he told Fox News that there were voting machines where ‘you put down a Republican and it registers as a Democrat’. Back in February 2016, when he lost the Iowa Republican Primary to Ted Cruz, he made similar claims, stating that Cruz won due to ‘fraud’.
Trump also made statements which condoned or encouraged violence. He said he’d like to punch a protestor at one of his rallies ‘in the face’, and later claimed that ‘the Second Amendment People’ could do something if Clinton attempted to increase gun control, in what appeared to be a coded threat about her assassination. He went on to assert, using language which could have been stolen from the mouth of a Central Asian dictator, that he would like to have Clinton put in jail. During the second Presidential Debate, in one of many moments which should have torpedoed his campaign, after Clinton stated it was good that he wasn’t in charge of American law, Trump responded ‘Because you’d be in jail’.
Trump and his supporters launched attacks on the media, and individual journalists, which went well beyond normal democratic conduct. He described the media as ‘thieves and crooks’, said he would change libel law to make it easier to sue ‘dishonest’ (read critical) media organisations and launched almost demented attacks on individual journalists, most prominently Megyn Kelly of Fox News. He resolutely refused to respect any opponent, nor to tolerate criticism in the conventional manner.
Trump gave all of his most serious opponents an insulting nickname. ‘Little’ Marco Rubio, ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz and ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton. This was combined with the spreading of outrageous smears and conspiracy theories, without supporting evidence. Trump rose to political prominence promoting the racially tinged lie that President Obama was born outside America. He went on to link Ted Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination and to claim that Obama was the founder, and Hillary Clinton the co-founder, of ISIS. Moreover Trump has struggled to accept criticism in the conventional manner, and when attacked, as by impersonations on Saturday Night Live, he tends to lash out in retaliation.
In summary Trump has disregarded a number of the core tenants of democratic politics. He said he wouldn’t accept the election result if he lost, threatened to imprison his chief opponent, at times defended or even promoted violence and spread outrageous conspiracy theories without evidence. If there is any doubt about Trump’s attitude to democracy it’s worth taking a look at his overseas friends. Trump has gone out of his way to praise a number of authoritarian leaders, most vocally Russian dictator Vladamir Putin who he repeatedly praised both before and after the Presidential election. By contrast he has criticised the liberal-democratic leaders of a number of America’s traditional allies, accusing German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ‘ruining Germany’ and stating that he was unlikely to have a good relationship with then British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Alas the wright of evidence is too strong, and there’s nothing to be gained from self-deception. Donald Trump doesn’t believe in democracy, or at least not in any real sense of the word. He supports democracy as long as it helps him increase his power, as it did in November 2016. However when it fails to serve his interests, as appeared to be the case when he was polling badly, his support evaporates without explanation or excuse.
Having a President who doesn’t care for democracy doesn’t mean that American democracy, and associated institutions, are living on borrowed time. Democracy in America is impressively entrenched, and is protected by a wide range of safeguards (both constitutional and non-constitutional). However vigilance is required over the next four years, especially if events occur which significantly increase the executives power (such as a major terrorist attack or war). The safeguards of American democracy are powerless without people, including amongst the general public, being prepared to enforce them. Democratic republics, which once looked secure, have fallen before from ancient Rome to modern day Turkey. It would be naïve to think the American republic is exempt from the same forces. My view is that, given the chance, Donald Trump will undermine elements of American democracy. To what extent he is successful will depend on the actions of liberty loving Americans.
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