Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly asked by an anxious citizen, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which he famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Today, that question, along with Franklin’s conditional answer, is still with us, but in a distinctly modern form: Will the Trump Presidency be the start of a new authoritarian regime, unaccountable to either the electorate or the other branches of government, or will it be a one-time deal, a final culmination and repudiation of the 30-year Republican program to enrich a minute class of millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else in the country?
It’s a monumental question, addressing nothing less than the heart and soul of the Constitutional Republic the Founding Fathers crafted nearly 230 years ago. How it will be answered depends on the actions and reactions of five very different groups: the Trump Administration itself, the US Congress, the Free Press, the Democratic Party, and the American Electorate.
What we can expect from the Trump Administration
No one can claim that the Presidential campaign did not fulfill one of its main purposes: it did expose Donald Trump as both temperamentally and intellectually unfit to be President of the United States. So far the President-elect has validated that image by refusing to learn about the details of his new job (no intelligence briefings required, thank you, because he’s “smart”), nominating laughably unfit or inappropriate individuals to most of his Cabinet posts, and continuing to bully, insult, and lie pervasively and outrageously to the American people. There is no reason to expect any of this to change after Inauguration Day.
As discussed in a previous post, the Trump Administration’s direct, first-order actions are likely to be a clown-car ride of chaos, folly, distracting spectacle, incompetence, scandal, lies, and betrayal of Trump’s voting constituency. What is critical now for understanding whether we will remain a Republic or become a pseudo-monarchy are the second- and third-order reactions to that ride. How will the other key players respond to the debacle of an unfit but infinitely ambitious President and an unprepared Administration? And most importantly, how will Trump and his followers react to that reaction? At stake is whether Trump will end up being a weird blip and quick course correction on the graph of American political history, or the beginning of the end of the American Republic.
What roles will the US Congress, the Free Press, the Democratic Party, and the American Electorate play?
If Americans want to save the American Republic from the tyrant on our doorstep, we cannot look at the Trump Administration in isolation. We have to consider the actions and reactions of at least four other political institutions and groups that may or may not act as counterweights to Trump.
This introductory post summarizes the roles these groups can be expected to play as the nation confronts the authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump. For readers who want to dig deeper, additional posts offer background, details, and prescriptions for each of them. Will they contribute to the defeat and repudiation of Trump and the radical Republicanism that spawned him? Or will they contribute, through action or inaction, to the birth of a post-democratic, authoritarian regime in which the rule of law is replaced by the whims and obsessions of a narcissistic, impulsive, and vindictive autocrat?
Trump vs. the US Congress: Two branches of government or one?
The default assumption among many political observers is that the Republican-controlled Congress will simply roll over and rubber-stamp all of Trump’s appointments and legislative desires. However, we are already seeing some examples of a fraying of the seams between Trump and Congress, specifically around the question of Russian interference in the election, his choice of “Friend of Russia” Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and his potential conflicts of interest and violations of the Emoluments Clause.
It is important to remember that 2016 opened up a giant rift between Trump, Establishment Republicans, and the Republican electorate. Trump proved that many of the most sacred principles of the Republican Establishment were simply of no interest to Republican voters, who flocked to Trump and left 16 more or less Establishment candidates in the dust. Republican voters did not vote for conservative principles, they voted for Trump, who has no principles at all.
Establishment Republicans in Congress really want only two things from a Trump Presidency: another big tax cut for the wealthy, and the appointment of a pro-business, anti-regulation Supreme Court Justice (or maybe more than one). Beyond that, the unfolding relationship between Trump and Congress depends largely on Trump, who actually faces a difficult dilemma.
Trump may choose to adopt a traditional Republican agenda, following the lead of Paul Ryan and Establishment Republicans in Congress. but this would violate many of his loudest campaign promises, betray his promises to his working-class supporters, and possibly ignite an electoral backlash that could cost him his job in 2020.
Or, he may choose to go “full demagogue,” turn against Establishment Republicans and their corporate sponsors, and reassert himself as Campaign-Trump, a kind of alt-right Bernie Sanders who rails against the rigged system, promises his followers economic miracles, feeds their racism and bigotry, and reminds everyone that “I alone can fix it.” This path, however, would likely be received with horror by the Establishment Congress.
So this is Trump’s dilemma. He either “goes rogue” on the Republican Party that helped get him elected, or he adopts their social and economic policies and betrays his promises to his followers. Knowing Trump’s psychological profile, the former path would be hard for him to resist, especially if he perceives any disrespect from independent-minded Republicans (like McCain and Graham in the Senate), but it would also create a threat that he may be too self-absorbed to recognize.
Especially if his approval ratings continue to scrape along at historic lows, and he continues to scare everyone in Washington with his erratic behavior, Republicans in Congress may decide he is simply too much of a liability to head the Republican ticket in 2020. They may therefore choose an option that currently seems unthinkable, but is eminently doable: impeach Trump (say, for violating the Emoluments Clause) and hand the White House over to the much more predictable and tractable Mike Pence.
From the perspective of the Republican Establishment, the crazier Donald Trump gets, the better a party loyalist and insider like President Mike Pence looks.
It’s possible Trump will see this threat and try to head it off by splitting the difference: adopting a laissez faire attitude toward Republican-sponsored legislation, but feeding his followers a steady diet of angry, confrontational, racist, and bigoted rhetoric to distract them from any failures to address their economic needs. This would be a relatively rational, if highly cynical, course to take. It would also fit well with Trump’s disinterest in anything complicated, like policy making. As he did with the Republican National Committee during the campaign, Trump may simply outsource his policy agenda to Paul Ryan, without much awareness or interest in the fact that this will put him on a collision course with many of his promises to his white working-class supporters.
For more details on Trump’s dilemma, read the accompanying post, “Trump vs. the US Congress: Two branches of government or one?”.
How the Free Press can stand up to Trump
The “media” has become so fragmented that it is impossible to talk about it as a single entity. When considering the relationship between Trump and the media, we are primarily interested in what might be called the Free Press, that part of the media that tries to report facts accurately and hold the government accountable for its actions.
The Free Press showed a remarkable degree of unanimity during the Presidential campaign, basically providing Trump with no endorsements and quite a few eloquent anti-endorsements. It did its job responsibly, telling the public exactly what kind of person Trump was, and providing reasonable warnings of how dangerous a Trump Presidency would be. But the public chose differently, and now the Free Press faces an even bigger challenge.
What is the duty of a responsible Press in the face of a President-elect and soon-to-be President who lies repeatedly and shamelessly to the American people, misunderstands basic constitutional principles, is willfully ignorant of the duties and responsibilities of the Presidency, and has launched an all-out war on the “dishonest” and “disgusting” media for having the audacity to report his words and deeds accurately?
In the accompanying post, “How the Free Press can stand up to Trump,” it is argued that the Free Press has six responsibilities with regard to Donald Trump:
- Resist normalizing Trump during the pre-inauguration period.
- Call out his anti-constitutional views.
- Educate the public on the true meaning of the Constitution.
- Expose and contextualize Trump’s constant lying.
- Accurately report his narcissistic outbursts and behaviors.
- Hold him accountable for his performance as President, particularly with regard to the promises he made to his supporters during the campaign.
Throughout the campaign, Trump proved to be his own worst enemy when it came to performance. There is no reason to expect that to change after he becomes President. The Free Press must hold him accountable for his behavior and his performance, while at the same time withstanding what will likely be the greatest Presidential temper tantrum in American history.
Is Trump the key to a Democratic Party resurgence?
Just as most observers believe Congress is going to roll over for Trump, so they believe the Democratic Party has been killed by Trump. And like the first prediction, the second one may not be as smart as it appears today. But if the Democratic Party wants to make a comeback in 2020, and maybe even in 2018, it needs to rethink its core message and how it delivers it, and it needs to get more than a little help from the Trump Administration.
Contrary to the “Democrats are dead” argument, Trump’s election may present a golden opportunity for the Party which, ironically, would never have occurred if Clinton had won. Trump’s victory could be a blessing in disguise for two reasons: it split the Republican Party’s “head” from its “body” and it placed in the White House a completely unqualified, unprepared, and uneducated “Republican” who is capable of doing irreparable damage to the Republican image and brand.
The Republican Party has been able to disguise the fact that it is the Party of the rich because it has been in a non-governing role for the last eight years. In opposition, it has not had to propose and then be accountable for legislation that places its ideological goals front and center, for all to see. Throughout the Obama Presidency, Republicans were able to block every effort by the Democratic administration to put in place policies supporting the working and middle classes, but somehow that obstructionism was never adequately publicized and the Republicans were able to blame Obama and Clinton for the tepid economic recovery that failed to lift jobs and income at the lower ranges of the economy.
Now, thanks to Trump’s election, the Republican agenda is going to be out in the open and subjected to the scrutiny it deserves. Whether or not Trump and the Republicans succeed in cutting back Social Security, privatizing Medicare, defunding Obamacare, gutting environmental protections, voucherizing public education, eliminating the minimum wage, unshackling student loan predators, destroying the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau, deregulating Wall Street, and otherwise erasing eight years of progress under the Obama Administration, the American public will be given a front row seat to watch them try. And the Democratic Party simply needs to bear witness to these efforts, say “this is who they are, not us,” and present a viable alternative that does not further exploit the American working and middle classes.
Should Trump fail to make the lives of working-class whites “great again,” then Democrats, along with the Free Press, must make sure his base holds him accountable for that failure. In addition, Democrats must make a persuasive case for why they can do better. And they must convince Trump voters that the white working class cannot succeed at the expense of minorities and immigrants, but only alongside them. Finally, it must lead the Trump survivors into the Bernie Sanders tent, where economic inequality is identified as the culprit that needs to be fixed, the extra burden on the rich is recognized as a small and fair price to pay after decades of huge and disproportionate gains, and the American dream of a healthy and growing middle class can once again become attainable.
For a more in-depth look at these issues, read the accompanying post, “Is Trump the key to a Democratic Party resurgence?”
We need to take a fresh look at how and why America votes
The 2016 Presidential election should have been a wake up call for every political pundit, pollster, and operative who ever thought they understood the American electorate.
The candidate with more experience, more money, better advertising, a better debate performance, a better ground game, and better surrogates, including a highly-popular outgoing President and his wife, lost the election to an entertainer and provocateur who had no political experience, spent much less money, had no major Republican supporters or donors, no advertising, no ground game, and a completely incompetent campaign team. In addition, he was obnoxious, overbearing, self-destructive, divisive, and pessimistic about America. And if those temperament and operational execution failures were not enough, he was hit by one scandal after another, including an obscene self-narrated depiction of his sexual assault techniques and a fully-documented account of how he stole money from his own charity to buy a giant portrait of himself. Yet he won.
How could this have happened? Clearly, we know less about how and why the American electorate chose its President in 2016 than we thought we did.
The mystery begins to lift when we understand that the “folk theory of democracy” – the belief that people listen to the campaign and make their choices based on how each candidates’ positions match their own policy preferences – is bunk. Instead, it is now well established in political science research that most voters, even the most informed and active voters, do not vote on the basis of policy preferences or even ideology, but on the basis of who they are; that is, on their social and political identity.
So how could Trump win? He won because most people do not listen to the content of the campaign. They are vaguely aware of the emotional tone of the campaign, but even that knowledge only loosely informs their vote. For the most part, they learn which candidate is “for them” and which is “against them.” by interacting with other members of their identity group. Their group affiliations and attachments determine their political beliefs and values.
James Madison warned against the dangers of group-based politics in the Federalist No. 10. He described two attributes of what he called “factions” (and what we today call political identity groups). First, group connections are highly emotional, not rational or logical. Second, in order to be a part of an “in-group” humans must be able to define an “out-group.”
These two features often combine in toxic and combustible ways, as they did in the 2016 election.
Viewing the American electorate in terms social and political identities rather than issue preferences helps explain how an unqualified candidate like Donald Trump could defeat a much more qualified opponent. For key groups who ended up having a decisive effect on the electoral outcome, his tone, demeanor, and fervent depiction of a shared “enemy” signaled greater alignment with what they cared about, despite his many handicaps as a candidate and a human being.
The same group identity perspective can be used to look forward. If Trump does indeed fail to deliver on the campaign promises he made to key identity groups in the American electorate (and his cabinet selections and post-election statements show every sign of exactly that outcome), there is a good chance this betrayal can be leveraged against him to lure at least some of his white working-class supporters back to the Democratic side.
To achieve this goal, Democrats need to acquire a new understanding of the key identity group that propelled Trump to victory: rural, white, high school-educated, working-class Americans. Democrats need to learn how this group defines its members, what their major beliefs and values are, what emotions drive them, and who they see as their enemy.
In order to pry the rural, white, working class identity group out of the hands of the Republican Party, Democrats need to borrow some ideas from the Republican playbook, write some new rules of their own, and get some help from the Trump Administration. Here are seven lessons for turning the American electorate away from Trump and the Republicans in 2018 and 2020:
- Let Trump fail. There should be no collaboration and no normalization. No deals and no compromises.
- Learn from Republicans (and Bernie Sanders) that emotions, including negative emotions, in politics are both inevitable and good.
- Realize that while negative emotions in politics are inevitable, the enemy toward which they are directed is not.
- Be clear that the right “enemy” for all constituencies in the Democratic coalition, including the rural, white, working class, is economic inequality, not minorities and immigrants.
- Speak directly to the positive beliefs and values of the identity groups you want to win over.
- Recognize that it is not logical arguments or policy proposals, but only life experiences and reality on the ground that will cause Trump supporters to break away from him.
- Introduce the American electorate to a new generation of leaders, not already demonized by the Republican propaganda machine, to represent the Party going forward.
For more details and background on winning over the American electorate, read the accompanying post, “We need to take a fresh look at how and why America votes.”
A Republic. Can We Keep It?
Not since the outbreak of the Civil War has the American Republic been in more danger than it is today. This no doubt sounds like hyperbole to many. But Trump is not a single, unprecedented event. Rather, he has seized an opportunity created by a radicalized and anti-American conservative movement that has taken over the Republican Party and systematically groomed a large segment of the American public to detest, distrust, and misunderstand the American form of government. It is this movement, not just the election of Trump, that makes authoritarianism a real possibility at this moment in history. Can Trump and his followers take down the world’s oldest Republic, or will the separation of powers and a free press – both constitutionally established by our Founding Fathers – be enough to save us from this unique moment of peril? We are about to find out.