Evaluating Evolution: Donald Trump’s Impact on Democratic Institutions
Introduction to Evolution and Political Systems
Evolution is a term that is most popularly used to describe the gradual development of living organisms over time. Although the term is largely used in science, it can also be applied to many other aspects of the world that don’t necessarily have to do with living beings but that encompass change over time. Political systems are one area that the word evolution can apply to. Over the ages, humanity has tested many different forms of government. Some systems were overthrown, and others were modified to create the political systems that we have today.
After the American Revolution, a democratic system was chosen to be the governing force in the United States. The writers of the American Constitution created a framework for this democratic system but left little room for it to be altered as the need arises and as long as the improvements are within the boundaries of democracy. It appears that President Donald J. Trump believes the time has come to take advantage and tweak the constitution that the American forefathers worked hard to create. If done correctly, changes to the American democratic system can be a good thing; however, Donald Trump may be blurring the lines between democracy and autocracy.
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Donald Trump’s Approach to Democracy and Autocracy
Democratic systems aren’t perfect. As President Donald Trump has proven, there is a possibility for authoritarian leaders to find a way to cheat the system and be elected to office. When this happens, it is important for the country to evaluate its existing democratic institutions to ensure that they are strong enough to withstand attack. Weak democratic institutions can bring about one of the greatest fears of the writers of the Constitution: the consolidation of power in the hands of a single person or a small group of people. The power can be used to effectively strip American citizens of freedoms promised to them by the Bill of Rights and destroy democracy.
On the other hand, strong democratic institutions make sure that the system of checks and balances described in the Constitution runs the way it is supposed to and that there is an equal spread of power. To create these strong institutions, political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky identified two characteristics that are necessary components in every democracy. They call these characteristics “unwritten rules”. The “unwritten rules” ensure that a democracy can survive an authoritarian leader and that the rights of American citizens will not be jeopardized.
The Role of Democratic Institutions in Safeguarding Democracy
The “unwritten rules” are basic concepts, but they play a significant role in determining whether a democracy will live or die. The first of these rules is mutual toleration. Under mutual tolerance, political opponents must recognize and accept each other’s opinions even if they disagree. In most democracies, different political parties exist. In the United States, there are a number of political parties, but the two major parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. When the founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they were vague in their wording, leaving the Constitution open for interpretation.
Members of the Democratic and Republican parties have different opinions about how the Constitution should be interpreted. According to Ziblatt and Levitsky’s first “unwritten rule,” the members of the Democratic and Republican parties must acknowledge each other’s interpretation of the Constitution even though it may differ from their own. Without mutual tolerance, political opponents may view each other as enemies of the United States rather than loyal citizens who also want the best for the country. Campaigns would turn into bloody battles, tearing the country apart. The divide would leave enough of an opening for a single person or small group of people to take over and implement radical changes.
Having only one “unwritten rule” is not enough. Both work hand in hand and are necessary to ensure that democratic institutions cannot be influenced by undemocratic leaders. The Constitution allows each branch of the federal government specific powers. However, it also implements a system of checks and balances to make sure that one branch isn’t appropriating more power than it is supposed to. For example, under the Constitution, the president has the legal ability to nominate Supreme Court justices, but with checks and balances, Congress can decide to disapprove those nominations.
Furthermore, if the Supreme Court constantly rules against the president, as President Roosevelt displayed, the president can decide to nominate additional justices who share the same views as him to sway the balance in his favor. If political leaders exploit their power to the full legal capacity, nothing will really get done, and again, a bloody battle will ensue. In politics, candidates sometimes have to hold back from doing everything they are capable of doing for the greater good of the country. The way Ziblatt and Levitsky explain this in their book How Democracies Die is with the term ‘forbearance.’
Authoritarian Tendencies in Donald Trump’s Leadership
Autocratic governments typically start out democratic, but due to their weak democratic institutions, leaders with authoritarian tendencies are elected, and they consolidate their power to the point where it is almost impossible for majority rule to be restored. A single person or small group of people holds most of the power, and there are little to no checks and balances. Unlike in democratic societies, where power stems from the citizens, in autocratic societies, power stems from authoritarian leaders. The leaders of these governments are above the law and, therefore, accountable to no one.
President Donald J. Trump’s nomination shocked many American citizens as well as the majority of the world because of his authoritarian or undemocratic tendencies. A test was created by Juan J. Linz, a political scientist, to determine whether a political candidate is democratic or not. The criteria the test checks are whether the politician encourages violence denies the legitimacy of his opponents, rejects democratic rules, and limits the liberties of those who dare go against him. When analyzed, President Trump fits all these profiles.
Before Donald Trump was even elected to office, his authoritarian tendencies were clear. His behavior was and still is erratic and impulsive. Starting with his accusations against the president who was in office at that time, it was obvious that Trump did not view anyone as a legitimate opponent. He repeatedly made claims that President Obama was not a citizen of the United States, which, if true, meant that Obama was legally unable to hold office. Trump didn’t stop with Obama. Anyone that stood in his path to the White House was bashed and discredited. Trump continuously accused Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic party, of being a criminal and vowed to prosecute her once he was elected. Trump, disregarding the First Amendment completely, has made it his mission to whip the media into line. Anything anti-Trump or that goes against the policies Trump is trying to create, he immediately brands as “fake news.”
With the term “fake news” spread all around, it is hard to differentiate what is true and what is really “fake news.” This attempt by Trump to curtail the media’s freedom of speech and press is undemocratic and very characteristic of an authoritarian regime. It seems that Trump believes the other elected members of the federal government are there for his personal service and financial gain, and anyone who believes otherwise should be fired. Furthermore, Trump has no problem flexing his executive power. He takes a strong stand on immigration that goes against the entire basis on which the United States was created. The United States is a nation of immigrants, but Trump seems to have forgotten that.
He created a travel ban, restricting immigration from several countries, and when the ban was taken to court because it was deemed unconstitutional, he just revised it, taking full advantage of the law. Trump is also attempting to rescind the citizenship of children born in the United States to illegal immigrants. This goes directly against the Citizenship Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, which clearly states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Only an authoritarian leader would dare go toe to toe with the Constitution like Trump has.
Democratic institutions must be reinforced if the United States would like to once again be a role model to the rest of the world. To do so, American citizens and politicians have to realize that everyone is entitled to have a voice. There is no such thing as “fake news.” The common goal of the people should be to expand democracy, not turn it into autocracy.
- Freedland, Jonathan. ‘This Mafia Style Government Makes Trump a Role Model For All Autocrats.’ The Guardian (2018). web. November 2018.
- Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. ‘How Wobbly is Our Democracy?’ New York Times (2018). web. October 2018.
—. ‘Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy.’ The New York Times (2016). web. October 2018.
- Sherwood, Susan. What Characterizes an Authoritarian Government? n.d. web. November 2018.
- Sit, Ryan. Trump Meets Every Criteria for an Authoritarian Leader, Harvard Political Scientists Warn. 1 January 2018. web. November 2018.