Flawed as it is, American democracy rests on a foundation that Donald Trump is in the process of destroying.
That foundation is composed of the institutions and patterns of behavior that permit citizens to become informed about critical issues and also to influence policy. That structure works imperfectly. With it, very rich people have too much political power. But after Donald Trump’s first month in office, it is clear that even that imperfect system is being dismantled.
In both tone and substance, Trump’s message is that his political opponents are enemies, not simply people with whom there is political disagreement. He does not adhere to traditional patterns of respectful discourse. A rougher form of politics is employed: Hillary Clinton should be locked up; members of the press are “enemies of the people;” individuals of the Moslem faith should be barred from the country; it is acceptable to conspire with the Russians to gain electoral advantage; denying the right to vote on the basis of false claims of voter fraud is okay; there is no problem in demeaning the judiciary when “so-called judges” issue decisions the President does not approve of; and the President can use his office to become even richer than he already is. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump has all but invited the use of political violence by feigning ignorance when his supporters turn to the use of strong-arm tactics.
The question is whether American institutions will prove to be strong enough to withstand these attacks. As many commentators have pointed out ― most recently John McCain ― this is the behavior typical of authoritarians seeking to replace a representative political system with strong-man rule. At issue ultimately is whether an updated version of Hitler’s triumph in Germany in the early 1930s will occur in the United States.
Such a frightening scenario however can be avoided. Unlike Germany when Hitler ascended to power, the United States is not in an economic crisis. Credit for that should in large part be accorded to the Obama Administration. It came into office in the midst of an economic collapse that threatened to spiral completely out of control. Yet, despite Republican opposition, the Administration put together enough of a stimulus package to reverse the tide and bring the economy to something close to full employment.
During Obama’s years in office however, too many people were left behind as technological change and globalization displaced workers ― especially those without a college degree. Just as damaging was the fact that the superrich were not prevented from increasing their already excessive share of the national income. But as the election demonstrated, a majority of voters did see and appreciate the Administration’s accomplishments. Hillary Clinton received almost three million more votes than her opponent.
Since last November, majority opposition to Trump has grown even stronger. The activism that has emerged in cities and towns throughout the country has made it clear that authoritarian rule is not acceptable to most Americans. But demonstrations and rallies by those already opposed to Trumpism, though necessary, will not be sufficient to remove him from the presidency. To achieve that objective, a substantial number of Trump and third-party and Independent voters will have to join the opposition.
If that were to occur, the same process that drove Richard Nixon from the White House in 1974 could be replicated today. As the Watergate scandal unfolded and the public became aware of the egregious nature of Nixon’s crimes, Republican office holders became fearful that guilt by party affiliation would result in their electoral defeat. Faced with a choice between loyalty to the President and their own political survival, many abandoned the President. When disaffection reached a critical mass, Nixon resigned.
That dynamic could be replicated today. But convincing enough voters to join the resistance and move fence-sitting Republicans will require both debate and organizing among people who are deeply alienated. It will not be easy. But the fact is that a convincing argument can be made that what Trump really seeks with his authoritarianism is increased dominance by the rich and the neglect of everyone else. Those blue collar jobs that he promised will not be restored, millions of people will soon find themselves unable to pay their medical bills, and in the meantime taxes paid by the super-wealthy will be reduced.
Of course there will remain a hard core of Trump true believers. But many Americans who did not vote for Clinton last November can be won over to the Trump opposition, particularly if they are presented with realistic programs to deal with the sources of their alienation. A united opposition could effectively threaten the reelection of those members of Congress who insist on continuing to support a Trump presidency. With this, it would be possible to successfully remove the would-be tyrant from office.