How Donald Trump Could Actually Save American Democracy
There have been no small amount of dire predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for President or the general election itself. Many see his fervent support as another sign of the impending collapse of the American experiment, the kind predicted long ago by no less an American luminary than John Adams.
“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty,” he said.
His warning about populist demagoguery was most recently cited in a National Review essay titled, “Our Government Was Designed to Protect Us from the Trumps of the World.” Yet, if the people are the ones who elect him to lead the government, that couldn’t possibly happen, right?
Wrong. In fact, electing Donald Trump, or even Ted Cruz, president might just actually save American democracy from itself.
There is a very clear reason that the framers did not establish America as a direct democracy, most of which are nicely articulated in the above Adams quote. Direct democracy would mean that the majority of people (or at least those with the loudest voices) get what they want.
Some, such as libertarians, suggest that is a good thing.
There’s a saying in both political science and philosophy: the masses are asses. In electing representatives, they are to govern with the best interests of their constituents at heart, even if that opposes what they want. Over the years, rather than going against the will of the people when it’s morally justified (e.g. Emancipation, women’s suffrage, civil rights, et al.), these representatives tend to reject the best interests of the people in favor of political donors and special interest lobbyists.
This bipartisan infection of money, influence, and disregard for citizens’ interests has facilitated the rise of Trump and the ultra-conservative Tea Party demagogues that preceded him. These new conservatives don’t deliver on their promises either, but they appear to be holding to principle and above such petty weaknesses as “compromise.”
Those on the right and the left know that the game is rigged, and what Trump (and, to a much lesser extent Bernie Sanders) represents is what can happen when the party loses the people. On the Democratic side, in 2008, Clinton and Obama each rolled out endorsement after endorsement, and they helped.
Clinton’s establishment supporters this cycle are much quieter.
This year, an endorsement is seen as a kiss of death for any candidate not named Trump. His endorsements justify his candidacy, while those he loses make his opponents appear to be establishment puppets.
Trump’s tumultuous campaign, with continued assaults happening in the crowds (including, allegedly by the actual Trump campaign), has exposed in the most terrifying way what can happen when appealing to fear and anger is your party’s major rhetorical strategy.
Whether they win or lose in November, Republicans are hopefully reconsidering the way they frame the issues on the campaign trail.
The second way in which Donald Trump could save American democracy would come if he was actually elected to the White House.
In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that if Trump were elected, Republicans in Congress “would make it work.” While he absolutely meant that House Republicans would work with Trump (or Cruz), it might not actually play out that way.
If Trump remains as publicly volatile when confronted with critique or challenge if elected President, it could rive House and Senate Republicans into the arms of the only people left. Democrats.
Since the George W. Bush administration, there has been a kind of scorched-earth policy when it comes to bipartisan compromise. Once President Obama was elected, obstructionism as a political strategy was employed in order to limit his achievements while in office. More so than perhaps ever before, governance was trumped by politics.
This is a Republican achievement (for better or worse) because unlike the Democrats, they have a kind of cohesion of purpose that makes any stance they take formidable.
The near-constant attempts to repeal Obamacare was as much for the more conservative members of the Republican legislature as it was for the voters. The more rational members of the party knew it wouldn’t pass, but it bought the alliance of their colleagues for other Republican initiatives.
When that particular legislation was being negotiated in the early days of the Obama Administration, it was not Republicans who were the President’s biggest obstacle but rather the “Blue Dog” Democrats. Their coalition is not as strong, but is equally adept at disruption as their conservative colleagues.
Democrats, while less effective at playing the game, have seemingly accepted this as the new normal. After decrying the use of the filibuster while in the majority, they have employed the same tactics now that they are in the minority. Theirs is not a strategy of compromise and governance, but discreet obstructionism from the “moral high-ground.”
If a political figure as vastly disliked by their peers as Trump or Cruz wins the White House, their polarizing nature could break the logjam of partisan gridlock in the legislature.
For example, when it comes to the issue of trade or the building of the fabled wall, one way to stop a President Trump from doing the reckless things he’s promised* would be to assemble a two-thirds majority in order to override a veto. The amount of compromises and deals that would have to be reached in order to do that could move forward proposals on scores of other issues stalled simply for political reasons.
Also, in order to lessen the impact of a Presidential Trumpertantrum, Congress and the Senate may work to forcefully roll back the vast expansion of Executive power that has taken place over time.
On every issue from domestic policies to how America wages war, the balance of power that shifted drastically toward the Executive because of Congressional in-fighting could be halted or even rolled back.
It’s obvious from the remarks of everyone from Mitt Romney to Senator Lindsey Graham, that much of the Republican party sees a reflection of themselves they absolutely do not like in Donald Trump. Careless campaign rhetoric and empty, angry promises of the past are thrust into a new context after Trump took those arguments to their natural extremes.
We often praise President George W. Bush for his remarks about Islam in the aftermath of 9/11, but it does not change that stoking fear about terror contributed to his reelection in 2004. The Republicans were hoping to make an appeal to Latino voters this cycle, but that’s only because of the implied xenophobic positions they held on the issue in the past drove those voters to Democrats in 2008 and 2012.
When Trump said most immigrants are rapists and criminals or proposed banning all Muslims, he crashed a tanker full of oil into a fire the Republicans were quietly trying to extinguish.
The politics of the recent past also stoked racial and xenophobic fears, appealed to anger, and based entire ideological stances on easily disprovable bullshit. Governing wasn’t about doing what was best for the country anymore, it was about winning no matter the cost. Compromise was defeat and the person across the aisle was your sworn enemy.
A President Trump in the Oval Office could change all of that in an instant. If he governs with even a fraction of the rhetorical vitriol and obstinacy he has displayed on the trail, the panic in the hearts of the Legislature will be authentic and complete. They won’t be playing political chess but fighting for their (and, by proxy the Republic’s) very survival.
While the Republican party has more than it’s share of “true believers,” almost no one believes that Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan hold some of the more extreme positions they’ve defended. Rhetoric, even that of an inflammatory nature, has (and always will have) its place in American politics. However, there was a line that was perhaps flirted with but never crossed, that Trump barrelled over without even noticing.
Donald Trump could almost certainly make good on his promise to “Make America great again.” What no one seems to realize is that the way he does it is by becoming one of the greatest villains the country has ever known.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Author’s Note: If he wants to do them at all. The theory that much of Trump’s more outlandish rhetoric is all pandering is not unsound. Yet, with no political record with which to compare it, there is no way to know for certain. All we have is the candidate’s word, and that’s arguably worth as much now as a copy of Trump magazine.
Originally published at latest.com on March 21, 2016.