Eric Posner shows why the outgoing US president could not pose as grave a threat to liberal democracy as many had feared

Eric Posner shows why the outgoing US president could not pose as grave a threat to liberal democracy as many had feared

As US President Donald Trump’s single term limps to an end, we should revisit a question that has dominated mainstream punditry for the past four years: Was America on the brink of an authoritarian takeover? Never before have so many commentators – including knowledgeable academics, seen-it-all-before political operatives, cynical journalists, and former government officials – argued as seriously that the United States was on the verge of a Weimar-style constitutional collapse. And yet, if Trump was an autocrat, he was a singularly ineffective one. When he wasn’t raging at the moon, he advanced his policies – most of them standard Republican fare – through constitutionally approved procedures.

Trump certainly provided ample material for books with titles like The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save ItSurviving Autocracy, and Trumpocalypse. From the start, he has lied relentlessly, expressed admiration for dictators, denigrated and threatened to jail his political opponents, disparaged judges and other public officials, vilified Muslims and foreigners, demonised journalists, and inflamed racial divisions. Even if some of his rhetoric was tongue-in-cheek or garbled, that hardly excuses him.

Trump also mixed his financial interests with government business, placed his children and son-in-law in positions of power, and frequently talked as if the government were his personal fiefdom. His presidency finally collapsed after his baseless claims of electoral fraud and spurious litigation efforts failed to gain traction.

The doomsayers will insist that the events of the past month and a half easily could have swung in Trump’s favour. But, constitutionally speaking, Trump has always been more bark than bite. His main accomplishments – a tax cut and the appointment of conservative federal judges – involved Congress, as the Constitution requires. Similarly, his efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration drew on longstanding statutory authority.

Indeed, from a strictly legal standpoint, Trump’s migration-related enforcement actions were less controversial than were President Barack Obama’s unilateral executive orders to protect people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Even Trump’s highly controversial travel ban targeting migrants from Muslim-majority countries was upheld by the Supreme Court on more-or-less settled doctrinal grounds.

Trump’s efforts to weaken environmental, safety, and financial regulations have also drawn on statutory authority. In foreign policy, Trump initiated a sea change by weakening US global commitments, withdrawing from international agreements and multilateral organisations, imposing tariffs on trading partners, and recklessly criticising allies while cozying up to dictators. Again, Trump was drawing on the legal powers of his office, which are at their broadest in foreign affairs. Congress has given the president almost limitless power to adjust tariffs, and courts have ruled time and again that it is the president who conducts US foreign policy. Moreover, Trump – unlike most of his recent predecessors – did not launch any major foreign wars or enter treaties through constitutionally dubious circumvention of Congress.

Yes, Trump did try to interfere with the Russia investigation, and to withhold military aid from Ukraine to compel its government to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. But both of these constitutionally suspect efforts were largely unsuccessful. Finally, Trump has abused his power by dangling pardons to cronies who were under investigation.

All these actions were morally wrong and politically irresponsible. But in terms of their impact, and of their role in the exercise or expansion of the president’s power, they seem relatively minor. Virtually every president has cut corners. If Trump ruled as an autocrat and pushed the boundaries of his power, then so did every other president since Reagan. Yet none of those previous administrations came close to ending democracy in America.

Trump stands out not so much for his actions as for his words. The hue and cry against him is a reaction to his incendiary rhetoric, inattentiveness to the duties of his office, ignorance about the world, juvenile delight in the trappings of power, and obnoxious narcissism.

To be sure, the line between rhetoric and action is not always clear. Presidents rule through words – by issuing orders to subordinates, who either obey or disregard them. Trump’s claims of election fraud could have led judges and Republican election officials to fix the outcome for him. They did not. His various calls to lock up his opponents could have encouraged ambitious Department of Justice lawyers or US Attorneys to launch investigations. They did not. Once judges, politicians, and other officeholders stopped heeding Trump’s words, he was helpless.

Some people believe that constitutional democracy survived Trump because the system of checks and balances worked. Others give credit to the integrity of judges, government bureaucrats, the press, or Democratic (and a few Republican) elected officials.

But another explanation is that there was a basic contradiction in Trump’s method. In 2016, he sought power by attacking the very government institutions that he would need to exercise power. As president, he kept up his attacks on the government that he headed, acting as his own opposition.

This had two effects that undermined his position. First, Trump’s own appointees – including judges and executive-branch officials – could not have felt much loyalty to a boss who was constantly undermining their status, power, and position. And indeed, many of them refused to do his bidding. Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Attorney General William Barr refused to challenge the election results. The judges Trump appointed – including three Supreme Court justices – refused to rule that the election was flawed. The FBI refused to heed Trump’s call for investigations of his political opponents. And the military refused to suppress protests.

Second, Trump asked voters to believe that the government was incompetent, biased, and infiltrated by a “deep state,” while using that same government to expel undocumented aliens, suppress riots, wage a trade war with China, distribute pandemic aid, and hold elections. In fact, Republican politicians in Georgia, which will hold two Senate run-off elections on January 5, fear that Trump’s attacks on the electoral system will convince some supporters not to bother voting. Likewise, lack of trust in science or the health authorities, encouraged by Trump, may undermine his signature accomplishment – Operation Warp Speed, which resulted in the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Real authoritarians, like Chinese President Xi Jinping, propagate an image of governmental excellence so that people will meekly submit to the police, courts, and regulators. While many Republican voters remain personally loyal to Trump, those who abandoned him for Biden while still voting for down-ballot Republicans must have realised that Republican policies could not be implemented if the government was a smoking ruin.

This paradox does not mean that authoritarianism is impossible in the US. But it does suggest that Trump himself did not pose as grave a threat to liberal democracy as many had feared.


Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump (All Points Books, 2020). This content is © Project Syndicate, 2020, and is here with permission.

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17 Comments

Hope everyone in the world will enjoy a safe Xmas and New Year holiday.

If Trump was a Parody Film Series, no one in their right mind would up vote it to watch.

Sadly it all was true.

Go Figure....please ASAP.

Plus I wish all Savious of the World a Merry Christmas. Why save, be Happy. (Yeah right).

The killers, no pardon, permissible....unlike Trump.

Hope everyone in the World, will see the light...one day soon.

Christmas Day and maybe a New World order... Trillions in debt....Order your groceries...online.

Give CCP and all their accountants the yawn.

Words fail me.

A brave New World...

Open your eyes every one.

Merry Christmas, everyone, it will take a lot to make a Happy New Year....for all.

God Willing. The leaders Ain't.

Oh and beware yer new underpants do not come from Russia. It might be Putin on the agony, Putin on the style, that is what the young Folks and us Old Folks should be aware of..

.(Thanks Lonnie Donigan) Credit, where credit is due.

Plus who in their right mind would vote for an idiot who gave themselves a Free Pardon, before retiring.......Seems like all the Worlds Great Leaders....Thats WHO.

Duh...nuffin ain't free....there is always a cost..

And you all paid heavily. I am afraid.

Hope 2021 comes with free beer and a grain of bread.....crumbs.

Cheers,

Santa.

Whatever. He is one of the worst presidents in the history of the USA. If he had it his way, he WOULD be a dictator. He is trying trying very hard to undermine the democratic election which by ALL accounts including his own top advisers is seen as legitimate. He is a person devoid of any positive character traits and will go down in history as the most stupidest, inept, immature, uneducated, fiscally irresponsible etc,etc,etc person to ever set foot on the Whitehouse. He will do a lot of damage as he departs and America gets what they deserve for voting him in the first place and voting so many republicans back into the senate. For the record I dont think much of Biden either but he has more character and integrity in a day that trumpty DUMBty will ever have in 10 lifetimes.
He has just voted down again to help the American people through the GOP stimulus bill and is in the process of pardoning massive ammounts of his crony criminals. Anyone who supports him is as disgusting as him.

Yeah Trump is as bent as a corkscrew but half of Americans don't care. Just goes to show how desperate they have become. Reminds me of Germany in 1930's in that when the right conditions exist, even the Devil himself can be voted in.

Well Caligula himself installed his horse as a senator. The Republican Party nominated Trump. Has taken much time admittedly, but who says history never repeats.

Trump is a symptom not a cause. That he became president is surely the bigger issue - why did this happen and why did it nearly happen again?

Lets not get hysterical, he was a middle of the road republican, he didn't start any major wars, his policies weren't that bad for his target demographic and turned out to be economically advantageous, that's why his vote increase massively this time.

Next time around it will probably increase again, his current challenge to the vote is a great setup to undermine the next Biden presidency and for him to use for a platform, if he chooses, to run again in 4 years.

In someways it would have been better for his opponents for him to win again this time and go through another 4 years of fighting now than have to, potentially, go through another Trump presidency again in 4 years time...he would have learned a lot more about how the government runs by then and be harder to dislodge.

Ironic that Facebook and Twitter have reversed their algorithms deployed during the election to prioritize MSM reporting which peddled the ‘Russian disinformation’ angle on the Hunter Biden laptop story, as opposed to reporting on its content. As it goes, Facebook and Twitter execs were giant Biden supporters, and many have joined his transition team - they will no doubt be rewarded with positions in his administration.

It seems Zuckerburg was a trumpty DUMBty supporter right up until 2020. Im not sure what changed his mind but maybe he found his moral compass? (or was it the fact that law makers wanted to start breaking up these types of companies who trade in their subscribers sensitive information for a few dollars). Anyone that puts credence in those sites as a source of truth is just an uneducated moron anyway. The unfortunate fact these days however is that a whole generation is growing up doing nothing except playing on their little screens, and taking everything they read on those sites as gospel, instead of broadening their education by using various more reputable news sites as their source of information. Through evolution, is the human race losing their ability to use their 'bullshit' meter ??
If a person of such low character such as trump who is known to be such a pathological liar use a platform such as twitter, why would anyone believe what is spewed out of it, let alone subscribe to it? Something I will never understand as long as I live. These sites have morphed into something quite evil and give a platform for all the crazies, bigots, racists, religious nut cases and conspiracy theorists that use the screen to say stuff they would never say face to face. Cowards. These sites are morphing the population into masses of idiots that cannot think for themselves, just like people who watch channels owned by Rupert Murdoch (eg fox entertainment under the guise of a news channel), who I think is one of the most dangerous people of influence in America, UK and Australia etc. In America most trump supporters watch fox spew forth their nightly old white guy hate shows as that is what they actually choose to believe and use fox as a means of solidifying beliefs as they repeat lies over and over and over until a vast segment of uneducated people actually believe the drivel. Murdoch was one of the ground floor developers of sensationalist journalism, the truth or responsible journalism is never an important aspect for him.

sorry, hit the save button twice!

Trump now pardoning all his cronies, man there is something wrong with America. You get convicted knowing your going to get let off later before your president leaves office. 2021 is going to be an interesting year.

So much for draining the swamp.

Trumps actions won the presidency for Biden but...Trump, massively, increased his vote this time around.

In 4 years he'll increase it again and I can't see Biden getting nearly as many votes next time...the impetus would just not be there for him.

Another thing, you may cheer on the judges and bureaucrats that ignored their duty to their jobs by not applying the rules impersonally but that is a slippery slope.

Just because they didn't like what the other half of the population had voted for, doesn't mean they're allowed to use their position to break the rules, which is what these judges and bureaucrats did.

Event though this time around their actions benefited Biden, it sets a dangerous precedence, Biden should remove them because if that is allowed to continue then it doesn't matter who gets voted in if the last guy has stacked the board with people of the same "view" to them and next time that person might be someone worse.

David4269,

So, the judges and bureaucrats ignored their duty. In effect, you are saying that they somehow acted fraudulently to prevent Trump being reelected. Would it be too much to ask that you provide hard evidence of this?

Their behavior is referred to in the article...but if you want specific examples have a look at the details of the Stone and Flynn cases or the abuse of their FISA courts just to start.

If you just look at his actual behavior instead of what has been reported you'll find a fairly good president that worked to deliver for his demographic and his work paid off in the election where he increased his vote massively.

The fact is he got more votes than any other candidate in American history except one other, so he must have been doing something right to be so popular.

You might want to look at the facts yourself from the source court filings or material, pick any reporting from the AP deriding Trump and research the court rulings and their underlying details, it definitely lowered my opinion of the AP.

EDIT: One explicit example would be the Carter Page FISA case, where a senior DOJ attorney was found guilty of making up evidence to get a warrant that allowed the FBI to spy on the Trump campaign after they had won the election i.e. spy on the president...a lot of the stuff Trump was talking about (which I thought was conspiracy nonsense at the time) turned out to be true and its very scary stuff if people here are "admiring" that sort of behaviour.

My pick of Worst US presidents

Truman, Nixon, Bush Junior, Clinton, Obama, runner ups for most horrible who didn't make president- Kissenger, Albright, Mrs Clinton, Rumsfeld, Chaney no doubt I have missed many, Harris is about to step up and take her place on the list, someone who could default to President, someone who didn't get a single vote in the primaries, who slept her way to power in California.

These people are the devil incarnate, they killed millions of innocent people, they destroyed lives and countries often replacing one evil with one much worse, yet all anyone can talk about is how bad Trump was. Well Trump just gave us a peep behind the curtain and no one liked it, we would rather go back to being ignorant and just believing whats in the paper.