Members Only | May 28, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Saving Democracy Takes More Than Unseating a President

Things are better, and worse, than you think.

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I understand why some people say that Donald Trump’s reelection will be the end of American democracy. There’s utility in pointing out the president’s criminal behavior and abuse of power. We can’t, moreover, predict what the future holds. Better perhaps to risk inflating Trump’s threat to our constitutional order than risk experiencing it.

But saying it and believing it are, or should be, separate things.

Saying it is a pragmatic rhetorical choice aimed at achieving concrete political goals (one of which would be unseating the Republican incumbent.) Believing it, however, suggests that you have little idea what your goals are, or what they should be.

Worse, people who say they believe Trump’s reelection will doom democracy are taken far too seriously, as actor Jeff Daniels was over the Memorial Day weekend. His remarks on MSNBC were seen as profoundly moral, as if self-evidently true. Though well-intended, his remarks weren’t self-evident. They weren’t true. They weren’t moral.

Believing Trump will doom democracy suggests many things, including a blindness to American history, as if you’re only now realizing how much damage the country has sustained over five decades of Republican dominance. (Less privileged Americans, on the other hand, have known for a long time what’s going on.) It suggests that you don’t understand the hard moral choices ahead. And it suggests an ignorance of what’s working, of the means by which democracy is being saved and liberalism advanced.

Trump is no dictator. First, because he’s weak. Second, because he’s lazy, foolish and incompetent. Third, because the courts, the press, public opinion, decentralized government, and the bureaucracy constrain him as they constrain all executives one way or another. A president is not a monarch no matter how much he’d prefer to be.


Saving democracy is going to take courage, moral clarity, perseverance and democratic faith.


Last week, for instance, two federal judges said that the Treasury Department must furnish the president’s federal tax returns to the House committee investigating his finances. Last week also saw the New York state legislature pass a law making his state tax returns available on request. On Friday, another federal judge said that the president cannot bypass Congress to appropriate funding for a border wall.

In any case, most things Trump can be reversed by the next president. Sure, this one might refuse to exit after losing reelection or after his terms have expired. Sure, this one might demand “extra time” after being “robbed” by the Mueller investigation. But that is not the end of democracy. That’s a horrible person saying horrible things. Donald Trump will not be president any longer than the US Constitution permits. Democracy will survive him, as it has survived other equally horrible presidents.

A president is only as horrible as his party allows him to be. The Republican Party will tolerate virtually anything as long as reelection is on the line. But afterward, far less is certain. Afterward, the president won’t get major bills through a Democratic House. Republicans Senators, however, would be more than happy to continue mass-producing judges. (If nothing else, total control of the United States Supreme Court would make the GOP’s lickspittle loyalty totally worth it.) The GOP meanwhile will want to rehabilitate its reputation in preparation for the next election cycle.

Put all these together and it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans pushing back against a lame duck president. It happened to George W. Bush. After winning in 2004, the popular “war president” wounded himself trying to privatize Social Security, botching the response to Hurricane Katrina, and trying to enact immigration reform. The base of the party, even Fox News, abandoned him. Bush never recovered.

If the Democrats prevail in 2020, Mitch McConnell has said he will block all “progressive” legislation, by which he meant the “Green New Deal” and the like. But really, he meant anything coming from a Democratic president’s policy shop. As I and others have argued, McConnell will probably grind everything to a halt. His Senate conference won’t confirm new Cabinet secretaries, much less federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Trump’s defeat will foment a greater constitutional crisis.

More importantly, defeating Trump won’t stop illiberal currents already underway such as anti-abortion laws, voter ID laws and other mechanisms by which the Republican Party is trying, with mixed success, to restrict access to the franchise. And it’s not going to stop white supremacists from digging their hooks deeper into the Republican Party or stop the Russians from spreading more of their propaganda.

No, saving American democracy requires more than defeating Trump. It’s going to take courage, moral clarity, perseverance and a stubborn democratic faith, aspects mostly missing from those believing threats against our country come from one man.

—John Stoehr


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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