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The Republican Party, Not Trump, Is the Real Threat to American Democracy

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump called into Fox & Friends and went on such a rant that even the show’s conservative hosts seemed startled. “You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI, it’s a disgrace,” he said. “And our Justice Department—which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t—our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia.” As if to protect Trump from further embarrassment, Brian Kilmeade cut the interview short by saying, “We’d talk to you all day but it looks like you have a million things to do.”

This is what Trump’s critics have warned about all along: that he’s an authoritarian who would use the office of the presidency to destroy norms (like his attempts, as in the Fox interview, to undermine the independence of the Department of Justice). And in destroying those norms, some fear, Trump could destroy American democracy itself—or at least contribute to its decline. “Donald Trump is not the heart attack of democracy, he is the gum disease of democracy,” The Atlantic’s David Frum said during a Brookings Institution forum in February. “You can die from gum disease, but it festers for a long time before it finishes you off.”

But some Trump critics lately have argued that he’s not the disease at all. “The problems we face run deeper than the Trump presidency,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the Harvard political scientists and authors of the recent book How Democracies Die, wrote in The New York Times in January. “While Mr. Trump’s autocratic impulses have fueled our political system’s mounting crisis, he is as much a symptom as he is a cause of this crisis.” The crisis, as they see it, is that “the norms that once protected our institutions are coming unmoored.” Or, as Vox’ Dylan Matthews put it in a column earlier this week: “the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in.”

But American democracy as a whole remains healthy, as seen in the robust resistance to Trump within the government, the courts, and the public at large. The disease is localized within the Republican Party. Which is why, if indeed American democracy is in a death loop, any solution must not focus solely on ousting Trump, but on punishing and reforming the GOP.

The big takeaway from the first year of Trump’s presidency is that the country’s institutions largely have checked him. “President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt argue in their book. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized.... Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”

Other prominent Trump critics tend to agree. “The year 2018 begins much as 2017 did, with advocates of American democracy holding their breath to see whether it can withstand the assaults of an autocrat in the Oval Office. In 2017, the restraints mostly held,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait acknowledged in early January. Weeks later, Vox’ Zack Beauchamp wrote:

Trump’s assaults on democracy have, for the most part, been repulsed. The courts, the federal bureaucracy, the states, and even large numbers of ordinary Americans have all played a vital role in restraining the president’s authoritarian tendencies.... America’s core institutions may not be in perfect health, but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who’s gone after essential parts of its democratic system. When it comes to the most basic question for any democracy—can it sustain itself?—the answer right now is a surprisingly clear yes.

Trump called on the FBI and the Department of Justice to attack his political foes, including Hillary Clinton, and pledge loyalty to him; the agencies have refused to do so. Meanwhile, the courts have denied Trump on issues like his travel ban, which originally targeted seven Muslim-majority countries and, after being struck down, had to be modified multiple times; the latest version is now being considered by the Supreme Court. And voters themselves are acting as a counterweight to presidential power. Republicans have vastly underperformed in every special election since Trump took office, and Democrats stand a good chance of winning back the House of Representative and possibly even the Senate in the midterm elections this fall.

But one institution has sorely failed in its constitutional duty to restrain the president. Time and again, the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored, defended, or outright enabled Trump’s authoritarian excesses.

“Donald Trump doesn’t have much of an agenda of his own and he has struck a bargain with people in Congress who do have agendas that he will sign bills that are very unpopular, that probably certainly no Democratic President would sign and probably few first-term Republican presidents would sign,” Frum said during the Brookings event. “He will sign those bills if in return he is given protection for actions that no president in American history has ever dared undertake, including running a massive global influence business while president.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt, as well as Matthews, point to polarization as a major cause of this crisis in American democracy. “Some polarization is healthy, even necessary, for democracy,” Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote. “But extreme polarization can kill it. When societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when those differences are viewed as existential and irreconcilable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred.” But they seem reluctant to place blame. “Polarization ... encouraged politicians to abandon forbearance, beginning with the Gingrich-era government shutdowns and the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton,” they wrote. “Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook.

Only at the end of their Times op-ed do Levitsky and Ziblatt come out and say it: “Intensifying polarization, driven by an extremist Republican Party, is making constitutional hardball a new norm for party politics.” Which is to say, this crisis is not simply the result of polarization, but what William A. Galston and Thomas Mann in 2010 called “asymmetrical polarization”: The GOP has moved much further to the right than the Democrats have to the left. In doing so, the party has become more cohesive and extreme—more willing and able, that is, to shatter political norms to achieve their ends.

It is not, then, a crisis of American democracy at all, but a sickness in the Republican Party—one that took root with Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” in the 1990s, and which has only metastasized within the GOP since. (To the degree Democrats have broken norms, too, they have done so in response to—or in mimicry of—Republicans’ norm-breaking.) The ascension of Trump has only made this asymmetry starker, as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake—one of the few Republican willing to criticize his party today—made clear on Thursday. “I think for one thing, just in terms of what this does for the country,” he said, “we’ve got to have two strong, functioning parties, and right now our party has simply become—it seems—an apologist for certain actions of the president when we shouldn’t be.”

Historically, American political parties moderate themselves after suffering consecutive losses at the ballot box. Between 1932 and 1948, the Republicans were whipped in the presidential race five times in a row. This led the party to nominate a centrist who accepted the New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower. After the Democrats lost three times in a row from 1980 to 1988, they shifted toward the center with Bill Clinton, who triangulated between his party and the GOP. Such a losing streak might seem unimaginable today, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. But it’s not implausible—and perhaps even likely, if one puts any stock in current polling trends—that come 2020, Democrats will control the White House and at least half of Congress.

This is not to preach complacency about the threats to American democracy today, or to claim that the ballot box holds the solution to every problem contributing to this crisis. Gerrymandering, for instance, appears to be a problem that only the courts, if anyone, can solve. Voters also have little power to limit the right-wing media’s profound influence on the Republican Party, rewarding extremism over responsibility. And even if Republicans are banished from power in the White House and Congress, they have shown just how effective they can be as the minority party; there are still many norms they can break. But unless Republicans pay an electoral price, there is little hope for it to become a functioning party again.