Here I am, that guy: pedantically insisting that the United States is not a democracy. It is, rather, a constitutional republic, whose democratic elements play an important, but limited role checked by antidemocratic brakes. For instance, the Bill of Rights secures rights too important to be subject to the vote. The Electoral College is a filter between the Presidency and the popular will. The Supreme Court is almost completely insulated. Checks and balances allow these branches to moderate the democratically elected Congress.
Democracy with a capital D, on the other hand, is government based entirely on popular elections, which dictate state action at all levels – government by mob rule. Leaders are elected, but not meaningfully constrained by enduring constitutional and legal structures. When one side takes over, it can pursue its agenda at will and punish its opponents with extreme prejudice. Elections are winner-take-all propositions, matters of life and death. This phenomenon, termed “Democrazy,” by British economist Paul Collier, is exceedingly common in new democracies in the developing world, for whom democracy is an inorganic import. It leads inexorably to poverty, chaos, and authoritarianism.
The United States escapes this fate precisely because of its antidemocratic safeguards. The Founders, learned men versed in the history of Greek democracy, distrusted democracy as unstable and easily exploited by demagogues. John Adams captured this: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” Abraham Lincoln later warned of “men of ambition” propelled by popular passions, saying, “Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”
Donald Trump is the man Adams and Lincoln warned us about. To adapt a quote from Game of Thrones: we’ve had vicious presidents, and we’ve had idiot presidents, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a president. Come November 8, we may get one.
Donald Trump is vicious, and petty and vindictive besides. He views criticism as an unconscionable attack and has no regard for proportionality when seeking revenge. His response is never to consider and rebut, but rather to dismiss critics as losers who can’t buy pants. He is inconstant, shifting with political winds: first he supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship, then he wants to deport 12 million illegal immigrants and put up a wall, then he’s reversing that position, then he’s re-reversing at the speed of light. He supports single-payer healthcare, then he releases a plan consisting of bare-bones versions of free-market proposals he halfway understands. He is pro-choice, then pro-life. Where Trump is consistent, he is moronic: on trade, for example, his proposals evince nearly unparalleled idiocy and economic illiteracy.
Trump believes in one thing: himself. The core Trump pitch is: he will hire terrific people, make incredible deals, and, presto chango, prosperity. We’ll be the richest, classiest country with the best steaks and the biggest hands. We’ll be yuuuge. Anyone who stands in his way? Losers. Trump will roll through them like that loser old lady whose house was blocking his limo parking lot. Because he’s tough.
In a robust constitutional framework, the damage Trump could do as president would be prohibitively checked by Congress and the courts. However, the accumulation of power in the executive branch is a long-standing historical trend. It has been driven and justified by outbreaks of desire for Capital-D Democracy: for the people’s mandate, manifested in the new president, to justify and motivate sweeping changes, with or without the cooperation of dissenters in other branches of government. This force was behind Andrew Jackson’s Bank War, Woodrow Wilson’s openly anti-constitutional Progressivism, and Franklin Roosevelt’s quasi-dictatorial behavior (executive order barring wage increases, internment of Japanese-Americans, attempted court-packing). A similar wave created the current administration, which has done much to weaken parity between branches of government. Barack Obama has unilaterally rewritten the Affordable Care Act; refused to enforce existing immigration laws; ordered the extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens; waged war in Libya without Congressional authority beyond the period allowed by the War Powers Resolution; the list goes on. Like Jackson, Wilson, and Roosevelt before him, he has pursued democratic mandates at the expense of America’s constitutional structure.
Defenders of Obama’s overreach claim he is acting in the interest of justice, according to popular will. Whether or not this is true is actually irrelevant. Even if Obama is tearing apart the Constitution for good, bringing peace, freedom, justice, and security to his new Empire, what happens when a man of lesser character inherits this power? The door to tyranny will be wide open.
Obama famously explained how he could pursue his agenda without Congress on his side by saying, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” Well, Trump will have a pen and phone too, should his Lilliputian manhood ever rest on the chair of the Resolute desk. If he has to circumvent Congress or the law in pursuit of terrific deals, he will be game. We know because he said so: he is open to restricting free speech, creating faith-based discriminatory policies, committing war crimes – Trump’s power will not be checked by law or man. Using Obama logic, there is no real reason it should be; only the belief that Obama is a better person than Trump, which is actionable legal basis for precisely nothing. Trump’s ascension is as democratic as Obama’s. He can cite the same justification to undermine the Constitution to get what he wants. Obama may loath the prospect of a Trump presidency, but should that come to pass, he will have enabled Trump’s authoritarian ambitions with his own unwillingness to work within the Constitution. This is the wages of Democracy. We were warned. We didn’t listen.