One year into the Trump presidency, predictions of democracy’s end are laughable. He’s often inappropriate but the Constitution is in less danger than it was under Obama.
Some of President Donald Trump’s opponents marked the one-year anniversary of his presidential-election victory by gathering in cities around the country to “scream helplessly at the sky.” While an absurd demonstration, especially on a night when Democrats were celebrating a win over Republicans in Virginia, the howling was a useful reminder about the nature of liberal rage at the president and the sort of mad rhetoric about the administration that is treated as conventional wisdom by many on the left.
So rather than merely measure liberal rage, perhaps a more useful way to mark the anniversary might be to evaluate the accuracy of all those dire predictions. In short, did American democracy begin to die a year ago?
The short answer is no. Trump doesn’t behave or speak like a normal president and that is often disquieting. But talk about the end of democracy has been shown to be about as credible as the threats from various entertainers to move to Canada or some other foreign clime if he beat Clinton.
Trump has not interfered with free elections, nor has he jailed political opponents. He may have fired, as was his right as president, an FBI director who displeased him. But his administration appointed a special prosecutor to investigate charges of collusion between his campaign and Russia in spite of Trump’s assertions that the accusation was groundless. That special prosecutor has indicted Trump-campaign personnel without hindrance from the White House and there is no sign that it will engage in such hindrance in the future.
Nevertheless, some critics assert that Trump’s intemperate statements and Twitter addiction have had a chilling effect on democracy, especially with respect to his various rants directed at the press.
But despite his white-hot anger at a hostile mainstream media, there is no sign that Trump has silenced the free press or run roughshod over the First Amendment. The New York Times and the rest of the liberal print media are unhindered in their daily task of pointing out what a terrible president Trump has been. It’s also a strange tyranny that tolerates 24/7 cable-news channels like CNN and MSNBC that broadcast virtually non-stop scathing criticisms of the dictator, but that appears to be Trump’s version of autocracy.
Attacking him is not a path to jail but rather to celebrity or, in the case of Saturday Night Live’s Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, a way to boost a flagging acting career. Artists of all stripes take every possible opportunity to denounce him. Yet far from facing consequences, snark directed at Trump has instead become the cheapest applause line available to any entertainer.
Trump has said some outrageous things. His claim that some of those who participated in a racist and anti-Semitic march in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of Confederate statues were “very fine people” was as egregious as it was false. He stubbornly refused to say the right thing because he perceived the question as an attack on him, though any normal president would have simply issued a condemnation of hate. But this failure did not change government policy in any way. The Justice Department continues to enforce civil-rights laws and, where municipalities wish to remove the statues, the statues come down.
The most serious charge against Trump is the claim that the suspension of travel from several Muslim-majority countries showed Trump’s desire to impose religious tests for immigration and thus eviscerate the First Amendment. These cases have yet to be fully litigated but even if the Muslim ban that Trump called for early in the presidential campaign was both wrongheaded and likely illegal, the version he tried to implement was in no way a religious test, since it applied only to those countries that previous administrations have singled out as terrorist hotbeds. “Extreme vetting” might or might not work, but it is not an attack on democracy to declare that travel from such places by people who are not American citizens should be permitted only with care.
Another example of the overreaction came in yesterday’s Times, where veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse attempted to make the argument that the Trump Department of Justice has been illegitimately favoring the pro-life side in some controversial cases involving women in federal custody. Greenhouse writes as if Trump’s appointees in the solicitor general’s office are undermining the rule of law by taking seriously the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that the government has an interest in protecting unborn life from the beginning of a pregnancy. In her eyes, opposing liberal doctrine on the abortion issue is tyranny. The same standard seems to apply to Trump’s policies on energy and the environment and a host of other issues.
All this proves that what Trump is really guilty of is trying to govern as a conservative.
Trump might wish he could run the country on his own, untrammeled by law or tradition, as he revealed when he recently noted that his whims have no impact on the Justice Department’s decision-making process about prosecutions. But he has, albeit grudgingly, accepted that he cannot always have his way when the law or Congress has decided otherwise.
Yet, oddly enough, many of those who have been voicing fears about democracy and the Constitution didn’t so much as issue a murmur of protest when Barack Obama felt he had the right to take the law into his own hands. Obama made it clear that if Congress did not pass the laws he liked, as was the case on providing amnesty for illegal immigration, he would unilaterally change the law. His extra-constitutional executive orders on that issue did more to unravel the separation of powers than anything Trump has thought of doing, and yet none of those urging Americans to head to the barricades to defend democracy in the past year worried much about it.
What Trump is really guilty of is trying to govern as a conservative.
Donald Trump is unlike any of his predecessors in temperament and behavior and, in many respects, his administration and the country are the worse for it. But democracy is as safe as, if not safer than, it was under Barack Obama. If liberals think he has brought on the apocalypse, it is only because, in his more effective moments, he has governed as the conservative he assured voters he was in 2016. That might be something they can use to win in 2018 or 2020, but whether or not they are successful, whoever succeeds him in 2021 or 2025 will inherit a free country and not the nightmare vision liberals have spent the last year ranting about.
– Jonathan S. Tobin is the opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.