Trump is a shameless liar, a divisive bully, a misogynist, a thin-skinned narcissist, and an ignoramus. Does it matter? Why should we care about the character and judgment of those we elect to public office?
To answer this question, I start with a line of argument that suggests character and judgment are less important than good institutions, and that good institutions can compensate for poor character. I then want to consider some of the problems with this viewpoint. I argue that good institutions are not enough. Good institutions can foster good character and judgment, and vice versa; but bad character and judgment can undermine good institutions and corrupt democracy.
Whatever we may think of Trump and, in particular, whatever doubts we may entertain about his judgment or temperament, he will operate within a rule-of-law-based system, with a powerful set of checks and balances designed to limit the damage that he can do to the democratic system. Should he seek to violate the constitution or act arbitrarily, he will confront not only the courts but also constraints within the executive branch that have been established to ensure procedural or administrative justice is done. Republicans control the Congress, and this means he will have an ally there, but the new President does not control the Republicans in Congress. They will be a weak mechanism of accountability, since the GOP has increasingly become an anti-system party, but there are a few responsible Republicans in Congress, and the Democrats will also use their influence to uphold democratic oversight. Moreover, the US democratic system as a whole provides many veto points for the public, the media, and powerful private interests to prevent government from act in ways that might threaten basic liberties. In short, the US Constitution will constrain what Trump can do, and the basic realities of the political process are likely to prevent him from doing any real, lasting damage to US democracy.
There may be flaws in this line of argument, but let’s accept that a Trump presidency doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the republic. What does this argument, nonetheless, leave out? It leaves out all the damage that can be done to institutions when the politicians who operate within them fail to respect the underlying principles and values they embody. Institutions may or may not be robust enough to survive this, but even if they do, the vitality of democracy depends on the way in which good institutions foster practices that in return reinforce those institutions rather than corrupt them. This basic point can be made in at least four different ways.
First, the separation of powers is not a strong bulwark against despotism unless properly understood. In the United States, the separation of powers tends to be understood in terms of checks and balances, which is a feature of presidentialism. To use Madison’s immortal phrase, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If we have learned anything from the current era of hyperpresidentialism it is that this formula is problematic. It is actually very hard for courts and legislatures to stop over-weening presidents from acting in ways that violate constitutional norms. The original meaning of the separation of powers, which can be traced back to Aristotle and forward through Montesquieu to contemporary theories of deliberative democracy, holds that the separation of powers is about the importance of office holders performing specific functions.
A separation of powers system requires that legislators bring laws into effect, judges interpret and apply laws with respect to particular cases, and the executive implements decisions necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the constitutional order in a manner consistent with the rule of law. In other words, it is essential that office holders understand the competence and jurisdiction associated with their roles and learn to perform them well.
This is where Trump represents a problem. At no point since his entry into politics has he indicated any interest whatsoever in adapting to his new public roles. From the moment he descended by escalator in the gilded Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, to when he failed to pivot from candidate seeking the support of his party to presidential aspirant, to his failure to moderate his behavior when he became president-election, Trump has proven impervious to the need to adapt as he shifts from private to public roles. He gives no indication that he intends to comport himself in government any differently. Yet if he continues to criticize judges, excoriate the media, and bully legislators, he will do damage to the separation of powers properly understood.
Second, we can say that Trump’s victory is already a symptom of a deeper malaise in the US body politic. Trump’s message resonated with what Arlie Hochschild, in her remarkable book, Strangers in Their Own Land, calls the “deep story” – a story she heard again and again among the people who support the Tea Party in the American south. Hochschild spent years talking with tea party supporters, trying to make sense of their worldview. They seemed to hate the federal government without acknowledging the benefits they received from it, and to resist regulation that could improve their lives. As a result, they voted for Republicans who were often responsible for perpetuating their plight. To explain their political attitudes she developed a powerful metaphor.
Imagine, Hochschild writes, you are in a line of people on a pilgrimage, trying to climb a hill, over the summit of which lies the American dream. At the back of the line are people of colour, the poor, the elderly, the uneducated. The line moves slowly, and even begins to reverse; then you see people “cutting into the line ahead of you.” They are not following the rules, but they are getting a leg up—special preferences, benefits, and sympathy. Not only that, they are also getting the support of the government. The government is supposed to be like an umpire monitoring the line, ensuring it is orderly, but rather than making sure everyone stays in line, it is actually helping those who are cutting in front of you. You feel betrayed and angry.
Given this frame, or “deep story,” the appeal of Trump is readily understandable. In promising to “make America great again,” he appeals to the way things were before the principle of equal opportunity was betrayed. He promises to take the line-jumpers to task, and to restore the status quo ante. His electoral success reflects the depths of disenchantment among those who feel left behind. For them, Trump’s many vices are more than balanced by his ability to craft a message that resonates with their deep story.
One of the great paradoxes of Trump is that he breaks all the established codes of appropriate communication—he Tweets whatever is on his mind, at any time of day or night; he berates reporters and criticizes comedians and rates actors; he holds grudges against people who criticize him, especially in the media; indeed, he treats the media as a whole as part of a rigged system. And yet at the same time he is an extraordinarily effective communicator with his base. This is, of course, the essence of demagoguery. It is the mark of the politician who is wily but unwise.
Third, Trump’s path to power exposes weaknesses in the democratic system, including the nomination process, the electoral system, the party system, and party organizations. The failure of these institutions to prevent the rise an outsider – a leader without prior experience in elective office at any level of government – is a remarkable indictment of the political system as a whole. There are evidently breaches in the various filters that have been put in place to ensure that elected officials are socialized by the political process. Politicians are expected to understand the working of government. Before a candidate can occupy the highest office in the land he or she should have a record of successful administration in lower offices of government. Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the presidency, lost against someone who had no record of public service. None of the political filters designed to promote excellence in public service were sufficient to prevent the rise of a candidate who promised, in effect, to tear the system down. It was precisely Trump’s evident contempt for the rule of law that resonated with many voters, which places him in a position to potentially undermine institutions with impunity. It sets up a tension between the democratic legitimacy of a leader with a mandate and the legitimacy conferred by the institutions themselves. Such tensions, familiar to those who work on precarious democracies, are unusual among established democracies.
Fourth, the argument that institutions will constrain the excesses of a leader is weakened by the fact that the United States is a super-power. Not only does the president have his finger on the nuclear buttons, he controls the most powerful military machine in human history. By questioning international norms and institutions like the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, Trump makes it clear that he does not intend to play by the rules of international diplomacy or statescraft. It is in those spheres in which the president has the greatest discretionary power that the importance of character and judgment are most apparent. Trump’s worst mistakes are likely to be in those areas of decision-making that largely affect people outside the United States, especially in theatres in which the constraints on the exercise of US power are weakest.
A robust democracy requires good institutions, but good institutions are not enough. They need to be sustained by democratic practices that demand wisdom and virtue from both politicians and voters. The rise of a leader who lacks good character and judgment represents a fundamental threat to democracy. The threat is not necessarily that the institutions will collapse, but that they will lose their meaning and legitimacy. There is every reason to fear that the American dream, once a unifying vision, has been replaced by deep divisions over the destiny and purpose of the republic. Trump will exacerbate rather than heal those divisions. For those who wish to preserve the republic, the challenge will be not just to resist Trump, but to challenge him with a more generous and democratic vision of the American dream.