This post is part of series by Brookings experts on Trump in 2018.
One year ago, I wrote on this blog that Donald Trump’s surprising election as president posed a genuine threat to the well-being of our country and the sustainability of our democracy. More than any of his predecessors, Trump appeared utterly unfit to assume the responsibilities of the office. Our constitutional system provides an elaborate set of checks and balances designed to frustrate any would-be autocrat. But would they and the essential norms surrounding them be sturdy enough to contain a demagogue abetted by a passionate minority of the electorate and a political party keen on reaping the policy benefits of unified Republican control of government? Even the framers of our institutional safeguards realized that republican virtue was an essential element of democratic leadership. What might happen in its absence?
While those questions have not been answered definitively as 2017 draws to a close, we do have a clearer picture of whether our worries were justified and how the struggle to save and renew American democracy will unfold in the coming year.
As expected, President Trump is testing the durability of those safeguards. He remains very much the person we saw during the campaign—a narcissistic, mendacious grifter lacking empathy, curiosity, knowledge of government and policy, or sense of the history and majesty of self-government. There is no evidence of him learning or adjusting on the job. His major source of information appears to be right-wing cable news shows. He is consumed with his own public standing, attacking anyone who would dare criticize him and basking in the compliments from strongmen abroad. The subject that worries him the most—Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation of Russian efforts to influence our 2016 election—could well unleash a 21st century version of Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre.
There is now no doubt that Republican leaders in Congress struck a Faustian bargain of accepting the illiberal behavior of President Trump in return for realizing the radical policies on their Gilded Age wish list. The tax bill passed in the closing days of the year—a substantive and procedural monstrosity underscoring the phoniness of Trump’s populist promises to the “forgotten men and women” of America—sealed the deal. Anti-Trump Republicans in Congress have vanished and with them any hopes of congressional oversight and pushback of Trump’s autocratic, kleptocratic behavior. We are on a path to a kakistocracy—governing by the least competent and most corrupt—which fits a party whose only animating principle is to cut taxes and government.
Fortunately, this sordid picture of President Trump and the Republican Congress is only part of a larger mosaic. Though also under siege, the courts and career civil service work valiantly to preserve the rule of law. A free press, having underperformed in the last election campaign, has been relentless in reporting the truth, a precious democratic commodity dismissed by Trump as “FAKE NEWS” and increasingly challenged by a Republican Party in which ideology displaces facts, evidence and science. Our federal system has provided opportunities for state and local public officials to challenge the erosion of democratic norms and practices at the national level.
Most encouraging is the public resistance to Trump and the Republican Congress. Civil society has flourished this past year. Scores of established organizations have stepped up their game. Thousands of new ones have been formed across the country. And millions of Americans have been mobilized to participate in the political process to express their opposition to Trump and Trumpism.
President Trump, the Republican Congress, and the recently enacted tax bill are deeply unpopular. Special and by-elections have produced vote swings averaging more than ten percentage points to the Democrats. The so-called generic vote for Congress also shows a double-digit lead for the Democrats in recent polling. A “wave” election in 2018 will likely produce a Democratic majority in the House, giving the resistance a critical institutional foothold in Congress. A Democratic Senate is tougher but now not beyond reach.
A majority of Americans have been jolted by Trump’s election and first year in the presidency. We the people have it within our power to contain the damage and then attend to ameliorating the conditions that produced it.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.