Did Trump permanently damage American democracy? This question has spawned a veritable cottage industry of hand wringing over the state of American democracy—understandably so. Never before have we had a president who schemed to overturn legitimate election results, who attacked the press and the civil servants who worked for him, who admired dictators, who blatantly profited from his public office and who repeatedly lied to the public for his own selfish purposes. But while Trump’s four years of rhetoric have been a shock to democratic norms, did they inflict permanent damage on our democracy? My answer is a qualified no. The guardrails of democracy held. The institutions designed to check autocracy are intact.
Successful democratic systems are not designed for governments composed of ethical men and women who are only interested in the public good. If leaders were always virtuous there would be no need for checks and balances. The Founding Fathers understood this. They designed a system to protect minority points of view and to protect us from leaders inclined to lie, cheat and steal. Fortunately, we haven’t had many of those in our 200-plus years of history, which is why the Trump presidency sent such shock waves through a large part of the body politic.
Those who bemoan Trump’s effect on democracy complain that he did not adhere to the established norms of the presidency. That is correct; he is, at heart, a dictator. But let’s start by distinguishing between norms and institutions. Norms are different from laws; they are not enforceable and they evolve. In contrast, democratic institutions are based in law and entail real consequences. Changes in norms can in fact lead to changes in law and in democratic institutions—this has happened in many of the countries in eastern Europe and Latin America that have slipped into pseudo-democracy or autocracy.  But in spite of Donald Trump’s best efforts it has not happened here. At least not yet.
To get a sense of why I argue that the guardrails of democracy have held, let’s look at the five major institutions that protect us from rule by an aspiring dictator: Congress, the courts, the federal system, the press and the civil service. Not a single one of them has lost legal power during Trump’s turbulent presidency. Refusing to use power is not the same as losing the power.
Did Trump weaken the powers of Congress? No.
Nancy Pelosi had no trouble confronting Trump, as is evident to anyone who has seen the iconic photo of her standing up in the Cabinet room and pointing at Donald Trump as she lectured him. Democrats brought impeachment charges against Trump not once but twice. Although speculation was rampant, in the end then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not block either trial. Trump did not try to disband Congress, nor did he try to pass laws that weakened its most important power, the power of the purse. In fact, at no point during the Trump years did Trump attempt to formally weaken congressional power.
Those who argue that Trump weakened democracy often don’t distinguish policy from democratic process. While Mitch MConnell and allies have been called Trump’s lapdogs, on domestic policy they have acted like almost any Republican majority would act, siding with business on issues like cutting taxes, regulations and liability protections. And on foreign policy McConnell did not stop nor punish Republican senators who tried to constrain Trump when they thought he was wrong.
Has Trump damaged our system of shared power between the federal government and the states? No.
The Constitution distributes power between the federal government and the state government, codified in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It took Trump a long time to understand this but states have repeatedly exercised their power against Trump, especially in two areas; COVID-19 and voting.
In the spring of 2020 Trump, anxious to get past COVID in time for his re-election campaign, was pushing hard for states to open up early. Democratic governors ignored Trump’s demands to open up. In some states, Republican governors tried acting like mini-Trumps, in others they gave him lip service but did not open up completely, and in Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine politely disagreed and kept the state closed. Trump, seeing that the governors were not scared of him, then threatened to withold medical equipment based on states’ decisions about opening up. He came up against the 10th Amendment which prevents the president from conditioning federal aid on the basis of governors acquiescing to a president’s demands. Trump couldn’t use the cudgel he thought he had.
The guardrails between the federal government and the states also held when it came to Trump’s campaign to win the election.
In Georgia the courageous Republican Secretary of Brad Raffensperger, a stalwart Republican and Trump supporter, certified election results in spite of personal calls and threats from the president. In Michigan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield did not give in to Trump’s attempts to get them to diverge from the process of choosing electors.
So did Trump inflict lasting damage to our Federalist system? Are governors weaker than they were pre-Trump? If anything citizens now understand that in a crisis, governors are the ones who control things that are important to them like shutdown orders and vaccine distribution. Trump’s campaign to convince governors to take actions to suppress the vote remains a huge problem for democracy but it is succeeding not because Trump had dictatorial powers over the states but because he has like-minded allies in many state houses and state legislatures.
Has Trump weakened the judiciary? No.
One of the hallmarks of dictators is that they weaken the judiciary so that courts rubber-stamp their every whim. But to Trump’s dismay he discovered that appointing conservative judges is not the same as controlling judges the way someone like Vladimir Putin does. Trump’s first controversial act as president—the famous Muslim ban—was repeatedly struck down by the courts until the administration drafted a version that could pass legal muster.
When it came to trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Trump-appointed judges often made decisions that thwarted Trump’s attempts at denying the results. Take, for instance, the following from Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee on the 3rd Circuit, writing for the three-judge panel in Pennsylvania:
“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
In fact, after the election Trump’s team brought 62 lawsuits and won one. The others he either dropped or he lost and many of those decisions were made by Republican judges. Perhaps his biggest disappointment had to be the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear election challenges from states Trump believed he had won.
Did Trump weaken the press? No.
Trump spent four years using the bully pulpit of the presidency to mock the press, calling them names and “the enemy of the people” and referring to outlets he doesn’t like as “failing”. He revoked the press credentials from reporters he didn’t like. (Although the courts restored them.) Reporters have not been afraid to call out his lies. With Trump out of office for months now, no major news outlets have gone broke. None are afraid to criticize Trump or his supporters.
The free press is still free and fairly healthy. Its financial and structural problems have to do with their adaptation to the internet age, all of which predated Trump.
Some argue that Trump increased distrust in the media but as the following Gallup poll indicates, the lack of trust in the media fell in around 2008 has been largely constant since then.
Was Trump able to exert control over the civil service? No.
The United States government is based on the rule of law, not the rule of men. Nowhere is that more evident than in the behavior of the career civil service or the permanent government. In dictatorships there is no such thing as a “career” civil service—only loyalists who act on dictates from the man, not the law. Early on, Trump found out that he could not prevent the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate his relations with Russia. Where the law allowed for discretion and where career government officials could legally implement a presidential order—as in the disastrous separation of children at the border—the career civil servants acted as Trump wished. But where the law was clear Trump could not force his will on the bureaucracy.
Take, for instance, Trump’s desire to announce a successful vaccine for the coronavirus before Election Day. When the Food and Drug Administration wrote guidelines that would govern when a pharmaceutical company could get emergency-use authorization to begin distributing vaccines, the Trump administration tried to block them because it would mean release of the vaccines after the election. The attempt to politicize a scientific process was not well received by FDA employees and career scientists, who in defiance of the White House went ahead and published the vaccine guidelines, which the Trump administration then “approved” after the fact.
Frustrated by the many “veto points” in the system, Trump took to issuing executive actions, many of which were focused on the environment. But once again he did not see the limits of his powers. According to a Brookings study:
“Many of the Trump administration’s measures, environmental or otherwise, have failed to stand up in court, with the administration losing 83 percent of litigations.”
While Trump has been able to weaken environmental regulations, the courts and the system itself proved to be guardrails. As of the last year of his administration less than half of his environmental regulatory actions (48 out of 84) were in effect. The others were either in process or have been repealed or withdrawn—often after the administration lost in court.
The fact that Trump did not tear down the major guardrails of democracy does not mean that all is well in the United States. He attracted the support of millions of voters in 2020 and, even more dangerous is the fact that much of the Republican Party still insists on refuting the results of that election and weakening non-partisan election administration in certain states where they hold legislative majorities. Norms have been broken and could yet result in majorities that overturn laws and weaken institutions. It’s possible that had Trump been more experienced in government he could have been able to amass the powers he so wanted to have. The lesson is that democracy requires constant care and constant mobilization.
But all in all, my bet is that the Founding Fathers would be proud of the way the system they designed stood up to and thwarted King Trump. The guardrails held: Congress was not disbanded and its powers were not weakened, the states retained substantial power and authority over their own citizens, the courts displayed their independence and ability to stand up to the presidency, the press remained free and critical and the bureaucracy held to the rule of law, not the whim of man.
 See William A. Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,
 In July 2017 Congress passed a Russian sanctions bill that included in it a unique provision limiting Trump’s ability to lift sanctions unilaterally. The bill was opposed by the White House but passed the House 419 to 3 and the Senate 98 to 2—meaning it was veto proof. The constraint on presidential action was a major step thwarting Trump’s romance with Putin.
Since then Republican senators have been openly critical of Trump on a variety of other foreign policy moves: many Republican senators condemned his praise of Putin at the 2018 Helsinki summit, some joined Democrats in opposing Trump actions in Yemen and 2/3 of House Republicans joined Democrats in condemning Trump’s actions in Syria. Some Republicans joined Democrats in opposing Trump’s declaration of an emergency at the southwest border. In 2020, Republicans joined Democrats in a bill to rename bases that had been named after Confederate leaders and Trump did not veto it.