What Trump Says Matters

Don’t focus just on policy. Pay attention to what the president says, because it’s having a corrosive effect on democracy.

American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12, 2017
American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12, 2017 (DoD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

The one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency has seen some relief. The republic still stands. NAFTA and NATO survive. There is no border wall, no war with Iran or North Korea. Trump’s biggest accomplishments so far — tax cuts, energy deregulation, repealing the Obamacare mandate — are pretty conventional right-wing stuff.

Ignore the rhetoric and norm-breaking, the argument goes, and Trump is just like any other Republican.

Except the rhetoric and norm-breaking are precisely the point.

Killing democracy one tweet at a time

It’s easier to keep track of laws and executive orders than it is to measure the corrosive effect on democracy of an angry tweet or Trump’s firing of high officials for refusing to do his bidding. But we know from political science that such behavior paves the way for authoritarianism.

Heather Digby Parton argues in Salon that every time Trump suggests intelligence agents are plotting against him or accuses a judge of partisanship, he gives succor to those who are anxious to use the opening for their own gain and emboldens those who applauded the dark American world he promised on the campaign trail.

It’s entirely possible that we are sliding backward into a new authoritarian system one tweet at a time without even knowing it.

Trump’s poison

Ezra Klein argues in Vox that Trump is setting the terms and tone of the public debate. By generating constant negative attention, cultural conflict and emotional alarm, he “makes us a little more like him,” according to Klein, “and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.”

That poisons civil society.

Trump is deepening the threats we feel — and, in some cases, the threats we truly face — from each other; he is breaking us into warring factions in the hopes that that collision will strengthen his supporters’ loyalty to him.

Trump didn’t polarize America all by himself. If anything, he is more of a consequence than the cause. But he is definitively making it worse, which doesn’t bode well for the nation’s governability.

Ignoring this, or accepting it as the price for corporate tax reduction and the appointment of conservative federal judges — as Trump’s apologists in the Republican Party are wont to do — is reckless.

All is not lost

There is reason for optimism.

Eliot A. Cohen points out in The Atlantic that not all institutions have folded. The courts, the intelligence agencies and the media Trump so frequently disparages are soldiering on. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, by contrast, has taken Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric as license to crack down on immigrants, legal and illegal.)

Cohen recognizes that the crisis of America is a moral as much as a political one. The upside of Trump’s presidency, he argues, is that it is breeding introspection among politically engaged Americans.

If it causes conservatives to think hard about the darker moods and sub-movements that were driven underground but never completely vanquished by the likes of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, that is a good thing. […] If it causes liberals to reflect that many Americans turned to Trump as a result of the cultural contempt with which they have been viewed, and the disdain for their problems and values that have long been expressed by bicoastal elites, that will be a good thing too.

If, yes.