How does he get away with it? This is the question about Trump many of us ask over and over again. He has said and done so much that would seemingly disqualify him from leading the United States in the 21st century, from calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” to firing the FBI director for investigating Russian collusion in his election.
One may object that Trump is not getting away with it. The DOJ has appointed a special counsel to investigate the Russia matter. Calls for impeachment are growing. Courts have blocked the Muslim ban. The administration appears chaotic and ineffective. Yet Trump retains support from 96% of the 63 million Americans who elected him. Each setback — blamed on “so-called” judges, “fake news,” or the “deep state” — seems only to reinforce their view that the problem is not Trump but our democratic institutions.
So the question stands: How does he get away it? The answer may be worse than we think, a long-developing crisis that cannot be corrected by impeachment, judicial review, or mid-term elections: weakening belief in the legitimacy of constitutional democracy itself.
A recent study asked people to rate the importance of living in a country governed democratically. While 75% of Americans born in the 1930s answered it is essential, a mere 30% born in the 1980s agreed. How would people prefer to be governed? According to the same study, an increasing percentage of Americans believe it would be good to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections. Another study by the same researchers found that only 43% of Americans, and only 19% of millennials, think it would be illegitimate for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job.
These statistics suggest that decades of polarization, gridlock, and corruption have eroded belief in constitutional democracy. It is no wonder that over 40% of eligible Americans did not bother to vote for a presidential candidate in 2016, including over 50% of millennials: to many people, elections do not seem to make a difference.
People look at what big business and high technology have achieved compared to our messy, inefficient democracy and find the latter antiquated. Donald Trump appeals as a strong leader who can cut through red tape, dispense with political correctness, run the country like a business — a CEO or, in political terms, an authoritarian.
And this democratic skepticism comes not only from authoritarians and libertarians, but from the left, too. People look at the corruption and unfairness, even under the redemptive possibility of Obama — from unlimited campaign contributions to bailing out Wall Street, from engaging in covert imperialism to waging wars in the name of democracy — and find America’s vaunted democratic ideals hypocritical. As a result, they do not vote, vote third-party, or vote for Trump because at least he makes the injustice plain, rather than adding insult to injury by paying lip service to democratic ideals.
In other words, Trump can get away with it because so many of us expect nothing better from our democracy and do not believe there is any hope for good government.
This nihilistic realism poses a grave danger because it leaves us with no argument against power, no standards against which to measure the actions of those holding power. But if we wish to defend America’s rule of law, we can not take its axiomatic desirability for granted, because growing segments of the country, on both the right and the left, do not. We must critically examine our governing order and articulate how to fix it.
For example, we must end the gerrymandering that ensures polarization and reform the electoral system so that everyone’s vote counts equally. We must restrict campaign contributions and limit the outsized political influence of concentrated wealth. We must reform taxes so that the wealthiest pay their fair share and raise wages so that working people can save for retirement. We must stop supporting aggression abroad and cooperate to solve global crises rather than exacerbate them.
Alas, none of these measures will be enacted under current leadership. But we who hold out hope for good government must at least persuade people that the distortions of democracy, not democracy itself, are the problem, and they can be fixed. We must work to make good government worth believing in, before it is too late.