After defeating the British in the Revolutionary War, General George Washington almost certainly could have seized control, and made himself dictator. Washington was revered, the Continental Congress was weak, and the argument that the colonies needed the stable leadership of a tested leader in the post-war period would have been an easy one to make. But he did not.
Washington’s insistence on civilian control of the military is now a bedrock of the United States’ political system. The very thought of the military intervening in our country’s political decisions, much less overthrowing a democratically-elected Congress or president, sends a shiver down the spine of Americans, and would cut to the deepest level of what it means to be American. That idea—that elected civilians are our leaders, and the military answer to them—has held strong throughout our history.
There is no physical barrier, however, that prevents the military from intervening in the political process, or even from removing elected leaders from office. There is no wall, no defense. The military controls the weapons, and could do so if they pleased.
What has prevented it here is the norm created when Washington relinquished power to Congress. It hasn’t happened because it violates an idea of what is acceptable in our country, and one that defines our country.
That is not the only norm we depend on within our system. We have depended, too, on the idea that even if we wholly disagree with officials elected to office and want to see them unseated as soon as possible, they are afforded the respect of holding office. They were elected to office through our political system, and while we may think they should not be in office, we at least acknowledge they were elected. Similarly, elected leaders have respected a norm that they will not use their new powers to persecute the people they have replaced.
Together with the Constitution, which slows down and impedes the ability of majorities to enact sweeping changes to our laws, these norms (more numerous than the three discussed above) limit the scope of change possible for a single election. One general election year will not mean that the previous administration will be thrown in prison and minority groups’ freedom of speech will be denied. It will not mean that the economy will be nationalized. It will not mean that all members of a racial group will be rounded up and placed in internment camps.
By doing so, it turns down the temperature on our political debate. When people’s rights are not being directly decided by a single election, or whether the last administration will be imprisoned, there is much less incentive for people to make drastic decisions, like for a president to refuse to transfer power to the elected candidate. Such norms help ensure stability.
I fear we are well down the path of weakening the very norms that have girded our democracy.
I am, of course, writing about Donald J. Trump, who will be the Republican Party’s nominee for president.
Trump, though, did not start this erosion. We can trace it in its current form back at least to the 2000 election, and certainly to Obama’s presidency, with the right’s courting of birther conspiracy theorists that insisted President Obama is a foreigner and thus incapable of holding office. We can lay blame on President George W. Bush for expanding the scope of executive power, legitimizing torture, and on President Obama for enshrining Bush’s expansion of power and expanding it further still. There is much blame to go around.
Trump is something altogether new, however. Whereas the past two presidents have undermined our norms at the edges while still paying respect to them (the role of the executive in our system, respect for the rights of all Americans, and the legitimacy of our political system itself), Trump has undermined our system’s norms whenever he has found it politically advantageous to do so.
His commitment to the protections enshrined in U.S. constitution are questionable, at best, and if we assume the worst, downright frightening (the difficulty with Trump is that he’s not precise with words, so it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what he’s saying). He has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database, elaborating that they could “sign up at different places.” When a reporter asked how this was different from requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany, Trump said “you tell me,” prompting The Atlantic’s David Graham to note that “it’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.” Trump, for good measure, has also refused to disavow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans.
That is not even close to an exhaustive list, and Trump has added to it since, by stating that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit he is involved in, should Curiel should recuse himself from the case for impartiality because Curiel is of Mexican descent.
By doing so, Trump is using his position as a candidate for president to threaten a sitting judge, and is undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary. When a candidate for president uses his position to question a judge’s impartiality, the judiciary’s stature is weakened. What good are court rulings if the president states rulings that run counter to their interests are biased and illegitimate? Through his statements, Trump lessens the standing of the judiciary, and raises the specter of ignoring rulings altogether if he is elected. After all, why should the president respect “biased” and illegitimate rulings from an unelected body of judges?
Trump, too, is fond of threatening people he finds disagreeable. He has threatened the Ricketts family and David French’s family with consequences if they do not fall in line, and has used lawsuits as a bludgeon against people in the past. Those threats appear to be part of who Trump is and what he believes a good leader to be. He is, after all, the man that complimented the Chinese Communist Party’s strength for putting down the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protest with tanks and bullets, and the man that said he would compel the U.S. military to carry out unlawful orders, even if they refused.
Is that our norm of what the executive—the body of government that signs and enforces laws drafted by the democratically-elected legislature—is? Someone that questions the impartiality of a federal judge because of the judge, and uses his race as an excuse? Someone that doesn’t recoil at the idea of placing American citizens of one religion in a database so they can be tracked by the federal government? Someone that finds murdering the wives and children of terrorists as an intentional strategy morally acceptable, and believes it is “leadership” to force the military to carry out such atrocities? Someone that thinks it is not beneath a president to threaten private citizens for crossing him?
Those are not the norms we have established, or the norms that have provided remarkable stability in our political system since our founding. They are the signs of someone that fancies himself an authoritarian, and of a person that believes anything, or anyone, that stands in his way are to be crushed. They are the marks of a demagogue willing to do anything in the pursuit of power.
Trump will likely not be elected president. Despite that, by allowing this man to be the nominee for president for the Republican party, by allowing him to say and do the things he does, we are doing damage to our system of government. We are normalizing Trump’s behavior, normalizing his blatant use of racism and threats. He is raising the specter that things we did not think people would ever do, could be done as a result of a single election.
Trump will not be the end of our system, even if elected. But he is accelerating the decline of what has helped make our form of government so strong and resilient. And for that, we—members of the party that has elevated this man to be our nominee—should be deeply ashamed.
There is no honor in sticking by a party that makes Trump our standard bearer, no good to come from party unity.