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Trump Year One: Betrayal, Division and the Rise of Illiberal Democracy

Enriching billionaires is Trump’s sole strategic vision.

Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 10, 2011, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

In Donald Trump’s first year since being elected, he has associated the presidency with the powers of rescindment. The progression of creating policy, constructing coalitions to support the policy and mobilizing stakeholders to build a majoritarian consensus to pass legislation is nonexistent. Using Twitter to formulate policy positions, Trump is engaging in electronic guerilla warfare, negating traditional procedures related to open debate. He has demonstrated no respect for democratic principles, denigrating institutions meant to uphold the rule of law, equality of opportunity and the expansion of individual rights. In only one year, Trump has taken the US toward the precipice of illiberal democracy.

Vulgarizing traditional norms and political culture, Trump has instituted a reckless, reactionary use of executive power and a decision-making style based on spite, vendetta and catering to an electoral minority. Without a strategic vision, unpredictability has become the new norm in the executive branch. The result has been an incoherent, erratic communication process, where the Republican Party, Trump’s inner circle of advisers and the Democratic minority are left to interrupt Trump’s incongruent, often nonsensical messaging.

In the 2016 election, Trump campaigned to create a government committed to the interests of the working and middle classes. In his inaugural address he stated: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” However, the administration has shown this commitment to be empty rhetoric.

Trump supports stripping Americans’ access to health care provided by the Affordable Care Act. He supported legislation that eliminated safety standards in the workplace. Trump supported weakening the rights of consumers to prevent telecommunication companies from acquiring, using and selling personal information. He supported Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate to overturn a rule allowing consumers to file class-action lawsuits against banks and other financial institutions. Trump declared the opiate crisis a public health emergency, but he has released no funding or expansion of medical services to treat the crisis. Perhaps the greatest blow to working- and middle-class families may emerge with Trump’s support for Republican tax cuts that benefit plutocrats and large corporations. Trump’s cabinet of millionaires and billionaires continue to exude cronyism and the misuse of public funds in carrying out their governmental duties.

In his first year, Trump used the power of the executive branch to liquidate the accomplishments of his presidential predecessors. The Paris climate accords, alternative energy production, the Iranian nuclear treaty and comprehensive immigration reform were viewed by Trump as financially wasteful or politically threatening to his base of support. Trump’s desire to ravish treaties, multilateral agreements and all things regulatory has been especially egregious with respect to Barack Obama’s presidential legacy. Of course, whitewashing the history of the executive branch plays well with Trump’s core supporters, and in the Trump presidency, catering to the base — no matter how small — is sacrosanct.

Political rage, cynicism and innuendo fuel Trump’s authoritarian impulses. These impulses will likely become more prevalent. As the Russian-collusion investigation encircles Trump, he will be tempted to use executive branch power to end the investigation. The October 31 attack in New York has reignited his desire to implement anti-constitutional measures against immigrants. Meanwhile, Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has declared a “season of war” against Republicans deemed disloyal to Trump by recruiting über-extremists to run in primary elections, pushing the Republican Party into a post-libertarian phase. Taken to its natural endpoint, this purge would increase the likelihood that the party would be associated with elements of fascism.

Aside from Trump’s acidic temperament and unwillingness to stay on message, his administration is unique in modern politics for avoiding calls for national unity. Presidential Scholar Robert Dallek has observed that Trump “doesn’t seem to care about winning majority support.” Trump rejects the defining elements of US democracy: racial, ethnic and religious pluralism, although imperfect in application, has been critical to creating a vibrant and relatively peaceful commonwealth. In its place, Trump has set into motion dangerous notions of the US as a “volk” defined by whiteness, privilege, wealth and evangelical Christianity.

Trump has turned the ideal of pluralist unity on its head, unleashing racism, misogyny and ethnocentrism that foster societal fragmentation. Trump considers his political base victims of a misguided historical experiment in trying to achieve equality. As such, Trump has betrayed one of the US’s greatest strengths: the capacity of a unified pluralistic society working toward expanding and refining democratic ideals. Edward Luce writes in The Retreat of Western Liberalism that

Trump’s animating spirit is to make a demoralized American middle class feel better about itself. His goal is to channel rage, not cultivate knowledge. In so doing he has license to indulge his most authoritarian impulses.

During the 2016 election, Trump campaigned as the ultimate Washington outsider who would “drain the swamp” of political elites that had ignored the hopes and dreams of the US’s working class. With his first year nearly complete, Trump has betrayed the working class and ignored the interests of the middle class, focusing his political efforts on enriching corporate US and plutocrats. Not surprisingly, a heightened sense of political discontent among US voters has emerged. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted between September 27 and October 5 suggests 7 in 10 Americans feel distrust of democracy has deepened, and divisions in US society are as severe as they were during the Vietnam War. Six in 10 respondents felt Trump is making the US political system more dysfunctional. Forty-five percent of the respondents felt Trump was undermining the US’s core values. Thirty-six percent claimed they “are not proud of the way democracy works in America,” twice the number who responded this way in a 2014 poll.

What then must be done? A progressive, energized majority is the most powerful line of defense against the simmering flame of sectarianism that Trump is creating. The 2018-midterm elections should be a clarion call to stop the US’s descent into autocracy. To save democracy, the majority must reject the specter of Trumpism.

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