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Aug 5, 2018

Why do I remain optimistic in the Age of Trump?

A friend has recently asked me why am I remain optimistic about the American democracy. Indeed, there does not seem to be many reasons for optimism. The man elected to the highest office in the country cares very little about democracy. If you look through the entire body of his speeches and interviews, you will find almost nothing on democracy, democratic institutions, or the rule of law. He cares a great deal about the economy, trade, immigration, politics, and most certainly about his own legitimacy, just not about democracy. It never crosses his mind that democracy is important or that it needs defending. Obama, in contrast, talked about democratic institutions hundreds of times. To be exact, a search on Democratic Institutions yields 310 hits in his speeches. Moreover, President Trump has been very successful at controlling dissent within his own party, thus limiting one important check. He has been partially successful in delegitimizing the free press, his own national security agencies. His term in office is definitely one of the low points in the life of American democracy.

And yet the democratic system is working as designed; it creaks and groans like an old house in a storm, but it withstands. The system was designed with redundancies, exactly with someone like Trump in mind. This is the stress test, and checks and balanced are mainly in place. The Congress pushed back several times, as the media have done. Many states and cities keep pushing back, and within the Republican party there is some resistance even if not very public yet. While the Supreme Court is bound to become more conservative, it is very difficult to imagine it becoming irrelevant, of undermining its own power.

When Putin came to power in 2000, many Russians expressed doubts about sincerity of his democratic commitments. No one in Russia thought the weak democratic institutions could withstand the corrupting pressure from the very top. Those people were right; Putin was able to marginalize and weaken the very institutions he was elected to defend: first, the free press, then the parliament, then the Supreme Court, and last, the civil society. Russia is a dystopian warning of how weak democratic institutions can be hollowed out from the top within a few years. Weimar Republic is one example of erosion of democratic institutions during the early Nazi era. Similar processes had happened in several Latin American countries during their era of dictatorships.

Nothing like that is happening in the US, because the institutions are much stronger. The structure of American political system has been created for the times like these. Its multiple, robust separation of various powers make the Russian scenario almost impossible. While I appreciate the creativity of the Handmaid’s Tale, very few reasonable people believe it is likely become true. Even if the first layer of defense for some reason fails, we have police, National Guard, security forces, the armed forces, all of whom share a deep commitment to democracy, Hollywood conspiracy flicks notwithstanding. Americans are obsessed with dystopian visions of post-apocalyptic world. Let us not confuse our fears with reality.

The political science actually tells us that in the so-called “hybrid regimes,” greatly weakened democratic institutions have a tendency to come back to life. In the end, I am optimistic even about Russia. Its institutions - no matter how weak now - will come back to life, eventually. In the US, those institutions will barely flinch at the Trump’s relentless assault. I think it is important to keep in mind. It will take some work, but let us be clear: Donald Trump stand zero chance against American democracy.

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