Is America’s democracy — the most successful political experiment in history — hanging on by a thread? Many commentators think so.
Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, warned that “the 2020 election may be the end of our democracy” and we may have “another Civil War.” Columnist Robin Abcarian asserted that only one thing has saved the United States (and the world) from a Trump dictatorship: the ACLU. And Donald Trump is regularly called an “existential threat” to our democratic institutions.
Are they right? Is American democracy really teetering on the brink of extinction?
The punditry — and much of the country — has gone too far.
Things are, to be sure, really bad. An ignorant, bloviating reality television star is president. A global pandemic is raging. California is burning. And our democratic salvation — the ballot box — is at the center of a firestorm.
We have, moreover, endured one limit-busting catastrophe after another — fraying our nerves and rattling our collective psychology. We did not think Candidate Trump could ever become Nominee Trump; we did not think Nominee Trump could ever become President Trump; we did not think an emerging China could ever become a rival China; and we did not think a virus could ever become a pandemic.
If these limits can be shattered then our democracy can be shattered, too, right?
There are hard limits to our national downside. Our democracy is enduring a stress test with Trump. But it is not going anywhere.
Let’s remember some facts.
Two years after Trump was elected the Democrats won a sweeping victory and took control of the House of Representatives. They have, ever since, stymied Trump’s legislative agenda, relegating him largely to symbolic, impotent executive orders. They have investigated his administration at length. They have impeached him. And in the Senate, the filibuster endures — further blunting Trump’s legislative ambitions.
The courts, moreover, have ruled against Trump consistently. A lower-level court halted Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban (after his attorney general refused to enforce it). The Supreme Court rejected his attempt to reverse DACA and his anti-LGBT Civil Rights Act arguments. And the Court later held that a local prosecutor can seek Trump’s personal financial records — something fundamentally inconsistent with the notion of dictatorship.
Importantly, Trump has not violated a single court decision or questioned the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the last word in our constitutional order.
Even Trump’s own executive branch has investigated him for years, sending numerous members of his team to jail. Just last week the DOJ indicted his former campaign manager.
State and local governments have likewise protected and defended our democratic institutions, rejecting overreaching Trump policies and mounting strong and consistent opposition in the courts and the public square.
The media, for its part, has been on overdrive since 2016, investigating Trump and his administration with unprecedented strength and vigor. The very fact that so many commentators openly call Trump a dictator with impunity proves that he is not one.
The military has not started a new war under Trump, let alone engaged in dictatorial conquest. (Trump’s futile attempt to enlarge the country by purchasing Iceland was met with laughter by his own administration.). And the idea that the military might splinter into two and fight a civil war is — to put it bluntly — far fetched. The military remains a respected and cohesive institution.
Trump is not an existential threat to our democratic institutions. He is a test for them. And — battered and bruised — they are showing their strength.
It is true that our nation is experiencing great hardship right now. As we have before. One of our founding principles was slavery. It took a century — and a Civil War — to expunge it. Then came Jim Crow. Women’s suffrage arrived just over a century ago. We fought in two world wars, another in Korea, and another in Vietnam. We faced a pandemic in 1918. A Great Depression a decade later. And just ten years ago we confronted the near-collapse of our financial system.
Our country improves with time — but the slog is long and the trajectory nonlinear.
Things are bad now. And they very well may get worse. Even the best possible version of November will be a white-knuckled roller coaster. But we are not descending into a dictatorship. We are not heading towards another Civil War. And we are not watching our democratic institutions crumble.
Despite our great challenges, we are a vibrant, resilient and democratic nation. Still.
William Cooper is an attorney and columnist who has written for national publications.