Catch up on Part I of this article here.
Many of the worrying trends in our republic that have been leading us down the road to tyranny, explored in Part I [hyperlink], could be reversed by a Trump presidency. A strengthened Congress, rejuvenated federalism, reinvigorated journalism, and a revitalized civil society may well be the result of Donald Trump’s election.
Trump’s Two Paths:
As president, Trump could govern in one of two ways. He might effectively abdicate the role of governance, live in Trump tower, play golf, engage in characteristically bombastic publicity stunts, and let policy experts make policy. In such a scenario he would not carry out some of his more outlandish proposals, like banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall paid for by Mexico, starting a trade (or nuclear) war, abandoning our treaty allies, promoting nuclear proliferation, restricting free speech and press freedoms or inciting violence. He wouldn’t do much of anything.
Trump could also pursue the second course of action—the one that many fear—in which a Trump presidency resembles Trump’s candidacy. In this scenario, he would continue to undermine our republic, pose an unprecedented threat, and exacerbate the dangerous trends that have caused American decline and brought us to the verge of tyranny.
Should he choose the former option, non-presidential centers of power can fill the void. Should he choose the latter option, non-presidential centers of power can possibly strengthen in reaction. Thus either option offers not only great risks, but also the opportunity for us to rejuvenate our republic and assert a more vibrant American greatness than ever before.
The Path Out of Decline:
A Strengthened Congress:
Congress, long apathetic, has suddenly taken initiative and asserted itself as the first branch should. Republican congressional leaders, immediately following their unexpected electoral success, moved rapidly to craft an agenda for the beginning of the new congressional term. Should Trump “abdicate,” House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be eager to fill a policy void and prove that the Republican Congress is, despite past performance, capable of governing. A Congress actually initiating the legislative process—rather than merely acceding to or obstructing executive initiatives—would be a positive development. From a progressive’s perspective, Congress, led by McConnell and Ryan, would mean setbacks and regression on key policy issues but would not represent a Trumpian existential threat to the Republic.
Should Trump take the more dangerous path and actually choose to govern, Congress, could regain some of its lost authority by standing up to Trump if he tries to weaken essential American institutions. Congressional leaders have declared their fundamental disagreements with Trump on issues like trade, government spending, entitlements immigration, or defense. They are likely to assert congressional authority should Trump try to act alone on any of these issues. Indeed, despite Trump’s frequent campaign rhetoric in favor of torture, Republican senator John McCain has declared, “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard.” These clear differences indicate that Congress, despite its Republican leadership, does not intend to be a rubber stamp for Trump. Moreover, the small-government conservatives in Congress are unlikely to permit Trump even to pass massive spending programs, let alone disregard their revered Constitution. Either way, a strengthened Congress has the capacity to facilitate a rejuvenation of American republicanism.
Just as Congress has begun asserting an independent voice since Trump’s victory, state and local governments have begun asserting themselves, hopefully reversing their decline into irrelevancy. In places where one rarely hears rallying cries of states’ rights, governors have taken a stand. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, who has never made news for standing up to the federal government, passionately declared, “As New Yorkers, we have fundamentally different philosophies than what Donald Trump laid out in his campaign.” He went on to promise that New York would be a refuge for the persecuted, stating, “We won’t allow a federal government that attacks immigrants to do so in our state,” and proceeded to enumerate the policy initiatives New York championed in spite of federal law. Similarly, California governor Jerry Brown vowed to maintain California’s principles in the face of a hostile federal government and not let a Trump administration interfere with California’s efforts to tackle climate change. These state government actions represent federalism at its best.
Mayors of America’s major cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington DC, have also promised to maintain their cities as sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, even at the risk of losing billions of dollars in federal funding. With urban citizens generally the most alarmed with the notion of a Trump presidency, city governments are suddenly more relevant to their citizens. Hopefully, renewed importance in local governments as checks to Trump’s authority will inspire a greater engagement in local politics and a reversal of local government decline.
Whatever one’s personal opinion of sanctuary cities or the other progressive policies that state and local governments might pursue under a Trump presidency, vibrant and assertive local governments are better than corruptive and apathetic ones. Conflict between different levels of government is essential to a healthy American republic. State and local governments can experiment and compete with one another and the federal government. They can try different policies, which will drive innovation and hasten the widespread adoption of the best policies, while discouraging the worst. Furthermore, strengthened, more active local government will encourage greater participation of the people, as they will be more likely to run for state and local office and school board, engage within their communities and, at the very least, vote. This greater engagement by the people is also essential to a healthy republic. Thus America will certainly benefit if a Trump presidency results in reinvigorated state and local governments.
In the face of Trump’s unprecedented assaults on the press, coupled with an onslaught of fake news, traditional quality journalism has an excellent opportunity to assert itself. Trump’s campaign was uniquely damaging to the freedom of the press, as he endlessly castigated “the media” as dishonest and attacked journalists who criticized him. Although Trump’s early actions as president-elect—cordoning off the press and restricting its access—are exceedingly concerning, investigative journalists can thrive in the face of a secretive Trump administration. With Trump’s astonishingly nebulous web of conflicts of interest with his own businesses, foreign governments, and his children, and with the almost limitless number of scandals that dog him, from his taxes to fraud to sexual assault, journalists will have an unparalleled chance to investigate and expose corruption. The media has been all over his business conflicts of interest. With Americans eager to understand what their dangerous new leader is doing, traditional reliable journalism and investigative reporting could be looking at a new golden age.
Furthermore, fake news and fringe media, peddling ludicrous stories, have led to a backlash with Facebook and Google recently announcing plans to stifle them. As social media reels from accusations that it promotes fake news, traditional journalism can rally from its recent decline by providing a reliable alternative. Reversing the unfortunate trend in traditional print media, The New York Times added forty-one thousand new paid subscriptions for print and digital the week since Election Day, representing the largest one-week increase since the paper introduced digital subscriptions. The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and leading magazines have all seen massive subscription increases since the election. If Donald Trump’s assaults on the First Amendment can produce a reinvigoration in consumption of high-quality media, traditional media can hold Trump accountable, reduce corruption throughout the government, and strengthen the republic long into the future
A Revitalized Civil Society:
As Congress, state and local government, and journalism all have opportunities to reverse decline, civil society also has shown signs that a Trump presidency could lead to its revitalization. Liberal civil society organizations have already seen spikes in support since Election Day. Planned Parenthood received an astonishing 160,000 individual donations within a week of the election, 20,000 of which came in Mike Pence’s name. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a passionate letter promising to fight Trump over any infringement on civil liberties his administration should attempt. In response, the ACLU saw the greatest level of financial support and engagement in its history, collecting $7.2 million in donations, breaking multiple fundraising records, and actually having its website crash when it experienced a seventy-fold increase in visits. The Council on American-Islamic Relations welcomed, in the words of its president, a “simply unprecedented,” number of volunteer applications. In response to concerns of anti-Semitism in the Trump campaign, the Anti-Defamation League received a fifty-fold increase in donations. Other groups, such as the NAACP, the LGBT-rights group Human Rights Campaign, and the National Immigration Law Center, have also reported massive donation increases.
With a dearth of policy expertise in the Oval Office, influential conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution are also highly likely to see increased support. These think tanks will likely be the focal point of wealthy conservative donors’ efforts to try to steer a Trump presidency toward traditionally Republican free-market policies and away from his populist campaign rhetoric.
Whatever one’s personal opinion of these groups and their missions, a strengthened civil society will have an unequivocally salutary effect on the republic. A strengthened civil society means more policy ideas from more places, more people organizing to improve the country, more competition among the diverse interests and aspirations of the diverse citizens of the nation. A strengthened civil society will also constrain Trump and any future leader as demagogic as he, thus protecting key American institutions from erosion.
Essential in a republic, unlike Trajan’s Roman Empire, is that morality must be driven by communities through civic engagement and individual acts of kindness and virtue, rather than from the top down. With a morally repulsive man in the White House, if morality is to exist at all, it can only come from the bottom up. In response to rising hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s election, the American people have the opportunity to promote morality themselves, on an individual and community level. Without the president to lead on moral issues, the American people can promote personal values that strengthen moral bonds throughout the country, starting at the local community level. Thus, through his own appalling immorality, Trump may promote the bottom-up morality that is the bedrock of true virtue in America.
An Opportunity, But Let’s Not Get Carried Away:
We have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen American centers of power not located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and promote American greatness. However, we must not get so carried away with this chance that we forget the horrible and irredeemable mistake we made in the first place that risks American decline into tyranny. We must not normalize Trump’s presidency; we must treat it like the aberration it hopefully will be. We must acknowledge that he is a disgrace and that he is dangerous. We must acknowledge that he is a threat to democracy and that we failed utterly in our sacred duty as citizens by allowing him to become president. If American greatness is enhanced under a Trump presidency, it will not be because Trump was a good president but because he was such a colossal failure.
Through we have an opportunity, we risked everything to get it. We must face the reality that society will very likely not rise to the challenge. Congress has not inspired the nation with its leadership abilities recently; state and local governments may be too mired in corruption to assert themselves, and their citizens may remain apathetic; journalism may have been permanently undermined by fake news, fringe right-wing websites that are obsequious to Trump, and Trump’s own continued attacks against free speech and free press; recent news has revealed that the violent bigotry of Trumpism, far from dying out with the end of the campaign, may very well be increasing. Finally, we have all learned the single indisputable lesson of the 2016 presidential campaign: the American people will usually fail to meet even the lowest expectations of civic duty.
Should we fail to strengthen non-presidential sources of power, and should Trump decide to pursue authoritarianism, we may suffer an apocalyptic collapse of republican institutions in this country. Such a collapse would likely set off a chain reaction of authoritarianism throughout the world, exacerbating recent authoritarian gains. We could very well lose the gifts of freedom and liberty passed down to us by generations of dedicated Americans. We may, thus, far from inspiring the world as a city upon a hill, lead the world into chaos, illiberalism, and decline.
Should we succeed in strengthening non-presidential sources of power, however, we have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how truly exceptional America is. We can show the world that America is exceptional because unlike other great countries, America can be great despite a would-be tyrant holding the highest office.
To succeed, we must strengthen non-presidential centers of power. We must encourage our congressmen to be independent voices and craft take policy initiatives. We must engage with state and local governments, holding our representatives accountable and promoting local issues and policies that diverge from the federal government. We must support strong, critical analysis and investigative journalism. We must take the initiative to set moral standards. We must donate to and support civil society, from think tanks to advocacy groups to watchdog agencies. Through these means, we can reinvigorate our republic and prevent decline.
Donald Trump won’t make America great again, but we can.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Adam Chan is a third-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.