The Looming Crisis in Trump’s America Is Over Political Legitimacy, Not Dictatorship

The Looming Crisis in Trump’s America Is Over Political Legitimacy, Not Dictatorship
A rally for U.S. President Donald Trump in Duluth, Minn., June 20, 2018 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

The events of the past month have some political observers wondering if the United States has begun, or is in the midst of, a slide toward authoritarianism under President Donald Trump. The worry is that, with the Republican Party apparently cowed by Trump and his political base, the constitutional system of checks and balances is no longer fit for purpose. Against this backdrop, the administration’s coarsened political rhetoric and policies against immigrants and asylum-seekers at the border are seen as precursors for broader restrictions of liberties moving forward.

At the same time, there is a backlash—from Trump supporters, but also some well-meaning Trump critics—against some of the more overt and confrontational tactics used by the self-described “resistance” to Trump’s creeping illiberalism, particularly the recent spate of public shaming and shunning of Trump administration officials. The worry here is either that the displays of so-called incivility will accelerate the descent of America’s political discourse into tribalism, or that they will prove to be counterproductive, energizing Trump’s supporters more than his opponents.

Both concerns are for now overblown. To date, most of Trump’s most noxious policies with regard to civil liberties—including the “zero tolerance” approach to asylum-seekers that led to the family separation policy at the border—have either been frozen, rolled back or moderated by the institutions of American democracy. While the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s entry ban on citizens of predominantly Muslim countries yesterday, the ruling came on the same day that a federal judge in California formally prohibited his administration’s family separation policy and ordered the government to reunite separated families within 30 days. There is still great damage being done under the radar by the Trump administration’s more mundane policies, to say nothing of its rampant corruption, both petty and grand. But as long as public demonstrations of moral indignation and judicial challenges remain effective constraints on executive power, talk of an authoritarian slide remains premature.

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