President Trump and the Integrity of American Democracy

On the eve of the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, it is worthwhile to reflect on the significance of his presidency for the quality of our nation’s politics.

Some Americans have criticized the president as a threat to our democratic way of life. They point to his brawling rhetoric, his tendency to insult and demean his political opponents, and contend that these habits undermine the norms of civility that sustain a healthy democracy.

Even the most ardent Trump supporters ought to be able to admit, upon reflection, that these critics have a point. A large, diverse, self-governing country is bound to have serious disagreements among its people. Such a country can manage its affairs successfully only if these inevitable disagreements do not get overheated. Successful democratic politics requires cooperation among people of diverse views, and such cooperation grows more and more difficult as civility is abandoned.

Nevertheless, to be fair to President Trump—and to reassure ourselves about the state of our country—it is worth pointing out that when it comes to the integrity of our democracy, Trump is not all bad.

On the contrary, there is an important sense in which his presidency can be understood as building up the integrity of our democracy.

Trump is extraordinary among recent presidents not only for his shocking combativeness but also for something much more admirable: his spirited determination to stick to the promises on which he campaigned.

Trump the candidate promised to be tough on illegal immigration, to make our allies pay more for the common defense, to renegotiate our trade deals, to nominate conservative judges, to cut taxes, and to repeal and replace Obamacare. He certainly has not tried to slink away from any of these promises but rather has dedicated all of his (considerable) energy to fulfilling them. No fair-minded observer can deny this.

This is not to say that Trump is perfect on this score. Every campaign puts out a huge laundry list of promises, many of which are never kept (and most of which are not even noticed by the voters).  Trump’s campaign was no exception, and if we judge him by this standard, he does not look so unusual.

But every campaign also makes some distinct, big-ticket promises, and Trump has stayed extraordinarily true to his. This started to become clear when he delivered his inaugural address and said pretty much what he had always said, and it has become clearer over his first year as he has stuck doggedly to his agenda.

Delivering on key campaign promises is not as common for presidents as we might think—or as we should demand. Consider the history of the last thirty years of American politics. George H.W. Bush famously said, “Read my lips: No new taxes”—a pledge he violated in the second year of his first and only term as president. In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned promising a middle-class tax cut. He dropped the idea almost immediately upon taking office. In 2000, George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy that eschewed nation-building abroad. His actual foreign policy charted practically the opposite course.

Barack Obama did not break any important campaign promise. Nevertheless, as president he did sell his main legislative priority—the Affordable Care Act—on the basis of the now infamous promise: “If you like the plan you have, you can keep it.” This, of course, turned out to be false once the law was put into operation.

This history ought to remind us that there is more to good politics than politeness. After all, all of these promises were made and broken with the utmost civility.

Indeed, this decades-long record of broken promises by our highest political officials probably explains, at least in part, why Trump won. Enough voters felt that they had been played too many times by the more conventional politicians of both parties. More important, these voters were right to resent being played and to try something different in order to put a stop to it. In doing so, they were taking action to preserve or restore the integrity of our democracy.

Representative democracy means that the voters get to choose the basic direction of the country. In this sense, the voters are entitled to govern the country, although they do not administer its government. They must perform this act of governance on the basis of the representations that are made to them by candidates for public office. This entire process is, of course, a fraud if those who are elected do not hold themselves bound to try to deliver on the promises they made while campaigning for office.

We may rightly hope that future presidents have a more diplomatic mode of expression than Trump. But we may also rightly hope that they imitate him in seriously intending, and then seriously trying to deliver, what they promise. This is just as important as civility to maintaining a healthy democracy.

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