Last November, as the presidential campaign season wound down, President Barack Obama, speaking at a rally for Hillary Clinton, found himself confronted by a man peacefully holding up a sign promoting Donald Trump. When the crowd heckled the man, Obama calmed and then admonished the crowd, defending the protester’s right to free speech in America. He urged the crowd, not to boo, but to vote, to actually partake in democracy.
Donald Trump’s treatment of protester’s at his rallies, you may recall, stood in stark contrast to Obama’s encouragement of democratic process. He infamously incited his supporters to remove protesters, violently if necessary, offering to pay their legal fees if sued.
The bottom-line policy for Trump? Dissent is not allowed and must be suppressed by any means necessary.
This behavior on the campaign trail certainly prefigured his administration’s modus operandi, as evidenced by the series of unfortunate events of the last week.
For example, as disconcerting, if not horrifying, as Trump’s effective Muslim ban was, equally troubling was the administration’s reaction to conventional expressions of disagreement carefully and intentionally enabled, encouraged, and protected in the structures of our democratic government.
As Sean Colarossi reported in the pages of PoliticusUsa.com, when hundreds of diplomats from the U.S. State Department collectively signed on to a letter expressing dismay and dissent to the executive order, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer chillingly told the press, “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go.”
Get with the program or go?!? Sound familiar? It’s the refrain from Trump’s campaign rallies, encouraging that any act or expression of dissent—behaviors vital to democracy—be met with violent suppression.
It is important to note, too, that the State Department has actually established specific procedures to allow and protect the expression of dissent among its ranks—that is, to institutionalize democracy. The procedure entails filing an official form which cannot be submitted anonymously, and the process offers strenuous assurances against reprisal.
Why is this process in place? As any American citizen who truly respects our institutions and country should know, our founders established a system with checks and balances so we would have a deliberative democracy, one in which enormous decisions impacting the lives of our multitudes would be subject to robust discussion and careful consideration that entailed taking into account a full range of perspectives, especially dissenting ones. Hence, Thomas Jefferson declared dissent to be the highest form of patriotism.
Last week, though, we saw Trump had little, or no, respect for America’s hallowed system of checks and balances; and he certainly demonstrated he has no intention of refraining from seeking reprisal against those who dissent.
His Apprentice-like firing of Attorney General Sally Yates made that point loudly and clearly.
And what did Sally Yates do? She did her job within our democracy to provide a check and a balance to an authoritarian imposition of an unlawful policy. She expressed this understanding quite clearly when she explained her position in the governmental process of the executive branch:
“. . . [I]n litigation, DOJ Civil Division lawyers are charged with advancing reasonable legal arguments that can be made supporting an Executive Order. But my role as leader of this institution is different and broader. My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
But Trump shows no interest in honoring or adhering to the sacred system our founders carefully crafted as an alternative to and safeguard against authoritarian rule. There’s not a new sheriff in the capital. There’s a new CEO trying to run a business, not govern a democratic polity with rules.
Even Republicans, intent on repealing the Affordable Care Act against what polls show is the will of the people, have fumed over Trump’s refusal to consult them and key committees and agencies before issuing the executive order banning refugees from seven countries with largely Muslim populations.
And, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the Trump administration’s willingness to entertain and give voice to the possibility of implementing a 20% tax on Mexican imports to pay for the infamous wall, underscored the administration’s flouting and complete ignorance of rules and treaties already in place and established through negotiation and deliberation nationally and internationally. Krugman explains,
“International trade policy is governed by rules — originally the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT], now folded into the WTO [World Trade Organization]. A key part of these rules is that countries agree NOT to just impose new tariffs or import quotas unilaterally. So if the US just goes ahead and imposes a 20 percent tariff on Mexico, it has in effect repudiated the whole system (which it built!).”
Trump simply shows no regard for rules or decisions arrived at through collective and diplomatic deliberation. We are seeing in full force the problems of Trump’s temperament raised in the campaign. It threatens deliberative democracy itself.
When James Madison penned Federalist Paper No. 10, he underscored the importance of representatives who would act at some distance from the passions of the people and thus be capable of enacting a deliberative democracy. For Madison, the representatives should be able to “withstand the temporary delusion” to “give time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
Unfortunately, it is now the people who need protection from the delusions and impulsive passions of its chief representative, President Trump.
When Obama declared last October that “Democracy is on the ballot,” he wasn’t kidding. A minority of Americans voted in a President who wants to destroy it. It is one of the few things he wants to do deliberately.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.