White House

Is Donald Trump Really a Danger to U.S. Democracy?

President Donald Trump attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery as part of Memorial Day observance, Arlington, Virginia, May 28, 2018. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Trump’s windiness is bad for the public discourse, but not a long-term threat to the republic.

Since the 2016 election, liberals have been warning about the threat that Donald Trump poses to the republic. Take, for instance, a recent speech that Hillary Clinton gave at Harvard. Per the Associated Press:

Hillary Clinton implored a crowd at Harvard University on Friday to stand up for “the truth, facts and reason” as attacks on the rule of law, free press and elections threaten to undermine American democracy.

She said Americans also need to combat “fake news” — deliberately false stories passed off as news — by subscribing to newspapers and “supporting brave journalism and reporting.”

“We need more outlets for reliable information,” Clinton said. “Attempting to erase the line between fact and fiction, truth and an alternative reality, is a core feature of authoritarianism. The goal is to make us question logic and reason and sow mistrust.”

I am all in favor of people subscribing to newspapers. The proliferation of fake news ultimately rests on the collective decision that society made over the last 15 years to get their news for free. This was a mistake — information costs money to collect and organize, and our decision to free-ride has destroyed news-gathering capabilities, which in turn has led to fake news.

However, the notion that Trump is a danger to our democracy is hyperbolic. Democracy depends upon regularly scheduled, free, and fair elections. Suspending those is the “core feature” of authoritarianism — and Trump has attempted to do no such thing. Moreover, the idea that our First Amendment freedoms are under threat is belied by the fact that Clinton was able to give this speech without being fettered by the Trump administration.

Regarding the assault on the rule of law, Trump’s approach to Robert Mueller’s investigation is more or less a re-creation of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s strategy from the mid 1990s. Recognizing that investigations into the conduct of the president are inherently political, the Clintons waged a successful public-relations war to delegitimize the Kenneth Starr investigation. Putting aside the propriety of this strategy, or the specific tactics Trump is employing in pursuit of it, we should acknowledge that it is not unprecedented.

I think Clinton and other liberals are mainly reacting to the fact that President Trump is a liar. No doubt he is, but it isn’t merely that, is it? After all, President Clinton was a liar. What do you think “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky” was? So also was President Barack Obama. His “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” was a lie, and a highly consequential one at that. In the mid 1960s, the term “credibility gap” was coined to describe the persistent disconnect between what the Lyndon Johnson administration was saying about Vietnam, and what was actually happening. Considering that roughly 50,000 Americans lost their lives in that war, I would say that LBJ’s lies were much more dangerous than anything of recent vintage.

Politicians lie. It is what they do. I think the main problem with Trump is that he is not just a liar, he is an incorrigible blowhard.. He exaggerates here, elides there, connects dots that should not be connected, adds a few phony details to spice things up, omits facts that do not serve his agenda, throws around gratuitous insults at real (or perceived) foes, and so on. And he does it all the time, even when he does not need to.

His whole career has been built on this public-relations strategy. After all, a lot of people made billions in the 1980s; it was a good decade to get rich. But only Trump leveraged that into winning the presidency of the United States. If you read The Art of the Deal, you can see that he is surprisingly honest about this tactic: “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.” He can call it whatever he wants. The rest of us usually call it bull.

We all know people like this in our personal lives — the friend or family member who always has that crazy story to tell. Isn’t it funny how their lives are always so much more interesting than our own? I have a few people like this in my life, and my response is to divide everything they say by about 1.5, which I reckon is a fairly close approximation to the truth.

Liberals have a point — this is bad for the public discourse. The office of the president holds too much rhetorical power for somebody who regularly and instinctively blurs the line between truth and falsehood, often for no apparent reason. The Trump presidency has been, at a minimum, utterly exhausting as a consequence. And Trump’s windiness makes it more difficult for average citizens to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Without excusing Trump’s rhetoric, I would encourage the cultivation of equanimity. Our republic has a lot of problems, no doubt. I have written about them extensively over the years. But our Constitution is the oldest written instrument of government today in force, and that should count for something. We will be fine. Trump is not a would-be totaltiarian. He’s just full of it.

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