Trump Lost the Citizenship Debate, but He’s Still Corroding Our Politics

Trump is sowing the seeds for democratic erosion, but he’s doing so through smaller, more insidious actions

Brendan Nyhan
GEN
Published in
4 min readJul 15, 2019

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Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

DDoes Donald Trump present a threat to American democracy, or is the system restraining him? As last week’s debate over the census citizenship question illustrates, the answer is often both. That’s why it’s so difficult to reach a consensus about the nature and magnitude of the danger he poses.

A typical controversy in the Trump era starts when the president or an administration official challenges some previously uncontroversial democratic norm. This challenge becomes fodder for anti-Trump forces, who present it as an imminent threat to democracy as we know it. Bureaucratic and legal resistance then frequently limit the scope of what Trump can ultimately achieve. Many observers declare the threat thwarted at this point, suggesting that the president has failed to achieve his objectives and bashing critics for overhyping the threat in the first place. But such dismissals overlook the more subtle ways that Trump is changing our politics even in defeat.

Consider the administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question to the census, a controversial proposal that experts reported would reduce response rates among noncitizens and thereby undermine representation of Democratic-leaning areas (its likely purpose). After legal challenges, it was temporarily blocked in late June by the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Trump called a press conference in the Rose Garden to announce his plan for addressing the issue. Amidst reports that an executive order was imminent, numerous critics predicted that the president would defy the Supreme Court and impose the question by fiat. Instead, Trump was forced to concede defeat: the census will not include a citizenship question.

Trump is still attempting to wield the power of the state to hurt Democrats’ electoral prospects — he’s just doing it less overtly.

The saga allowed both sides to claim vindication. On the one hand, Trump did seek to use state power in a manner that would…

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Brendan Nyhan
GEN
Writer for

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan