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

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 benefit his party. Liberals can point to the intent of the policy — it likely would have deterred many immigrants from being counted. It’s fair, then, to voice concern over the policy. On the other hand, Trump ultimately respected an unfavorable court ruling rather than openly defying the court, validating conservative skepticism about liberals’ dire claims.

What all the Twitter histrionics miss, however, are the ways in which Trump is shifting the status quo even in defeat. Rather than asking a citizenship question on the census, the administration will instead seek to collect citizenship information by other means. In particular, Trump’s new executive order states that the federal government will now provide data on the distribution of eligible voters, which can be used by states in redistricting after 2020. Shifting away from an individualized count would reduce the representation of areas with large noncitizen populations. In this way, Trump will still wield the power of the state to damage Democrats’ electoral prospects, but in a less overt manner.

A similar story can be told about Trump’s Fourth of July rally. Since viewing a military parade in France, the president has long sought to hold a similar event in Washington, D.C., with large numbers of military vehicles and aircraft on display to the public. Such a step could politicize a national holiday or celebration and link the president to the military in a manner that violates American norms of civilian leadership in peacetime. Critics pointed to the parallels with parades held in authoritarian regimes like the former Soviet Union. After resistance from the military, Trump could only muster two tanks and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles along with some military flyovers. However, norms governing presidential conduct have nonetheless shifted. Future presidents will now have more leeway to appropriate the military in political events.

An even more worrying example concerns the president’s relationship with the Department of Justice. Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly called for investigations into his political opponents and simultaneously demanded that investigations into his own administration be curtailed. These statements call for actions that would violate long-standing norms and policies at the DOJ that have helped to preserve its independence under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Luckily, Trump’s pleas have been largely ignored by his appointees at the DOJ, which allowed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation and issue a public report. Again, bureaucratic and legal resistance has protected the stability of the political system; Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric has not yet politicized the rule of law in the way that liberals feared.

However, Trump’s statements have again expanded the scope of what is possible. Since taking office, Attorney General Bill Barr has not defended the independence of the DOJ and federal law enforcement. Instead, he has launched his own inquiry into the Russia investigation and the public servants who were investigating the Trump–Russia connections, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. In this way, it may chill future inquiries into potential administration wrongdoing, preventing future Mueller reports from seeing the light of day.

This recurring cycle of challenge, resistance, and accommodation is more complex than our political discourse can accommodate — it’s neither the end of democracy in America nor is it politics as usual. Trump’s challenges to our norms will continue to meet stiff resistance, but even his defeats can sow the seeds for future democratic erosion.

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan

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