Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has been warning that the Trump presidency could undermine democratic norms — not through a single event, but through a slow erosion and normalization of undemocratic actions.
VPR spoke to Professor Nyhan about his thoughts on the Trump presidency and the future of politics in America.
Mitch Wertlieb: You told The Atlantic that people worried about what Donald Trump might do in his presidency, regarding possible conflicts of interest that could violate U.S. law, or actions that may be unconstitutional and threaten individual rights, are “making the mistake of thinking that there will be a dramatic moment when they should speak out.” What did you mean by that?
Nyhan: “What I want to caution people against is the idea that the slow erosion of democratic norms is somehow OK because we haven't seen [a] dramatic event like a coup.
“What's much more likely to happen is a slow erosion of norms ... I never thought I would see in my adult lifetime [a] presidential candidate endorsing violence, calling for the leader of the opposition party ... to be imprisoned and … calling the results of the election itself into question.
“Those are all violations of fundamental norms of democracy, even if they're not inscribed in law, and we should take them seriously as harming our democracy.”
There are those who would argue that Donald Trump's remarks on the campaign trail were hyperbole, and that as an actual president he would govern in a much less dramatic way. What would you say to that retort?
“I would say it remains to be seen. If anything, the mistake that people have made with Donald Trump is thinking that he will change his behavior in the future.
“During the primaries, people said he was going to pivot in the general election, and then in the general election he kept behaving the same way, and people said, ‘Well, he'll change when he's in office.’
“And now we've seen him as the president-elect call into question the results of the election, even though he won. That itself was an important norm violation; trust in the electoral system is essential to a functioning democratic system.
“His business operations present unprecedented conflicts of interest. The fact that his children are running his business [and] participating in a presidential transition at the same time, we've never seen anything like this.
“[Trump has] made vague promises that he'll announce something in December to address this issue, but at this point he is on track to, arguably, violate what's called the emoluments clause of the Constitution on the day he takes office.
"It's a remarkable and disturbing turn of events and one we should take seriously even as people are trying to move on from the election.
What sort of norm violations are you worried about? I don't mean things you're concerned about that you may oppose politically. I'm talking about the things that you have said are really threatening to American democracy as we know it.
“I should be clear here that I'm trying not to speak on behalf of my personal opinions. I'm not telling you what I think about Medicare policy and that's not my expertise.
“I wrote back in the spring that Trump had crossed a fundamental line in his willingness to endorse violence at his rallies ... There was a tacit and sometimes explicit encouragement of what people would do to protesters in the good old days. Then the chanting of "lock her up" against Hillary Clinton suggests criminality on the part of the political opposition.
“He's brought people into government who have a background that we haven't seen in the contemporary era for people at that level of government.
“Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, was the publisher of the website Breitbart, a so-called 'alt-right' website that cozied up to a kind of new version of white nationalism.
“His national security adviser [Michael Flynn] is a conspiracy theorist of the first order who frequently promotes and endorses false and unsupported claims online. This is someone who going to be advising the president of the United States about how to protect the national security of this country.
"All of those actions are unusual and unprecedented. The coverage of the Trump administration should reflect how abnormal some of these things are.
"I think people hear controversy about Trump and it sounds like the normal Democrats-versus-Republicans noise, but some of it isn't.
"We have plenty of examples of Republicans who have run for office who haven't done these things and haven't endorsed the kinds of measures that Trump has. Mitt Romney didn't do this, John McCain didn't do this, George W. Bush didn't do this.
"These aren't Democrat-versus-Republican issues. They're about the norms of our democratic system in contemporary American society, and I think we always have to keep that distinction in mind."
And what can people do who, like you, are concerned about these things? What can an ordinary person do?
"There are no easy solutions. Norms aren't by definition enforceable. These aren't laws that are being violated; they’re traditions.
“People should express their unhappiness with the violation of these norms to their elected officials and via civil society.
“Again, it's important to be clear that this can't just be a partisan issue. For these norms to be defended effectively, there need to be Democrats and Republicans speaking up.”
Given the fact that Republicans control both houses of Congress, there may not be a political incentive for them to oppose some of these violations of norms that you're talking about, if they see the writing on the wall and see that by supporting this particular president they can maintain their power.
“That's absolutely true. To defend norms in the way that I've suggested requires people to act against their political interests, and that's a difficult thing.
“I'm a political scientist, so I'm realistic about how hard an ask that is. I should be clear, Republicans have every right to pursue their policy agenda right now. They won the election. They have unified control of Congress [and] they should try to enact their policy agenda.
“[But] I don't think we should have to make a choice between the policy agenda that we prefer and the norms of our democracy. Republicans can have both if they stand up to Trump on these norms.
“Now, unfortunately, people are perceiving this as a kind of zero sum game; if they oppose Trump in any area that will weaken him and [they might] hurt the chances of the legislation [they’d] like to see enacted.
“But that's the price of constitutional democracy. That's the way our system has lasted this long, is because people were willing to stand up and say there is a line that they're not willing to cross regardless of what party they are a member of.
“Republicans did it when the scope of Richard Nixon's misconduct became clear. That's why he was forced from office. People of good faith on both sides of the aisle should be able to reach a similar kind of consensus if Trump continues to violate these norms.
“We'll see. I hope to be wrong, but we can't assume that will be true. We have to make sure to defend these norms because we've seen in other countries what happens when these norms aren't defended, and that's not a future that we want to have as a country.”