Defending Democracy Just Got a Whole Lot Harder

AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

In this Tuesday, November 8, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For democracy advocates, this year’s presidential race offered plenty of fuel to stoke their overriding fears: that big money is drowning out ordinary Americans, and that ballot restrictions are violating voting rights.

But the presidential race that will install Donald Trump in the White House has also exposed fresh democracy threats on a host of new and disturbing fronts. Once honored as the American political system’s watchdog, the media see their credibility and efficacy in tatters. The head of the FBI violated rules against public comment on pending investigations and interfering in an election. A national political party cast aside its most treasured principles to rally behind a candidate uniquely unqualified to serve as commander-in-chief. Dirty tricks exposed the nation to national security threats from Russian hackers, and to hoaxes aimed at suppressing the vote. And the nation’s civic institutions were helpless to stop an outpouring of hate speech.

These and other democracy threats will only intensify once Trump assumes the presidency. Trump has pledged to expand libel laws, and has already filed suits against news outlets whose stories he doesn’t like. He’s promised to hire a special prosecutor to put Hillary Clinton behind bars, and will now have the full power of federal law enforcement and other agencies to go after his political enemies. Having elected Trump, Republicans may well find that their internal bickering and long-term demographic problems will only intensify. Not to mention the damage Trump’s disregard for Muslims, Latinos, and other Americans will inflict on civic life.

There’s no indication that democracy advocates who have traditionally focused on political money and voting rights are going to suddenly broaden their focus to defend the nation against the attack on the civic fabric posed by a Trump presidency. But progressives should not ignore the institutional and electoral damage that may intensify under Trump’s leadership. These include:

The News Media: No one can reverse the industry implosion that has, since 2000, shuttered dozens of news outlets and literally halved the number of full-time daily journalists telling stories with old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, fact-checking, editors, and an eye to balance and accountability. Nor can anyone stop news consumers from gravitating to increasingly partisan outlets and to social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, that often fuel sensation, bias, thuggery, and fake news.

But the industry’s simultaneous consolidation and fracturing do not explain the public’s dim view of the news media. Fewer than 18 percent of Americans now have “a lot of confidence” in national news organizations, according to the Pew Research Center. The $2 billion worth of free media showered on Trump during the GOP primary alone implicate the news industry in his spectacular rise. This presidential race has prompted painful, industry-wise soul searching. His election could threaten traditional media institutions still further. As if Trump’s media lawsuits, vendettas and threats weren’t enough, some analysts have even suggested that he will make good on his pledge to start his own media empire—from within the White House. Given that Fox News is already his de facto mouthpiece and propaganda machine, he may not need to.

The Federal Government: As one of the top law enforcement officials in the nation, FBI Director Jim Comey may never live down his role in the 2016 election. Comey’s unusual July press conference to declare both that Clinton would not be prosecuted and that she had been “extremely careless” in using a private email server violated FBI protocols, which bar public comment on pending investigations. So did his irresponsible October letter to Capitol Hill stating that he would review still further Clinton emails, which thrust the FBI into the election and ignored the agency’s own traditions and objectives. Comey’s 11th-hour disclosure that the emails contained nothing of interest has further tarnished his credibility, and the FBI’s. As Trump mulls installing in his cabinet such ethically challenged allies as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the danger that he will enlist government agencies to do his bidding, as Richard Nixon once did, appears real.

The GOP: Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus may or may not land a job, as some observers have speculated, as Trump’s chief of staff. Either way, he probably won’t be the one who has to clean up the mess Trump made of the GOP. Yes, Republicans swept the White House, the Congress, and many state house races. But the Republican Party is a long way from resolving the differences over free trade, immigration, and U.S. military intervention. Trump’s venomous attacks on racial, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, and women may not have felled him this time around. But they will box the GOP into a corner over the long term, if the party doesn’t expand its appeal. And what will Trump populists do when they discover that his economic plan is built on tax cuts for the wealthy? The nation will pay a price for the damage to the nation’s economy and international standing from a Trump presidency, but so will the GOP. While some progressives may not consider this their problem, American democracy cannot function properly if one of the two major parties places partisan advantage above all else.

Overt Bigotry: Until now, the leading critics of Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Semitic, and anti-woman slurs have been top leaders in the affected blocs—Muslim American groups, immigrant advocates, and the Anti-Defamation League. But Trump’s all-too-cozy relationship with white supremacist and other extremist groups should concern all Americans. The public rants by Trump zealots who chanted “lock her up,” acted out Clinton being handcuffed in a jumpsuit, and burned her in effigy likewise crossed over a line.

Dirty Tricks: Trump’s extraordinary invitation to Russia to hack into and release Clinton’s emails must have sent chills through the national security community. Federal officials are reportedly confident that Russia played a key role in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails. There’s no question that these hacks, and others that exposed embarrassing exchanges within Clinton’s campaign, contributed to her defeat. The possibility of ongoing interference from an unfriendly foreign government poses a clear threat to American democracy. Trump’s inflammatory charges that the election was “rigged” and that he might not accept its results, and his campaign’s plan to deploy citizen poll watchers to intimidate Democratic voters, also threatened to destabilize the election.

Now that Trump has won, of course, his talk about a “rigged” election has been set aside. Clinton, in the meantime, delivered a model concession speech that underscored her superior fitness for the office she will never attain. Clinton acknowledged that we “have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought,” but added: “I still believe in America, and I always will.” For many Americans, this deceit-filled and divisive election has undermined that faith, and made the work of fixing our broken political system even harder.

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