Saint Louis University

Donald Trump: Challenging Democratic Norms, or Changing Democratic Norms? by Taylor Williams

With the declaration of the issue of immigration as a “national emergency”, Donald Trump challenges the widely-accepted role of democratic institutions in the United States as a whole. Some would argue that the declaration of immigration as a national emergency sets a dangerous legal precedent in regard to the extent of both presidential and congressional power. The dismissal of multiple states’ concerns for the sake of fulfilling an ineffective an ultimately unfounded promise to build a wall on the part of the President fulfills two of the four behavioral indicators of an authoritarian leader as outlined by Levitsky & Ziblatt:

  1. Rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game
  2. Denies the legitimacy of opponents
  3. Tolerates or encourages violence
  4. Indicates willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media 

President Trump arguably embodies all four behavioral indicators, but in this case, we shall focus on those readily apparent. The government literally shut down as a result of the refusal of numerous members of Congress to approve funding for the wall, despite previous offers from democrats for funding border security rather than just the physical barrier itself, as presented by President Trump. Bipartisan agreement is the ultimate goal and inherent purpose of the bicameral chambers in Congress, created with the explicit intention of giving constituents a direct link to governance through their state senators and house representatives. Ultimately, it was crafted in order to accurately represent the population of the United States and thus embody the fundamental principles of democracy. By shutting down the government and subsequently declaring a national emergency in order to achieve a policy goal, President Trump is directly rejecting in both words and action the democratic rules of the game. 

One could argue that in his declaration of a national emergency, President Trump is overstepping the role of congress, ultimately denying them the power of the purse explicitly provided in the constitution. On the contrary, the ability of these states to file these court cases, another could argue, is evidence of the system of checks and balances at work as states are essentially employing the corrective tool of judicial review. Trump is arguably within his rights to issue an executive order, a power implicitly expressed in the constitution, granted he is still subject to judicial review. This begs the question; is President Donald Trump simply operating within his powers as the nation’s Chief Executive, however innovatively? Or is he taking advantage of and ultimately publicizing the weaknesses in the fundamental makeup of the democratic institution of the United States?

The answer to said question partially rests on whether or not the President of the United States is blocked by courts in his attempts to redirect federal funds to build the wall. If the courts do block his efforts, this will simply be an example of the system of checks and balances at work. If not, Donald Trump will have successfully circumvented said system of checks and balances in favor of authoritarian measures to carry out policy. 16 states have filed lawsuits against President Donald Trump stating that he is directly affecting the economic wellbeing of their state by redirecting federal funds to build a 700-mile long wall across the southern portion of the United States border. Danny Cevallos, a journalist at NBC News, discusses in detail the legal standing states may or may not have in their legal fight against President Trump’s executive order. According to a 1923 court case, as specified by Cevallos, “states did not have the duty or power to enforce their citizens’ rights and relations with the federal government”. Instead, the author discusses the stance of modern courts which recognizes states as having their own interests separate than those of their inhabitants. In other words, the wellbeing of a state’s economy and the protection of physical, geographical borders outweigh the political discontent of that state’s populace.

 In the case of the declaration of a national emergency to build the wall, many states argue that this executive order in fact directly and negatively affects both the physical and economic well-being of infrastructure. If, under a court of law, the states are considered to have no standing or are unsuccessful at reversing the effects of Donald Trump’s executive order through legal proceedings, the fundamental values of the democratic institutionality of the United States government is directly undermined. 

Additionally, the perpetuation of anti-immigrant sentiments coupled with the verbal encouragement of the use of deadly weaponson unarmed immigrants fulfills the third behavioral indicator of an authoritarian leader, encouraging violence.

Above all, President Trump is setting a dangerous legal precedent. In his declaration, President Trump is ultimately expanding the margins of what is considered to be a national emergency. Future presidents and lawmakers alike will be able to utilize the precedent to argue that different issues should be considered to be national emergencies, circumventing congress and consequently reducing the powers granted to Congress explicitly and implicitly in the Constitution of the United States. The delegitimization of Congress is tantamount to removing constituents from the law-making process altogether, ultimately negating the mostfundamental aspect of democracy: the ruling of the people.

Photo by Susan Walsh with Politico

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