Writing in Dissent, Columbia University professor N. Turkuler Isiksel has an important message for her fellow left-liberals about what to fear from a Trump presidency:
Progressives err in assuming that the worst danger of a Trump presidency is the reversal of Obama legacy, including the Affordable Care Act, the vindication of the constitutional rights of LGBTQ people, the Iran deal, and progress on climate change. There will surely be an all-out assault on these achievements. But it would a grave mistake to see the obliteration of the progressive policy agenda as the chief danger of a Trump presidency. What we confront is not the usual dogfight between liberals and conservatives. It is a struggle between those who believe in preserving the imperfect but serviceable constitutional system of the republic, and those who will try to undermine it. For all his abhorrent policy positions, a President Cruz could have been counted on to observe the strictures of constitutional democracy, such as the peaceful alternation of power through free and fair elections. Trump gives us every reason to suspect that he will not.
As we have noted many times before, the last several decades have seen a steady deterioration of trust in the major institutions that have made the republican system function—the press, Congress, parties, and the courts—even as civil society has atrophied as people have become disconnected from churches and other communal institutions. Donald Trump’s ascent to power despite his willful defiance of established political norms is in part a product of these trends. The institutions designed to enforce the normal rules of politics proved too feeble to stop him.
The sophisticated case for optimism about a Trump presidency is that his unconventional political style and force of personality can break the cycle of stagnation and decay. But there is also a real danger that Trump’s hard-to-deny authoritarian impulses, operating against an exhausted political establishment and decaying political institutions, could pave the way for something much worse: A more personalistic style of politics, in which elites negotiate with one another for power and wealth unconstrained by the rule of law. This type of competitive authoritarianism seems to be on the rise all over the world.
It may be that these fears about Trump are overstated—that his conspiracy theories and bullying tactics are more bluster than a reflection of how he will govern—or that his occasional excesses will be checked without incident by advisers, Congress and the courts. But there is no doubt that the risks are real.
Defending the republican way of government will be a difficult task, and it will require a great amount of introspection among political elites of all stripes who have run the institutions and set the norms that the public rejected so forcefully in November. And it must not become a self-satisfied partisan exercise in which Democrats insist that they are more enlightened than their abhorrent Republican opponents.
Nonetheless, Isiksel’s message is an important one: The stakes here are much higher than any given pet liberal policy issue, and Democrats will be much more effective as a party if they recognize this, and save their outrage for the big things.