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Trump the Disrupter

Is America’s democratic system equal to the challenge of an authoritarian president?

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

The breakdown of democracy in Honduras seven years ago materialized like a bankruptcy—slowly at first, then all at once. Honduras’s democracy was only a quarter of a century old in 2005 when it elected Manuel Zelaya, the son of a wealthy businessman, as the country’s seventh president. When Zelaya’s agenda drifted in a populist direction, he lost favor among the ruling class and the legislature turned against him. Echoing an impasse now uncomfortably familiar to Americans, the Honduran Congress rejected Zelaya’s Supreme Court nominees. Meanwhile, the country’s working class rallied to his side.

In a parliamentary democracy, a figure like Zelaya would have been replaced by a prime minister who enjoyed the support of a majority of the legislature. But Honduras’s system of government is organized much more like our own than those of countries like England and Israel, where legislative and executive arms of the government are interwoven. Nearing the end of his constitutionally limited four-year term, Zelaya organized a referendum to test the public’s appetite for changing the constitution to allow him to run for reelection. Sensing a power grab and fearing a popular groundswell, the other branches of government balked, claiming Zelaya lacked the authority to conduct such a survey and demanding that he desist. Zelaya pressed ahead. “We will not obey the Supreme Court,” he told throngs of Hondurans who’d gathered outside his offices to support him. “The court, which only imparts justice for the powerful, the rich, and the bankers, only causes problems for democracy.”

Zelaya ordered the military to fulfill its obligation to assist in administering public elections. When the military refused, the president fired the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez. “We are soldiers,” Vásquez said. “We have to comply with our responsibilities.” Though the Supreme Court ordered Vásquez reinstated, Zelaya continued resisting the legislature and the Court until eventually, by secret order of the judiciary, he was placed under military arrest, allowing the president of the National Congress to serve out the remainder of Zelaya’s term.

Though Honduran police, military forces, and their supporters killed 20 people along the way, according to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, this disorderly process went about as smoothly as a coup can go. In late 2009, Honduras elected a new president and a semblance of order was restored—a better outcome than what has befallen other presidential democracies modeled after the world’s longest surviving one.

In the United States, our hope is that a similar standoff will never arise—or that it would be resolved through existing legal and constitutional processes before governing ceased and violence erupted. But we’ve never had a serious aspirant to the presidency blithely promise to trespass constitutional limits if confronted with resistance from his or her power-sharing counterparts. Not, that is, until Donald Trump came along.

It’s small wonder that Trump’s liberal and conservative critics alike envision a Trump presidency as an endless spectacle of recklessness and destruction. Trump has promised trade wars. He’s made the mass expulsion of a nation’s worth of immigrants a central plank of his campaign platform. He’s pledged to re-embrace torture and murder as sanctioned anti-terrorism tools and said he would extend them extralegally to the families of suspected terrorists.

It is uncomfortably easy to imagine Trump issuing lawless orders that military leaders are unwilling to execute. It is just as easy to imagine Trump firing generals and civilian officials who resist him, and replacing them with apparatchiks. It is almost as easy to imagine a sclerotic Congress finding itself unable to respond with appropriate urgency.

Trump has certainly displayed authoritarian tendencies. Confronted late last year with the fact that Vladimir Putin kills journalists who challenge his power, Trump praised the Russian president as “a leader” who (by contrast to President Obama) is “running his country.” To the objection that killing journalists is not the American way, Trump summoned his inner wiseguy—sprinkling a small dash of Michael Corleone (“Who’s being naïve, Kay?”) over his own ribald political persona (“Someone’s doing the raping!”): “I think that our country does plenty of killing, too,” he said.

Trump has made it clear he’d consider himself superior to Congress. Hours before polls closed on March 1—better known to political junkies as Super Tuesday—House Speaker Paul Ryan, the most widely respected elected official in the conservative movement, set aside his official responsibilities to admonish Trump for playing coy with his appeal among white supremacists. “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion,” said a visibly uncomfortable Ryan, frustrated in his attempt to project seriousness by his boyish inflection and fidgeting. “They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.”

Ryan’s reprimand became a harbinger of the kind of unprecedented crisis a determined demagogue might visit on our political system. That night, after winning seven state primaries and finding himself a couple of coin flips from the White House, Trump channeled his inner wiseguy again in responding to the Speaker. “Look,” Trump said, barely concealing his exasperation, “I don’t want to waste a lot of time. ... Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK? OK.”

In one sense, this was vintage Trump, prefacing intimidation and bullying with perfunctory pleasantries. (“I like him, I get along with him very well,” he once said of rival candidate Ben Carson, before comparing him to a child molester.) In another, bleaker sense, it was a man aspiring to run our government heedlessly threatening the person responsible for funding it. It was a candidate for president of the United States hectoring the person who controls impeachment proceedings—long before they’d ever have to govern together.

This is the stuff of constitutional nightmares. The U.S. system hasn’t endured the level of stress that Trump’s campaign has threatened to impose upon it since the civil rights era, or perhaps the Civil War. It’s no surprise that huge swaths of both the left and right are deeply worried about the stability of American democracy with Trump at its helm.

But there are at least two ways that a Trump presidency could unfold, and they bear almost no resemblance to one another. An unrestrained, authoritarian Trump who attempted to bring Putinism to the United States could precipitate a chaotic and potentially violent constitutional crisis. By contrast, if he governs with more deference to constitutional checks and balances than he’s shown so far, it’s possible to envision Trump’s presidency—thanks to his departures from Republican orthodoxy—easing some of the gridlock that has gripped our political system. To the extent Trump’s candidacy holds out any promise for Democrats, it’s that his success could spark a cleansing fire in the other party. The risk, of course, is that the conflagration might spread.

If Trump were elected and governed as he’s campaigned, would countervailing forces be able to contain him? Though there are good reasons to think they would, the nightmare visions do not appear to liberals and conservatives out of irrational panic. They stem from fundamentally sound doubts about the nature and health of our political system.

The coup in Honduras, though relatively bloodless, epitomized a form of disequilibrium—inherent to divided governments like our own—that has frequently given way to juntas and oppression in less-developed democracies. The theoretician who diagnosed this structural instability as a primary source of political unrest in Latin America was Juan Linz, a Yale political scientist whose famed 1990 essay, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years as a kind of Book of Revelation for a debased American democracy.

Linz passed away on October 1, 2013—in a poignant irony, amid a shutdown of the U.S. government. His ideas had been coming into vogue among American political elites, who were seeing the systemic dangers Linz had identified begin to play out in the legislative gridlock and recurring crises inflicted on the country by uncompromising congressional Republicans.

Parliamentary democracy is often tumultuous, but like a slippery fault system, the turmoil tends to release pent-up tension gradually, in regular small bursts, rather than catastrophically, all of a sudden. To become prime minister, a politician needs to climb the ranks through the system— a process that tends to weed out reactionaries and radicals. To remain in power, a prime minister needs to nurture the respect of the coalition that promoted her or him in the first place. Should the parliament lose confidence in the prime minister, it selects another, or parliament is dissolved and the country holds a general election.

Presidential systems impose no similarly moderating influences on ambitious demagogues. Linz recognized that by forcing two different, popularly elected branches of government to share power—like twin princes fighting for the throne—presidential systems give rise to legitimation crises almost by design. A few years before Linz died, this observation was borne out dramatically by the consecutive U.S. elections of 2008 and 2010, when voters installed a Democratic president by a landslide, then a Republican House of Representatives by another landslide. The question of which branch of the government was the more legitimate voice of the people pitted Congress and the White House against each other in dangerous brinkmanship. Within months of the 2010 midterms, the government nearly ceased functioning twice, the second time amid a threat by the GOP majority to undermine the supposedly inviolable validity of U.S. debt.

That crisis, which courted global economic calamity, was resolved at the last minute when President Obama largely acceded to House Speaker John Boehner’s demands. But the episode raised an alarming question: What happens when we have a president who refuses to be so accommodating?

In the years since, we’ve experienced several more symptoms of our perilous presidentialism, including the GOP’s embrace of a kind of nullification via procedural extremism. By filibustering key nominees, the party temporarily crippled regulatory agencies and briefly commandeered the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s second-most powerful court, by blocking three Obama picks in an attempt to preserve its conservative tilt.

The Obama era has been, in many ways, a story of governing institutions devolving into a Hobbesian state of nature, with raw power deployed by both Congress and the president to alter and restore fragile balances between minority and majority parties, houses of Congress, and branches of government. Congress now gleefully neglects its prerogative to modify outdated or ill-devised laws, leaving it to the president to govern through the use of legally dubious administrative kludges. When the news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death broke in February, astute political observers knew the Republican Senate would never allow Obama to fill the vacancy and flip the balance of the Court from right to left. One hour later, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed this cynical intuition: “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

When Linz wrote his essay, he didn’t foresee that these kinds of standoffs, which had spelled doom for other presidential systems, would arise here. In Linz’s original telling, the fact that the United States had managed to exempt itself from constitutional crisis for over a century was an odd but enduring idiosyncrasy. Like Einstein concocting the theory of anti-gravity to rescue his more general theory from predicting the collapse of a universe that everyone assumed to be static, Linz needed to account for the fact the United States had escaped the dim fate his theory prescribed. He chalked it up, in part, to a quirk in our system: We’d been saved from such crises, he said, by “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.”

That was 26 years ago, written as President George H.W. Bush was partnering with Democrats to increase taxes—a time when conservative Southern Democrats were still serving in Congress alongside members of both parties who had, not long before, driven a corrupt president from office without incident. Our system had spat out President Richard Nixon as soon as it recognized the toxin. Countries like Honduras, Chile, or Brazil might be vulnerable to the meddling of power-mad demagogues and dictators, but in the United States of 1990, that threat seemed remote.

In the two decades between the publication of “The Perils of Presidentialism” and Linz’s passing, Republicans and Democrats completed their evolutions into ideologically disciplined parties, with Democrats drifting slowly but steadily leftward and Republicans making a mad dash to the right. As Linz’s theory predicted, polarization has gridlocked our system, making it more prone to constitutional crises than it has been in generations.

In the midst of these Obama-era shocks, Linz reflected on his notion of American exceptionalism. “I initially thought the United States was escaping the problem, because of the lack of discipline in the parties, and the relatively good relationships among the legislators,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Washington Post. “Obviously things have been changing. … I think there’s still enough political wisdom in this country to avoid it, but obviously in many countries in Latin America and other parts of the world a crisis like the debt ceiling would easily lead to a military coup.” 

It is no great stretch to interpret Trump’s rise as a phenomenon driven by disgruntled masses abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy—as part of the natural progression of Linzian decay. But it’s also possible that American democracy really is unusually resistant to systemic breakdown and can endure even the unprecedented challenges that Trump could pose. Maybe, despite the potential for crisis that’s baked into our way of governing, we can relieve these systemic tensions in other ways: through party realignments, through sheer institutional robustness, or through popular insistence that we uphold our constitutional traditions. In that more optimistic light, Trump looks less like doom for the republic than doom for the Republican Party.

If Trump were to govern with a more even keel than he’s led us to expect, his presidency could conceivably serve as a weird remedy to the constitutional problems we’re already experiencing—and end up being powerful evidence of the political anti-gravity that keeps our democracy from succumbing to ideological polarization.

The bleakest plausible capstones to a Trump presidency are so very bleak because he has proven to be a shameless and unpredictable candidate for the office. But it’s those same qualities that have the potential to flatten American polarization by turning the political system on its side. If Trump were to build his legacy of “greatness” through compromise (or, rather, “deal-making”) instead of a will to power, he could reverse America’s drift toward partisan polarization, and might even herald a return to the kind of undisciplined, ideologically mixed parties that Linz saw as critical to our system’s durability.

If Trump proved willing to operate according to custom, his heterodoxy—combined with his zeal for negotiation and personal triumph—might function as a turndown service for several strange bedfellows. Trump’s critique of “free trade” could unite liberal and conservative trade skeptics. While his anti-immigration extremism might upend the bipartisan consensus for comprehensive reform, Trump would also force opportunistic, pro-corporate immigration supporters on the right to choose sides between the GOP’s nativist faction and liberal humanitarians—and would, thus, drive an even larger share of the American professional class into the Democratic Party, tilting it away from liberal orthodoxy.

Because Trump has consistently promised his base of older voters to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched, his presidency could also shatter the unified conservative opposition to the New Deal consensus. And if there is a third way between the Republican Party’s reflexive hatred of the Affordable Care Act and the popular view that every American should have access to health care, Trump is the only candidate in either party likely to forge it. No other figure would have the clout or the flexibility to preserve a liberal health-coverage guarantee while reshaping our insurance system dramatically enough that Republicans could claim to have repealed and replaced Obamacare. This would create political détente on an issue that has divided the parties for decades.

Even if Trump behaved as erratically in office as he has on the campaign trail, he still might inspire new coalition-building in Congress—just of a different sort. Imagine if the next president were another Republican like George W. Bush and wanted to trample civil liberties, torture suspected terrorists, and create new theaters of war with sketchy funding and authorization. A Republican Congress would do nothing but enable him—just as it did Bush.

By contrast, if President Trump were to go rogue in all the ways he’s suggested, he would find himself tangled in a vast net of constitutional resistance. Republicans would not be so deferential to an anti-establishment figure like Trump if, after taking over their party, he set about destroying its ideological underpinnings—propping up the welfare state, for instance, and alienating the business class with protectionist trade and restrictive immigration policies. Impeachment is our Constitution’s ultimate remedy—one the Hondurans neglected to write into theirs before the coup—but the founding document also gives Congress control of the national treasury. If Trump bowled over constitutional barriers, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republican Trump rejectionists could deauthorize or defund different facets of his agenda—such as, for instance, a campaign of mass expulsion of unauthorized immigrants. Courts would constrain him as well. Lacking the power to co-opt legislative leaders and judges, Trump would have to adapt or die.

This is one reason why, for all the understandable alarm about the twilight of the republic, the Trump saga has unfolded as the story of a party, rather than a nation, on the brink of collapse. If Trump becomes president, it will either be by building a new coalition for the GOP or by radically altering the balance of factional power in the existing one. Once the election was behind him, he would turn from a campaign world dominated by rhetoric and strategy—and popular entertainment—to governing, a realm in which norms and laws have much greater conforming power.

Trump’s ability to break the Republican Party in half is playing out before our eyes, as is his power to stir up ugly forces in the body politic. His desire to lay the Constitution to waste will only be tested if he’s sworn into office next January.

The Republicans most committed to stopping Trump from being elected are, generally speaking, the same folks who have convinced themselves that everything about their party was just fine until Trump came along. They are wrong about this, but their very wrongness is what gives me hope that Linz may have been right, after all, about America’s peculiar resistance to constitutional crisis.

My suspicion is that Trump is mostly a symptom of rot at the nexus of movement conservatism and Republican politics—not, by and large, of some broader national decadence. While the American government might not be entirely immune to the perils of presidentialism, it may well be riddled through with enough complexity and redundancy to make realignment more likely than collapse. The lesson of Trump’s candidacy—and, perhaps, his presidency—is not, then, that a corrupted party like the GOP will eventually take the country down with it, but that it will eventually eat itself alive and be replaced with something altogether more wieldy.

George W. Bush, who so successfully pushed past the limits of presidential powers, wasn’t unbound by norms and checks in a vacuum. He benefited from a deeply complicit Congress and a conservative judiciary. Any of the non-Trump Republican candidates in this cycle would be given the same latitude if elected. The real danger to our system may not be that disrupters like Trump will emerge and demolish existing political coalitions, but that they won’t. Without disruption, our parties will be free to stray further down their paths of polarization—until the kinds of crises that defined the past seven years confront leaders who are less responsible than Obama or more reckless than Boehner, and our Linzian fate overtakes us.