There is something different as 2018 begins. This New Year appears to raise looming, not simple challenges. These include as has been widely discussed how Donald Trump continues to conduct and attack the institution of the Presidency. In fact, with Trump the major question is whether the actions he has taken and the changes he has sought to accomplish are temporary or will they create permanent institutional changes.
There are, however, other political shifts for which he is directly responsible and which transcend the American presidency. It is these universal and philosophical shifts which project domestically as well as globally. These relate to the nature, character, and future of democratic government as well as the viability of the American two party system.
America as a democracy is predicated on a system of laws and respect for the law. Criminals who are found guilty of disobeying the law been punished as the law requires. Certainly, presidents and citizens have questioned the laws; yet political leaders have always championed the legitimacy of the institutions and have praised the veracity of the system. One of the most alarming phenomena which have occurred over the past year has been not the challenge to the laws but the actual challenge to how the system makes its laws. Democracy cannot exist if laws are challenged with impunity and those entrusted with the executing the laws are themselves rejected.
Presidents historically have disagreed with laws or court decisions and even the nature of law enforcement; but they have generally never challenged the very institutions of law making. At several points during the Watergate saga, for example, Richard Nixon reiterated that he was ultimately responsible for the illegal actions of those who worked for him. Similarly, he pledged on a number of occasions that he would comply with a definitive decision of the Supreme Court. There have been numerous statements and actions taken by President Trump that left open to many observers whether President Trump would be willing to actually accept these positions articulated by Nixon. Such a potential impending challenge to democracy by President Trump in the name of his so-called willingness to act on behalf of his followers ought to be chilling to those who respect the American democratic system.
In another vein, President Trump has challenged the future of his own party in the name of controlling the results and winning. It appears that Trump does not care if he brings down the Republican Party, as long as he wins. Trump acts without any respect for the Party’s history or for the GOP’s long held values. If the Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018 and he loses a re-election bid in 2020 the Republican Party will split or disappear. While that has happened before in history, it could also precipitate something similar happening within the increasingly polarized wings of the Democratic Party.
There is nothing sacred about the two party system within any democracy–except for history—contemporary models of multi-party systems are not very sanguine. In addition, multiparty systems within an effective presidential system could produce an even more authoritarian leader than was ever contemplated by the Founders.
As Trump’s friends the Chinese are reported to have said: “We live in interesting times.”