A number of readers have written in the wake of the American presidential election to ask how I would read Donald Trump’s victory in light of the arguments I make in The Rule of the Clan.
I’ve just returned from a weekend away to receive a kind new review of my book by Karen Schousboe, editor-in-chief of Medieval Histories, which is based in Denmark. Because she’s a sensitive and careful reader of my work, I’d like to let her review answer the question, but I’d also like to add some thoughts of my own from a related perspective: as someone who has devoted most of his professional life to the non-partisan teaching of American constitutional law and the principles of liberal constitutional democracy.
Over the course his campaign, Donald Trump consistently flouted basic principles of democratic constitutionalism. Trump violated these principles not incidentally or at the margins of the race, but rather through specific promises that were at the heart of his campaign, as well as in his repeated public behavior toward his rivals.
Trump’s violations of these principles concern, most importantly, the process by which our political life in conducted, the ideas and structures that enable a healthy democracy in the first place, and the terms on which the power of the state may be legitimately exercised. The anti-liberal character of the following actions speaks for itself:
1) Trump publicly declared that his main political opponent should be imprisoned—he called, that is, for the politically-motivated prosecution of his rival by the federal government.
2) He proposed to establish a religious test for travel to the United States.
4) He called for the killing of the families of terrorists—he called, that is, for collective criminal and military punishment.
5) He enthusiastically endorsed waterboarding and more generally supported torture qua torture.
6) He threatened to “open up” libel laws and thereby erode free speech guarantees for journalists investigating and criticizing public figures—a threat that follows on a long history of his bullying lawsuits against journalists who accurately cast doubt on his business acumen.
7) He suggested that the nation’s primary foreign rival seek to influence the presidential election.
8) He regularly resorted to innuendo to smear his political opponents, for instance in his insinuation that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy, and he used rhetorical ambiguity in ways that encouraged violence at his rallies.
9) He announced that he would keep citizens in suspense as to whether he would accept the results of the election.
In taking these positions, Trump eroded our constitutional and political life in ways from which it will take a long time to recover. Norms that have placed certain positions and behaviors well outside the bounds of acceptability have been breached. These norms have always been hard fought, from the seventeenth-century battle against Stuart tyranny through the construction and maintenance of an open society in the West in the wake of World War II. And this election provided a lesson in the importance of first principles.
But more than abstract ideas are at stake. As we saw in the wake of Trump’s victory in the primary, most partisans naturally fall in line behind their party leader (the great exception has been GOP intellectuals and national security leaders, who deserve great praise). And with the help of partisan allies, Trump’s vision thus will soon begin to shape institutions.
American institutions are strong. They are staffed by career lawyers who understand the meaning of the rule of law. But nobody should doubt the potential influence on those institutions of a man who built his public persona on his willingness to say “you’re fired!”
And in the meantime, a great deal of damage has already been done to the cultural foundations of constitutional democracy.
Politics are cyclical. That a Republican succeeds a Democrat as president after eight years is unsurprising, and that he should bring with him new priorities and agendas is only to be expected. What worries me is not that conservative ideas will have greater influence over national policy. Rather, it is that a candidate whose campaign flagrantly disrespected core principles of constitutional democracy has won power.