Americans have sharply different views on what government should do about abortion, guns, immigration and other hot-button issues. But we broadly agree on how government should go about resolving our differences.
This distinction—between what we disagree about and how we settle those disagreements—is crucial. As long as we continue to agree on the how, the processes and institutions of governance, we can accept what is decided even if we’re unhappy about it.
To state it another way, Americans don’t always like what government does, but they overwhelmingly support the American system of government. They want to improve it, not destroy it.
Enter Donald Trump, who has turned this how-what distinction on its head. To get what he wants, Trump rides roughshod over how we decide. He is the great destroyer, the American dictator.
His directive to his lapdog attorney general William Barr to find evidence of “treason” against specific people who investigated him, along with Barr’s assertion of “no limit” on the president’s authority to direct law enforcement investigations, including those he’s personally interested in, threatens the neutrality of our entire system of justice.
Trump’s blanket refusal to comply with House subpoenas and investigations flies in the face of how Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch.
Trump’s 2016 campaign aides’ eagerness to get dirt on his opponent from Russia and Trump’s efforts to suppress evidence about those dealings undermine how the American electoral system is supposed to run.
Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to justify using funds to build his wall that Congress refused to appropriate obliterates how spending decisions are supposed to be made.
Trump’s angry references to “Obama judges” who rule against him calls into question the independence and legitimacy of the judiciary.
Trump’s hints at violence if he doesn’t get his way. His comment in March that “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad” threatens the democratic foundations of our society.
Taken as a whole, these attacks on our basic agreement about how to resolve our disagreements constitute the most profound challenge to our system of government since Richard Nixon went rogue.
Thankfully, most Americans oppose them. Even with record-low unemployment, Trump’s approval ratings remain in the cellar. Some 35 percent, Trump’s hardcore base, continue to strongly approve of the job he’s doing, but independents and even some Republicans are deserting him.
Impeachment is the appropriate remedy for a president who acts like a dictator. But according to polls, most of the public opposes impeachment. I think that’s because in these especially perilous times, impeachment threatens to pull the system further apart, possibly to the breaking point.
It not impeachment, how else to deal with an American dictator? The courts are stepping up.
On May 20, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ruled against Trump, saying that “lawmakers should get documents they have subpoenaed.”
Then, two days later, a Manhattan federal district judge refused to block subpoenas from the House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees for Trump records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
And two days after that, a federal district judge from California granted a preliminary injunction blocking Trump’s use of $1 billion from the Department of Defense for building his wall.
These decisions are significant not just because they are victories for House Democrats, but because they confirm that the American system of government is still working, Trump notwithstanding.
He may yet succeed in running out the clock—dragging out appeals through Election Day. But every court decision that adds legitimacy to the processes and institutions Trump has been attacking makes him look more like the dangerous dictator he is.
Americans want to preserve our agreement over how to resolve our disagreements. They are catching on to the threat Trump and the Republicans present to it.
The Democratic Party should dedicate itself to protecting that agreement. This is the hallmark of a true governing party.
Trump and the Republicans, by contrast, are digging themselves ever more deeply into a hole from which they may never emerge.
Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor, is chancellor’s professor of public policy at Berkeley. He is author, most recently, of The Common Good.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.