News & Politics

Law Professor Warns Trump Has Already Begun Unraveling Our Democracy

It doesn't take a military coup or an illegal power grab to sabotage a republic.

Photo Credit: IoSonoUnaFotoCamera/Flickr CC

Since assuming office in January, Donald Trump has been called a fascist, an authoritarian and a would-be autocrat, but what are the precise dangers his presidency poses?

"The problem with calling Trump a threat to democracy is that we have a really narrow idea of what it looks like when democracies fail," explains Vox correspondent Carlos Maza. "We imagine democratic failure as being some spectacular event — a military coup or an illegal power grab or the declaration of martial law."

He continues, "In a country like the U.S., the death of democracy is going to start off looking kind of normal. So normal you might not even notice it's happening, until it's too late." 

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Last Wednesday, the Washington Post revealed that President Trump is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice by special counsel Robert Mueller.

"If Trump fired Comey over the Russia investigation, that would be obstruction of justice which is a crime," explains Maza. "But a lot of what worries political scientists about Trump is tougher to explain in a soundbite... because for the most part, it's stuff that's totally legal." 

"It turns out that government officials can exploit weaknesses in the law in ways that are destructive to the rule of law as a whole," warns Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The process is known as democratic backsliding. This happens through a series of legal changes by a democratically elected leader, such as Venezuela's former president Hugo Chávez.

"[Chavez] got frustrated with opposition from courts and the media, so he started doing things like firing judges using anti-defamation laws to silence journalists and even describing unfriendly news organizations as 'enemies of the homeland,'" Maza explains.

"[But] he didn't need a military coup to screw up Venezuela's democracy," Maza adds. "He did it legally by slowly turning his supporters and political allies against the country's democratic institutions."

Sound familiar?


Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.