President Donald Trump’s barrage of attacks on the foundations of democratic governance- threatening checks and balances, civil rights and liberties, and long-established political norms- is not the cause of American political decay but its causal effect.

The United States is heralded as one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the world. Despite suffering from its due share of setbacks, the U.S. political system has managed to survive the test of time. It has survived a civil war, two world wars and a cold war that put humanity closer to total annihilation. Each time there has been a threat to its foundations, the system has re-adjusted to achieve sustainable political equilibrium. It is a highly complex political architecture which was ingeniously designed by the Founding Fathers to ensure one thing- preventing autocracy.

James Madison played a formative role in forging this political architecture. Madison’s theory of organising government was based on the ideas of Enlightenment French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu who theorised the concept of Separation of Powers in his magnum opus, The Spirit of Laws (1784). The Madisonian model structures the government into executive, legislative and judicial branches. The separation of power was coupled with the scheme of ‘checks and balances’ in which while the three branches remain independent in their existence, they are enjoined with coordinated powers and have to cooperate in order to govern. Such tripartite classification of power ensures that one branch wouldn’t be able to accumulate too much power, and thus prevents the imposition of tyranny. Moreover, Madison believed in a pluralistic democratic order in which political sovereignty is divided into various factions and interests groups so that the state becomes neither majoritarian nor oligarchic. Thus, he wrote in the Federalist No. 51, Federalist Papers:

“[I]n the federal republic of the United States… all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

The Founding Fathers were also well aware of the dangers of demagogic autocrats, aspirational proto-monarchs, the likes of Donald Trump , who could sway public opinion in their favour and win the White House. They despised charismatic populists and created a political system meant to exhaust them. The Madisonian constitutional system of government was exquisitely designed to handle the impulses of such would-be tyrants. The power of this system was reflected in the temporary restraining order by Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington that froze enforcement of Donald Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban. Naturally, Trump was outraged but his administration complied with the ruling. The defeat of the signature program of President of the most powerful country in the world by a district judge in Washington state is indicative of the numerous veto points in the American System. 

The system for all its genius, however, has been going through decay. Francis Fukuyama in his seminal work, Political Order and Political Decay (2014), has argued that American political system is decaying because of two structural reasons: growing inequality and the capture of American politics by well-organized interest groups. Fukuyama’s thesis was published two years before the election of Donald Trump but he identified systematic forces which are responsible for decomposition of American political institutions that only came to surface after Trump’s victory. My thesis extrapolates from Fukuyama’s work to analyze what feeds Trump’s authoritarianism. Put simply, the American political institutions and mechanisms are either incompatible with changed circumstances or they are increasingly failing to their job.

Take Electoral College for instance. The Founding Fathers detested populism, though not out of democratic principles as we know them today. While they despised the British-style monarchy that they vehemently fought against, their version of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ was exclusively reserved for white property owning men. They were doubtful of the common man’s ability to make correct political decisions. Thus, they created the system of Electoral College to make sure that the electors could check the whims of the masses and demagogues, and only qualified men could rise to the office of presidency. Paradoxically, it was precisely the system of Electoral College that elevated a far-right populist to the highest political office in the U.S. In a popular-voting framework, the U.S would’ve had its first female President instead. A classic case of institutional conservatism.

The checks and balances embedded within the three branches of government are also falling in disuse. While Judiciary wields immense authority, it is actually legislature that has the most power to check Trump’s populist whims. The president has little capacity to do anything without the Congress. From raising money to declaring war to staffing his own government, the president is overwhelmingly dependent on Congress’s express permission. Congress has the power to force Trump to release his tax returns or to turn his assets over to a blind trust. They could’ve rejected the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court- one of the most conservative U.S. justices. They can impeach Trump for the obstruction of justice for firing former-FBI Director James Comey. The Congress can do all these things but they won’t. In amassing unprecedented power and breaking political norms, Trump is doing exactly what the Founders would have expected. The blame rests squarely on Congress which has been subject to greatest political decay. This was something where the framers failed to visualize the future American political trajectory. The Madisonian constitutional system was created on an unwarranted faith that the plurality of interests within the country would resist the creation of organized political parties. This, of course, did not happen. 

The checks and balances operate under the assumption that each branch would compete for its own authority and exert its independent influence and the natural by-product of this setting would be a balance of power among the branches. This framework has been undermined due to the presence of organized and ideologically-driven political parties which are competing across the the three branches of government. For instance, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the vacant position. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, filibustered Garland’s nomination. Later, when democrats tried to do the same Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch, the Republicans resorted to the ‘nuclear option’-  a parliamentary procedure which allows the U.S. Senate to override a precedent or rule by a simple majority of 51 votes  rather than by a supermajority of 60 votes. They criticized filibuster as an unnecessary obstructionism on part of Democratic Senators. This reflects the extent to which partisanship has been institutionalised in American political culture. Congressional members today are less interested in protecting the authority of their institution than in toeing the party line. Consequently, Trump is increasingly accumulating more power, dismantling the centrist schemes of Obama administration, and abusing power without the fear of impeachment.

President Donald Trump’s barrage of attacks on the foundations of democratic governance- threatening checks and balances, civil rights and liberties, and long-established political norms- is not the cause of American political decay but its causal effect. Just like in the past, the current equilibrium in the decayed American political system can only be knocked off by either a strong external shock or a large-scale reform coalition in order to make real policy reform possible. Till then, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy would continue to make a mockery of democratic norms.