Democracy needs trust, but it also needs a degree of distrust to thrive. Political scientist Mark E. Warren, one of the foremost scholars studying the paradoxical link between democracy and trust, found that while democracy was borne out of distrust of central authority and ruling elites, democracy needs trust to survive.
Without trust, democratic systems fail. Voters need to trust their votes matter. If voters don’t trust that they have a say or if they believe the system doesn’t work, voters will become disengaged and not participate. Paradoxically, voters need to have a degree of distrust of those in political power and exert their will at the voting booth to bring about change.
Democratic systems seek to funnel any distrust held by the people toward those in political power and not those in apolitical positions like judges or career government employees. Democratic systems also try not to funnel distrust toward the system itself.
President Trump is a danger to the American democratic system because he sows distrust not just of his political opponents but the judiciary, government officials, and the system itself. His “burn it all down” approach is spreading and has been picked up by many other elected Republicans.
If President Trump had it his way, Americans wouldn’t trust elections, federal judges at any level, and any government employee not named Trump. In short, our system would fail if Trump succeeded at sowing distrust among all Americans. But despite the president’s efforts, America’s democratic system still stands and most voters still have confidence in their vote.
Trump doesn’t believe in trust. He believes in loyalty.
The Republican Party recognizes that fealty to Trump is the most important quality of any Republican. This year, instead of offering a platform for the party, they reissued their 2016 platform and stated that “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” The Republican party has no platform or vision, its only policy is loyalty to Trump.
President Trump demands loyalty from those around him. Early in his presidency, President Trump invited former FBI Director James Comey to dinner at the White House. At the private dinner, President Trump asked that Comey pledge loyalty to him. Comey declined but said he would be “honest.” A few weeks later, President Trump tried wielding undue influence over the investigation of his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Trump told Comey, “I hope you can let this [investigation] go.” Comey later lost his job for standing up to Trump’s corrupt request. In Trump’s America, he demands loyalty from the country’s highest officials, a demand that leaves Americans unsure if they can trust those working in government.
President Trump has made it clear he doesn’t believe that rules and laws apply to himself or his friends, leading him to attack the integrity of the courts and its judges with impunity. He speaks as if there is a “deep state” of career government officials working against him, fueling paranoia and causing distrust among his more conspiratorial supporters. He rages about “rigged elections,” and will not commit to a peaceful transition in power if he loses the election. All of these actions sow distrust in the American democratic system and threaten its long term survival.
For America’s democratic system to flourish, trust in the system must be strengthened, and voters must know that their vote will count. If Trump is given four more years in office, voters’ trust in elections, the judiciary, and the functioning of our government will be greatly damaged, threatening to break our democratic system.