Donald Trump’s shocking election as president represents the gravest threat to American democratic institutions in our lifetime. During his campaign, he attacked judiciary independence, stomped on the freedom of the press, called for jailing his opponent, and claimed he would only accept the results of the election if he won. He is an authoritarian with little regard for the established norms of liberal democracy.
The American political system is famed for its system of "checks and balances" meant to prevent tyrannical rule. But with Republicans maintaining control of both houses of Congress, there will be few legislative limits to Trump's power. The judicial branch may provide a stronger check than the legislature, but the Supreme Court will have a conservative majority after Republicans brazenly refused to consider Obama's nomination to replace Antonin Scalia. If Trump's power is to be limited, it will have to be by his fellow Republicans who have so far stood by him despite his racist and misogynistic comments and revelations that he is probably a serial sexual molester.
Trump's election demonstrates that American democratic institutions were already deeply flawed. Hillary Clinton won more votes than Trump did, but presidents are chosen by an anachronistic Electoral College. This disadvantages candidates reliant on voters in the most liberal urban centres of the nation in states such as California, New York and Massachusetts, all of which Clinton won handily. For the second time in the past five presidential elections, a Democrat won the popular vote but lost the election.
Similarly, Americans cast more votes for Democrats than for Republicans in the Senate. Yet Republicans retain control of both chambers of Congress. In the House of Representatives, this partly owes to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts by Republican state legislatures that redrew district lines to isolate large Democratic majorities in a few places, leaving the rest as majority Republican.
The Senate apportions two seats to each state no matter how large the population. This favours less populous, rural states – usually whiter and more Republican. California has as many senators as North Dakota despite having over 50 times the population (and a far more diverse one).
Outrageously, over five million prisoners denied the right to vote still count, for the purposes of political representation, towards the population in the districts where they are imprisoned. Since prisons are mostly in rural, white areas and prisoners are mostly African American or Hispanic, this rule blatantly skews politics toward conservative whites. It resembles the notorious 3/5 clause of the US constitution that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for political representation, hence giving more voting power to slave owners. If the disenfranchisement of prisoners cost Clinton this close election, as it may well have, it is poetic justice for the role she and her husband played in the mass incarceration boom.
Equal voting rights needed
The slogan of the American Revolution was: "No taxation without representation," yet millions of Americans have no representatives in Congress. Puerto Rico, an island of over three million people, exists in a semi-colonial status despite its desire for US statehood. Washington DC, the nation's capital, just overwhelming passed a referendum in favour of statehood but currently has no voting representatives in Congress. Both Puerto Rico and DC are strongly Democratic with majority non-white populations.
It is no accident that it is disproportionately non-white Americans who are unrepresented or underrepresented. Despite its status as the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, the US did not attain universal suffrage until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that enforced African Americans’ right to vote. The American founding fathers did not envision a multi-racial democracy on the principle of “one person, one vote”. That is a recent invention and one that sparked the Trump backlash. His campaign played to the fears of white Americans who felt they were losing “their” country.
There is no doubt that the Trump-led Republican Party will further erode democratic institutions. But how much? Might he inspire a counter-movement aiming not just to restore the status quo but to fulfil the best ideals of American democracy? Given that a majority of Americans did not vote for this government, there is hope. But the only way to defeat Trumpism is to ensure the basic principle of true democracy: equal voting rights for all adult citizens.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor of US History at Trinity College Dublin