The Trump presidency is a threat to many things, but it is not the threat to democracy that it is often presented as. In fact, it demonstrates democracy’s resilience.
Democracy in a minimal sense is about open and competitive elections. Democracy in a maximal sense is about freedom of political and civil rights, such as freedom of the media and assembly.
Elections today are not less open and competitive than they were under the Obama administration. And by some measures, they are more competitive. There was a record high turnout in the 2018 elections, and across the country Democrats like Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke cut down the Republican margin of victory in conservative strongholds. More women were also elected to the House of Representatives than ever before.
And while President Donald Trump has made wild accusations of electoral fraud for political gain, there has been no evidence of such large-scale fraud. There has been plenty of evidence that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 and 2018 elections, but attempts by foreign governments to influence how Americans think about their political candidates and policies do not make our elections less representative of the will of the American people. It just makes that will potentially different.
These attempts are not new. In 2013, Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times to influence how Americans viewed the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria. In 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to the U.S. Congress to advocate against lifting sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.
The covert nature of these attempts is not new, either. Even before the Trump administration, foreign governments invested heavily in U.S. think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution and Atlantic Council, to seemingly influence these organizations’ policy conclusions.
What is perhaps new is the awareness of Americans about how much information they digest is propaganda from foreign governments.
What Americans still might not be aware of, however, is how much of the information that citizens in others countries digest is covertly influenced by the U.S. government. In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created a social-media network using offshore banks accounts, front companies and overseas servers, allegedly to foment anti-regime protests in Cuba. In 2013, the U.S. government created, openly this time, a cell phone service in Cuba ostensibly for the same purpose.
Media freedom has not been seriously eroded either — at least not yet. President Trump has attacked the U.S. media, referring to it as the “enemy of the people” and accusing mainstream news media outlets of having misled at best and lied to at worst to the American public.
However, news outlets have not been prevented from reporting on subjects critical of the Trump administration or calling it out for misinformation and outright lies, unlike in other countries, such as Poland and Hungary, were democracy is receding. In fact, just this month the Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported that in the 649 days between Mr. Trump’s inauguration and Oct. 30, the president made 6,420 claims that were either partially or entirely false.
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric may have also had a positive effect on the way in which the public scrutinizes the media, especially news provided through social media, and may have generated debates about what constitutes biased reporting and what behaviors undermine trust in the media.
And, while Mr. Trump may consider the media as the enemy of the people, the people do not. Last year, 84 percent of respondents to a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll said that the news media is "critical" or "very important" to our democracy. Moreover, trust in the media today, according to different polls by the same organizations, is at about the same level as under President Obama.
The Trump administration does threaten media freedom, though, through its refusal to answer questions from certain reporters and news outlets and the White House’s restrictions on these outlets’ access to events. Its rhetoric of “fake news” has also increased physical threats against journalists, which were they to intimidate journalists into silence, would constitute an indirect form of censorship. Journalists, to their credit and courage, have so far refused to be bullied into silence. And the U.S. court system has defended their access to information.
Freedom of assembly has also not been eroded under Mr. Trump, and in fact, there may have been an increase in the number of protests in the United States as a result of Mr. Trump. The Crowd Counting Consortium estimates that 5.9 million to 9 million people protested in the U.S. in 2017, 89 percent of whom were protesting against Mr. Trump or his agenda.
In this way, the Trump administration, by virtue of its many faults, has helped to create a more aware, engaged, and diverse democracy.
Dawn Brancati (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Democracy Protests: Origins, Features, and Significance and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University. Her website is: www.dawnbrancati.com.