How terrified should Americans be by President Donald Trump's first week in office?
To judge by media coverage (and especially the commentary of journalists on Twitter), the answer would appear to be "more terrified than you can possibly imagine, with the terror ratcheting upward with every far-right executive order, leak-filled expose of West Wing lunacy, and Bizzaro World presidential tweet."
I get it. I'm not a Republican. I loathe and fear President Trump. And numerous events over the past week have been truly unprecedented and disturbing. For the first time in my life, I genuinely fear for the future of the nation's democratic norms and institutions. But that doesn't mean that every single thing the new president does or says is an occasion for full-bore panic. More than ever, all of us need to keep our heads and not fall into a pattern of issuing hourly alarms about the imminent demise of democracy and advent of a fascist dictatorship in the United States.
Some of what we're seeing is truly alarming — direct challenges to liberal democratic norms. But other moves are typical early actions of post-Reagan Republican presidents, while still others go much further than previous administrations but should be considered acceptable (if perhaps deeply worrying) efforts to shift policy direction in a dramatic though not democratically illegitimate way.
It is crucially important to distinguish among these different types of moves. It's the only way to maintain some sense of equilibrium and orientation in a profoundly destabilizing and deranging moment in American political history.
The Republican Party opposes abortion. It also favors the extraction of fossil fuels, views environmental regulations with suspicion, and aims to rein in the regulatory powers of the administrative state more broadly. It's perfectly understandable that Democrats, who take very different positions on public policy, react angrily when a Republican wins the White House and institutes policies that change course. But it is a perfectly normal consequence of the ordinary back-and-forth of partisan politics.
That's what we've seen over the past week with the Trump administration's re-imposition of the so-called Global Gag Rule, which blocks aid money to foreign NGOs that perform or actively promote abortion. The policy dates back to the Reagan administration, was rescinded by President Clinton, reinstituted and expanded by President George W. Bush, rescinded again by President Obama, and now revived yet again (and yes, expanded even further) by President Trump. That's a normal partisan shift in policy direction.
The same goes for Trump's decision to complete the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines — a policy that every one of the 17 Republicans who ran for president in 2016 would have pursued. Even Trump's order temporarily freezing the regulatory power of federal agencies can be described as normal to the extent that it flows from longstanding GOP opposition to many regulations adopted by Democratic presidents, very much including Barack Obama.
Things become much trickier as we move into areas where Trump is acting in ways that diverge from the priorities and positions of past Republican presidents, either because those presidents chose not to pursue a policy popular with the base of the party or because that base has shifted positions (becoming more extreme) in the eight years since a Republican last sat in the Oval Office. The Trump administration's intent to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities are examples of policies conservative and libertarian activists have favored for decades but which have never been seriously acted on. That makes them abnormal.
Even more abnormal are policies that flow from the "America First" populism and nationalism that helped Trump land the GOP nomination and ultimately propelled him to the White House. This would include executive orders in favor of (temporarily) blocking immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim nations, cutting funds to so-called "sanctuary cities" that welcome and provide social services to undocumented immigrants, and drastically reducing the U.S. role in the United Nations and other international groups.
There are many good reasons to oppose these drastic changes in policy direction, not least because they are potentially so radical, with such far-reaching ramifications for America's role in the world. But should they be considered in principle unacceptable? Illegitimate? A threat to liberal-democratic government as such? I don't think so.
To insist on the illegitimacy of changing direction in the way Trump is proposing is to treat the bipartisan globalist-internationalist consensus that has dominated our politics for much of the past seven decades as something more fundamental to the American constitutional order than it is or should be. Breaking sharply from this consensus is a very big deal, and one that entails considerable risks, especially when it is being done haphazardly and with an apparent absence of strategic foresight. But it shouldn't be considered politically beyond the pale. The U.S. can certainly remain a liberal democracy while sharply curtailing immigration, enforcing its own immigration laws, and playing a much smaller role in international institutions than it has since the end of World War II. These are not existential threats.
The truly alarming
Here's where things get very, very worrying. Can America truly remain a liberal democracy while led by a corrupt, paranoid, potentially despotic president who actively spreads falsehoods and conspiracies? Maybe not. Which is why of all the dozens of eyebrow-raising stories from the first week of the Trump administration, the ones that belong in the category of the truly alarming are those that focus on the president's erratic personal statements, behavior, and tweets — and the actions of his senior staff in response to these tendencies.
There were the 40 staffers Trump brought with him to CIA headquarters last Saturday afternoon to act as a personal cheering section. And the press secretary's first bizarre, hostile, extravagantly dishonest press conference about the size of the crowd at the inauguration. And Trump's insistence on repeating the wholly unsubstantiated assertion that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the November election. And his subsequent vow to launch an investigation of voter fraud (just a decade after a five-year investigation by the Bush administration's Justice Department uncovered "virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections"). And his threat (inspired by data promoted by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News) to "send in the feds" to combat violent crime in Chicago. And the news that Trump's hotel management company hopes to triple the number of Trump-branded hotels in the United States, despite widespread calls (so far ignored) for the president to divest his holdings.
With every such story, the office of the presidency is degraded. With every flouted ethical norm, tolerance for corruption expands. With every officially sanctioned falsehood, the distinction between truth and lies, fact and fiction, becomes blurrier. And as each of these new thresholds is crossed, another barrier to outright authoritarian government gets kicked away.
It's far harder to reverse the collapse of fundamental norms and assumptions than it is to change policy direction, even when the change is significant. Which is why, however troubling the Trump administration's policy agenda might be, we should reserve our greatest outrage and most heated opposition for the times when the president indulges his penchant for outright demagoguery and begins behaving like the deranged tinpot dictator his character apparently inclines him to be.