Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the 2017 Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The cover of the last issue of the leading German news magazine, Der Spiegel, was a vivid illustration, indicative of one view of Donald Trump that seems to be growing. It showed a beaming Trump surrounded by Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the headline “Ich bin das volk,” followed by, “Das zeitalter der autokratenz” – “I am the people: The age of the autocrats.”
On Sunday, the Turkish people, in a nationwide snap election that saw an unprecedented 87% turnout, apparently have given their autocratic President another unprecedented mandate, though final returns won’t be available for some days. Voters had already granted the President more power in a referendum just over a year ago.
These two trips to the polls by Turkish voters confirmed that security and a thriving economy, despite some recent weakness, trump most traditional democratic values. Many nations are beginning to shrug off their longstanding democratic exteriors.
Globally, however, the drift toward strong leaders able to assure prosperity and security is a most dangerous challenge to American principles that have prevailed since the framing of our constitution more than two centuries ago.
In the United States, Trump’s attitude toward displaced refugee children – arguably the greatest and most toxic challenge yet to its hold on power – is the most immediate and vivid evidence that our leader does not champion any sort of effort for America to remain a shining beacon for nations aspiring to maintain or establish a democratic system of government.
Many fear that Donald Trump is leading America, and by extension large swaths of the world, toward a post-democratic system that no longer recognizes any form of traditional constitutional government.
“The appeal and superiority of constitutional democracy cannot be taken for granted,” I was told by Professor David Law of Washington University in St. Louis and The University of Hong Kong. “Many fear that constitutional democracy is under threat from democratic backlash and losing ground to illiberal constitutionalism.”
Vastly larger stretches of the world are more concerned about basics of food, housing and personal safety. For them, worrying about democracy takes a back seat to securing the necessities that will help them survive.
The acceptance of authoritarian leaders would appear to be a central element that has set Donald Trump at odds with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and indeed most of the other members of the G-7. Trump’s desire to see the G-7 restore to its ranks Putin and Russia, expelled after the invasion and seizure of Crimea, as well as his praise for Kim, is a suggestion that perhaps Trump feels more comfortable with world leaders who rule without any tolerance of opposition and with the ability to impose their will and vision on their nation.
The latest crisis over the separation of immigrant children from their parents demonstrates that Trump is growing more prepared to govern effectively by fiat. Much of the rest of the government appears willing to allow him to do that, or at least unable or unwilling to prevent him from doing so – although in some cases, such as the travel ban, Obamacare repeal, and the Russia investigation, countervailing forces in the US government have constrained Trump.
Constitutional scholars do point out that this is not a new trend, dating back at least to the presidency of Richard Nixon. Henry Kissinger was revealed in a cable released by WikiLeaks to have said in 1975 that “the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer,” which even the Kremlin-linked website RT was delighted to cite.
But Trump has developed into an art form this ability to skirt the Constitution and especially its institutionalization of checks and balances, sweeping away decades of legislative and administrative change with all but total impunity.
David Law and research partner Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia Law School concluded some time ago that the American Constitution is no longer the model for most nations seeking to write a new document for themselves. Instead, many have looked to the Canadian constitution, with its respect for basic human rights and human values and a social and political system that more closely represents a vision of the world that they would like to see their government embrace.
However, in an interview, Versteeg confessed to me that she has more recently come to believe instead that “there may not be one perfect constitution, but what matters is whether citizens are willing to defend it. The brand of American constitutionalism took a big blow with Donald Trump. It’s kind of Trump versus the Constitution.”
Versteeg has lectured frequently in Africa, particularly to young African leaders who have suggested that “economic growth, efficiency, asserting oneself in the world, being a global power, being an economic power are all more important than democracy.” At the University of Lesotho, one young leader raised his hand and observed, “You go around the world and tell us about democracy. So how is it that the candidate with 3 million fewer votes won the presidency? How is that democracy?”
“The American brand is more in decline than ever,” Versteeg told me.
Is there a solution?
Some have suggested that a new constitutional convention is essential. It would take 34 state legislatures to agree to such a procedure. So far, we are barely a third of the way toward such a sweeping move. While this may appear on the surface to have some real merit, possibly replacing the electoral college, for instance, the entire process could be quite disastrous.
“How do you design a constitutional drafting process?” Versteeg asked. “Who gets to do the drafting, who gets to be involved? If you don’t have a James Madison and a Thomas Jefferson, who gets to do this job?”
There has been a wave of moves toward constitutional redraftings abroad recently, or efforts to dramatically circumvent existing documents, especially in Central Europe. None has turned out very well, at least for the preservation of democratic norms. All such documents do have a bill of rights, which is effectively meaningless with a strong president and few checks and balances. In Turkey’s case, the recent constitutional redrafting has given the President all but unchecked powers.
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Any effort to rebalance some of the traditional provisions of the United States Constitution would likely run afoul of many of the same forces that have given Trump too much leeway in his words and actions. It would also give many abroad reason to pause when it comes to embracing the American model or democracy.
For as Versteeg observed, “Whoever controls the political landscape controls the constitutional convention.”
Best to leave well enough alone, then, and trust in the ultimate good sense of the American people to right this listing ship of state sooner rather than later.