The only redeeming aspect to Trump’s presidency is he brings us back to basics. And what could be more basic than the difference between democracy and dictatorship?
Democracy is about means, not ends. If we all agreed on the ends (such as whether to build a wall along the Mexican border) there’d be no need for democracy.
But of course we don’t agree, which is why the means by which we resolve our differences are so important. Those means include a Constitution, a system of government based on the rule of law, and an independent judiciary.
A dictatorship, by contrast, is only about ends. Those ends are the goals of the dictator—preserving and accumulating personal power. To achieve those ends, a dictator will use any means necessary.
Which brings us back to Trump.
The conventional criticism of Trump is that he’s unfit to be president because he continuously breaks the norms of how a president should behave.
Trump’s norm-breaking is unsettling, to be sure, but Trump’s more fundamental offense is he continuously sacrifices means in order to preserve and accumulate personal power.
He thereby violates a president’s core responsibility to protect American democracy.
A president who shuts down government in order to get his way on a controversial issue, such as building a wall along the border with Mexico, and offering to reopen it as a concession when his opponents give in, is not protecting democracy.
He is treating the government of the United States as a bargaining chip. He is asserting power by any means possible. This is the method of a dictator.
A president who claims he has an absolute right to declare a national emergency and spend government funds that Congress has explicitly refused to appropriate for the ends he seeks, is also assuming the role of a dictator.
A president who spouts lies during a prime-time national television address over what he terms an “undeniable crisis” at the southern U.S. border, which is in fact no crisis at all, is using whatever means available to him to preserve and build his base of power.
The real international threat to America is not coming from Latin America. It is coming from a foreign government intent on undermining our democracy by propagating lies, turning Americans against each other, and electing a puppet president.
We do not know yet whether Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election. What we do know so far is that Trump’s aides and campaign manager worked with Putin’s emissaries during the 2016 election, and that Putin sought to swing the election in favor of Trump.
We also know that since he was elected, Trump has done little or nothing to stop Putin from continuing to try to undermine our democracy. To the contrary, Trump has obstructed inquiries into Russian meddling, and gone out of his way to keep his communications with Putin secret, even from his own White House.
The overall pattern is clear to anyone who cares to see it. Trump’s entire presidency to date has sacrificed the means of democracy to the ends of his personal power.
He has lied about the results of votes, and established a commission to investigate bogus claims of fraudulent voting. He has attacked judges who have ruled against him, with the goal of stirring up the public against them.
He has encouraged followers to believe that his opponent in the 2016 election should be imprisoned; and condemned as “enemies of the people” journalists who report unfavorably about him, in an effort to fuel public resentment—perhaps even violence—against them.
To argue, as some Trump apologists do, that whatever Trump does is justified because voters put Trump in power, is to claim that voters can decide to elect a dictator.
They cannot. Even if a majority of Americans were to attempt such thing (and, remember, Trump received three million fewer votes than his opponent in 2016), the Constitution prohibits it.
The choice could not be clearer. Democracy is about means, while dictatorship is about ends. Trump uses any means available to achieve his own ends.
We can preserve our democracy and force Trump out of office. Or we can continue to struggle against someone who strives to thwart democracy for his own benefit.
In the months ahead, that choice will be made, one way or the other.
This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.
Robert B. Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley and former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His film, Inequality for All, was released in 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @RBReich.