Donald Trump’s capacity to unravel President Obama’s legacy is typically cast in terms of the president-elect’s plans to reverse his predecessor’s actions on health care, immigration, environmental protections, and worker rights, among other areas.
But Trump is also poised to shred another equally important if less tangible of achievement of the Obama era: the outgoing president’s role as a champion of democracy and a democratic culture. Where Obama advanced voting rights, government ethics, civil discourse and efforts at bipartisan cooperation, Trump is careening to the opposite extreme. He’s trashing democratic norms across the board, and his presidency will almost certainly corrode voters’ faith in public officials, elections, and government institutions.
To be sure, Obama was no hero to good government watchdogs, who remain bitterly disappointed that he failed to overhaul the campaign finance rules, strengthen or even fully staff the Federal Election Commission, or require government contractors to fully disclose their political activity. Obama also contributed to the demise of the presidential public financing system by becoming the first president to win a general election with wholly private money, and he reversed course to embrace big money super PACs partway through his presidency.
Nevertheless, Obama presided over one of the most ethical administrations in history, in part by setting high personal standards and leading by example. His reverse revolving door rules, while not foolproof, were the first ever imposed on executive branch employees. Though critics say Obama failed to live up to his pledge to run the most transparent administration in history, his release of White House visitor logs shed light on who was trying to influence his administration. Obama also rigorously enforced the civil rights laws, and broadened democratic participation by fighting state-level attempts at voter suppression.
Obama’s passion for and faith in democracy were on full display in his farewell address this week, which urged Americans to talk to one another, seek common ground, respect one another’s differences and rebuild democratic institutions by voting, organizing, and participating in public life. “How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?” Obama asked pointedly. “It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up to you.”
As if to provide the maximum possible contrast, Trump held a long-awaited press conference the following morning that devoted disproportionate time to vicious attacks on the news organization BuzzFeed, and that made clear that the president will take exactly none of the steps that ethics experts have said are needed to eliminate potential conflicts of interests involving his vast business holdings.
BuzzFeed’s publication of apparent fabrications involving Trump’s supposed Russian ties has been widely condemned, even within the media industry. But Trump’s penchant for attacking the media reflects a troubling disregard for the First Amendment and its value to democracy. And his disclosure that he will not divest ownership of his business empire or place his assets in a blind trust sets him up for a voter backlash, a corruption scandal, or both.
Trump’s ethics-free plan for managing the business, which essentially involves handing it over to his two sons, sets him up to be what Public Citizen President Robert Weissman has called “the first for-profit president.” Trump’s failure to sell off his family business, Weissman told the Prospect, “means that these conflicts are going to engulf the presidency. It’s not just a matter of norms and ethical propriety. It’s going to materially affect policymaking.”
Asked at the press conference whether he planned to release his tax returns, Trump sneered that only reporters care about his returns. But recent polls show that most Americans are indeed concerned about his conflicts of interest. Trump’s selection of Jeff Sessions, the senator from Alabama, as his attorney general, has also raised concerns about the future of civil liberties, civil and voting rights, and democratic norms in the incoming administration.
Such norms, which begin with majority rule and minority rights, also include civility, cooperation, partisan restraint and fair play—the “soft guardrails” of democracy, according to Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They are what keep us from spinning into chaos and no-holds-barred conflict, the two professors argue, a risk under an authoritarian-style leader such as Trump. Obama upheld these norms even in the face of the increasingly bare-knuckles tactics of congressional Republicans, who put partisan advantage above all else. Trump’s cavalier rejection of these norms makes it all the more urgent that Americans defend democracy now that Obama must step aside as its champion.