At the nine-month point of the Trump presidency, Shadi Hamid has a message for everybody: calm down. So far, Hamid writes, the most apocalyptic predictions haven’t come to pass—and the expectation that they imminently will is fueling an even greater danger. Surveying what he deems to be a widespread problem of Trump-fueled alarmism, Hamid argues that talk of impeachment and the 25th Amendment reveals an antidemocratic urge to overturn the (admittedly disastrous) election results: “the great thing, and sometimes the scariest thing, about democracy is that it explicitly allows people to be, well, evil, as long [as] their ‘evil’ is expressed within the law.” He concludes: “Democracy is not meant to protect us from other Americans we don’t like.”
In a piece that tangles arguments perhaps better left distinct, this remark stands out for its straightforward clarity: Democracy does force us to confront and live with others whose values and priorities we find strange, even offensive, and (at least in a country as big and diverse as the United States) that’s a built-in feature. Americans like to sing the praises of pluralism, but they don’t much like the practice of it—at least not these days. And the strains of performing democratic politics in a deeply diverse society will remain with us even if we’re able to expunge the worst cruelties of Trumpism. We should face that fact—and stop assuming, as public discourse frequently (and incorrectly) does, that the achievement of a functioning democracy will produce some kind of national group hug.
That said, I’m skeptical of the straightforward way in which Hamid presents Trump as a (repulsive) democrat and his critics as (well-meaning but alarmist) antidemocrats. Some of my hesitations probably come down to simple disagreements about the normative content of democracy—a topic on which Hamid reveals a reasonably minimalist attitude. “To take one example,” he writes, “modified versions of the January ‘Muslim ban’ were bigoted and mean-spirited and counterproductive, but there was nothing intrinsically undemocratic about them.” But is that really a convincing reading of the “Muslim ban”? Part of the difficulty in judging this example comes from the rival explanations offered by the President and his Administration, as well as the considerable labor that the phrase “intrinsically undemocratic” is performing in that sentence. Grant—as the judges who’ve ruled on the ban have—that it targets people of a particular religious background, and is not (as the White House sometimes claims) a narrowly targeted national security measure. Certainly that is the only plausible reading of Trump’s own comments on the matter. Is it democratic, then, to announce a policy that—in barring members of a particular religious group—signals to Americans that their fellow Muslim citizens are uniquely undeserving of equal respect? (Remember: the original demand did not target residents of particular nations, but rather called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”) If Trump banned, say, Jews from entering the United States, such a policy would be interpreted as expressing a belief that Jewish American citizens counted for less than their non-Jewish counterparts—and rightly so.
Other problems, however, are less a matter of interpretation. Hamid decries “preemptive” talk of impeachment, pointing out that much of it is driven by expectations about the unreleased findings of the Russia investigation. But this misunderstands the legal question of impeachment, which was recently explained in an illuminating essay by Jacob Weisberg and Noah Feldman. While Hamid implies that the lack of a Russia-linked “smoking gun” makes talk of impeachment premature, Weisberg and Feldman note that Trump has probably already committed impeachable offenses, many quite unrelated to Russia. There is already substantial evidence of “public corruption, including conflicts of interest and receipt of foreign emoluments,” and every day brings new reason to believe that Trump is “undermining democracy by covering up distortion of the electoral process and, potentially, rewarding a foreign state that interfered in it.” This second charge, Weisberg and Feldman admit, still awaits further substantiation—but even so, it calls into question Hamid’s claim that Trump, for all his flaws, is not a threat to democracy. (Indeed, they speculate that yet another charge of impeachment “could be based on Trump’s systematic attacks on democratic process and institutions,” including his attacks on the separation of powers.) In addition to all this, there is Trump’s defamation of President Obama (his baseless allegations of wiretapping) and former FBI Director Comey, and—perhaps in the future—the possibility that he would, as he has suggested, abuse his pardon powers. Of this long list of impeachable offenses, many are unrelated to the Russia investigation. Although there are people who favor impeachment on flimsy (or at least still unproven) grounds, it is inaccurate to suggest that all calls for impeachment are similarly hasty.
Above all, Hamid’s essay seems driven by a concern that it is becoming all too costly to simply be wrong in American politics: Public debate seems driven by an urge to deny the legitimacy of one’s ideological opponents, to portray their views as not just mistaken, but totally out of bounds. Without denying that this is sometimes a problem, it’s also worth remembering that in an era when the President and his advisers publicly demonstrate their affection for neo-Nazis, it does fall on the rest of us to insist on certain boundaries. Can we get back to a place where Americans have vigorous disagreements without feeling the temptation of undemocratic measures? I hope so—but I doubt we’ll get there by decrying as alarmism a justifiable reaction to the antidemocratic threat who currently occupies the Oval Office.