From its beginnings, Democracy has opened the way for people with overweening ambition, who employ lies, division and bigotry to achieve their goals. From ancient Athens to modern Europe, we have often seen leaders who challenged the endurance of the political system. But however many wounds those people caused, the democratic system repeatedly proved that it could heal them and lead citizens back towards stability and prosperity. As long as there was some force to restore democracy, the way the United States did in Europe twice last century.
Seldom, though, has a person been able to wield so much power as the US president today, and, at the same time, seldom has an elected leader seemed so unqualified to wield that power as does Donald Trump. The United States’ technological and military superiority, its economic power, its history as winner of two world wars and guarantor of the international order, secure for the American president a leading role in his country and the world. Domestically, this power is checked by a complicated system of balances between institutions that was shaped over many years.
Donald Trump’s election shows that the system is at breaking point. Trump has the power – and the will – to stretch it further. The 45th president will enjoy an absolute Republican majority in Congress; he will also select a new Supreme Court justice, securing a conservative majority for years. Having won the elections largely on the basis of his own character and instincts, ignoring the advice of his aides, it is highly unlikely that Trump will surround himself with people capable either of restraining him or pushing him forward. Another major institution, the news media, with their almost unanimous support for Hillary Clinton, proved thoroughly incapable of preventing Trump’s election. Will they be able to control him now?
Donald Trump as president enjoys the legitimacy of a great electoral victory at a moment when all the other state institutions appear weakened. When he takes over on January 20, he will determine how the United States will develop and what role it will play in the world. Will he try to close the rifts between social, political and economic groups, or will he continue to invest in tension and division? If he implements his promises (or threats, depending on where one stands), how will he deal with protests? When, for example, millions of people are cut out from health insurance, when lower taxes for the super-rich lead to greater deficits and then cuts to social services, will he answer the anger and despair with dialogue or with the full force of a mighty state? Will he unite or divide further?
If Trump believes that institutions can serve him without him serving them, it is up to the institutions to bring him into line. No one else can do it. And if the citizens of the world’s most powerful country are not dedicated to Democracy, woe to the rest of us.