After a 597-day election with 18 opponents and 14 televised debates, on Friday, January 20, on the steps of the Capitol, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. Many Americans fear that he will undermine democracy through democratic means. After all, as a candidate, he declared that elections were rigged, politicians corrupt, judges unfair and journalists dishonest. His list of those who he disdains is long. Now, as president, he’ll have his own chance to shape American democracy.
To understand what Trump might do, we should not look at him but at the country he’ll rule. Trump’s formula for success consisted of sensing the popular mood and exploiting it for his own purposes. According to the Gallup polling company, 91 percent of Americans don’t trust the government; 80 percent feel the same way about the media and 73 percent about the courts. Mr. Trump isn’t the cause of this, however – he’s the result. It’s why he won.
Understanding this mistrust – its roots, its justifications, and whether Trump could use it to gut the institutions of democracy – requires a closer look at the country. Let’s start in the southeast, in North Carolina.
Demographically, to some extent, North Carolina could stand in for the U.S. as a whole. The state has several big cities with major universities, diverse populations, and traditions of progressive politics. It also has conservative-leaning rural areas with struggling textile and furniture industries. Unsurprisingly, the political fight for the American soul rages especially fiercely here – and it’s not going well.
The day Trump won the presidency, the Democrat Roy Cooper was elected the governor of North Carolina. But his Republican opponent didn’t accept the election results for weeks. It wasn’t until 2017 dawned – literally a minute after midnight on New Year’s Eve – that Mr. Cooper could raise his right hand in the General Assembly and be sworn into office, and only after a court confirmed his victory.
Even then, the state’s Republicans were poor losers. Shortly before Cooper’s swearing in, they pushed through a couple of laws to limit the new governor’s powers. He would only be able to fill 425 political posts, instead of 1,500; and his cabinet would have to be approved by the state Senate, where Republicans have a majority.
Such maneuvering is generally seen only in authoritarian states, says Andrew Reynolds, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He wrote an article for a local newspaper that was titled, "North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy."
Reynolds is an expert on democracy who has advised more than 25 countries about their constitutions. He also developed an index to measure the quality of elections. And based on his criteria North Carolina is a profoundly damaged democracy.
Sitting in a small café near the university, Reynolds was keen to explain how this happened. The problem involves voting districts – specifically the gerrymandering that shifts their boundaries. In the past, the party in power redrew those boundaries for its own advantage – ensuring majorities in as many as possible. District outlines became increasingly absurd, earthworms winding their way through the state for hundreds of miles. In most Western democracies, independent commissions decide district borders, in order to avoid this kind of abuse.