[The characterization of our overcomplicated Madisonian system as transcendentally democratic rests on a fundamental amnesia—of a history stretching from the architects of the American republic’s explicit anti-democratic intentions, to the range of exclusions that have structured the boundaries of the demos since, to the more recent debilitation of democracy designed and abetted by the very principled “moderates” to whom the authors appeal for salvation. One might forget, from all these accounts, the Madison of the Federalist Papers who denounced any politics that would give vent to “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project”—the Madison who demanded a “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.”
A Trump administration obviously poses serious threats not only to pluralism but also to democracy in the more substantive sense. But his means of threatening democracy are features of the system, rather than contraventions of it. Trump’s rapid-fire series of executive orders—from the Muslim Ban to financial deregulation—do undermine substantive democracy, but not because they upset a delicate balance of power between branches of government or partisan political forces. The “bipartisan consensus” cast as the moral backbone of democracy has vested in the presidency war-making and surveillance powers hidden from public scrutiny, unchecked by democratic debate or accountability. From the War on Terror to the deportation pipeline, to domestic spying, to Wall Street’s guaranteed seat at the economic advising table, Trump inherits a branch of government already well-equipped by his predecessors to undermine democracy. As is already apparent, the President and his crack squad of billionaires and white nationalists will undoubtedly turn these tools to devastating effect. However our critique of Trump, and our determined political resistance to Trumpism, should not rest on venerating an ideal democracy we have never really achieved.
The bone of contention in all these accounts is “populism.”]