Yesterday afternoon, I worked up the nerve to say the following to a room full of (mostly) white retirees in my politically middle-of-the-road home town of Riverside, California.
(I said this after giving a slightly trimmed version of my Jan 29 L.A. Times op-ed What Happens to Democracy If the Experts Can't Be Both Factual and Balanced.)
Our democracy requires substantial restraints on the power of the chief executive. The president cannot simply do whatever he wants. That's dictatorship.
Dictatorship has arrived when other branches of government -- the legislature and the judiciary -- are unable to thwart the president. This can happen either because the other branches are populated with stooges or because the other branches reliably fail in their attempts to resist the president.
President Trump appears to have expressed admiration for undemocratic chief executives who seize power away from judiciaries and legislatures.
Here's something that could occur. President Trump might instruct the security apparatus of the United States -- the military, the border patrol, police departments -- to do something, for example to imprison or deport groups of people he describes as a threat. And then a judge or a group of judges might decide that Trump's instructions should not be implemented. And Trump might persist rather than deferring. He might insist that the judge or judges who aim to block him are misinterpreting or misusing the law. He might demand that his orders be implemented despite the judicial outcome.
Here's one reason to think that won't occur: In January, Trump issued an executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. When judges decided to block the order, Trump backed down. He insulted the judges and derided the decision, saying it left the nation less safe. But he did not demand that the security apparatus of the United States ignore the decision.
So that's good.
Probably Trump will continue to defer to the judiciary in that way. He has not been as aggressive about seizing power as he could have been, if he were set upon maximizing executive power.
But if, improbably, Trump in the future decides to continue with an order that a judge is attempting to halt -- if, for some reason, Trump decides to insist that the executive branch disregard what he sees as an unwise and unjust judicial decision -- then quite suddenly our democracy would be comprised.
Democracy depends on the improbable capacity of a few people who sit in courtrooms and study the law to convince large groups of people with guns to do things that those people with guns might not want to do, including things that the people with guns regard as contrary to the best interest of their country and the safety of their communities. It's quite amazing. A few people in black robes -- perhaps themselves with divided opinions -- versus the righteous desires of an army.
If Trump says do this, and a judge in Hawaii says no, stop, and then Trump says army of mine, ignore that judge, what will the people with the guns do?
It won’t happen. I don’t think it will happen.
We as a country have chosen to wager our democracy on Trump's restraint and good judgment.