It’s easy to view President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency as a joke, particularly when the president himself said while making the declaration, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”
Much of the conversation around President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency has focused on its partisan and procedural effects: how it will allow the president to frustrate Congress and redirect spending, how future presidents might use the precedent to do the same, the absence of any immediate emergency as the word is normally defined. And the aadministration has so far been unable to explain exactly what it is doing with its emergency powers, or what money it is lavishing on its wall.
But as the Pentagon sends another thousand active-duty troops to the border for this nonexistent emergency, and members of Congress debate whether to pass a resolution disapproving the president’s declaration, scholars who study political violence say the scoffers should think again. The combination of democratic backsliding, power grabs by the executive, and the militarization of policing is a problem by itself, and a precedent for future escalations and abuses of executive power. As University of Chicago professor Yanilda María González told the HuffPost, “policing is the blind spot of democracy, because even as other areas of democracy can develop in quite extensive ways, policing will be an enclave of authoritarianism.”
The global experience is clear: Accretion of police powers to the executive, plus democratic decline, plus hateful rhetoric, are a lethal combination for democratic stability. It’s a worrying risk accelerant for political violence — that is, violence, intimidation, and threats used towards political ends. Exactly because the current “emergency” seems too silly to be real, the powers that moved to the executive are all too likely to stay there. And the breadth of powers that a declaration of national emergency makes available to the executive branch offers an express highway away from the checks and balances — and resiliency — of American democracy.
The United States is already showing distressing signs of democratic decline. Most recently, Freedom House ranked the US behind 51 of the 87 other “free” countries in its latest annual Freedom of the World Report. The organization, which monitors political freedom and civil liberties in over 200 countries and territories, has tracked an accelerating decline of US democracy over the last decade.
The report states that the US has faltered on a number of dimensions since President Trump has been in office — “separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections”— that are necessary to preserving a stable and resilient democracy.
By initiating a state of national emergency in the US, Trump gains access to emergency powers contained in 123 statutory provisions, according to a report put out by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Several of these provisions are germane to concerns expressed by conflict researchers: US democratic institutions that constitute the country’s greatest source of resilience to political violence — specifically Congress, media, the courts, and federal law enforcement — are on the decline.
Among the national emergency provisions capable of further eroding our democratic institutions if the president were to invoke them: the power to seize control of electronic communications systems, the power to deploy troops domestically for police activity, and the power to freeze bank accounts and restrict civil liberties of those considered in cahoots with groups deemed threats to national security. For Trump, these could be asylum seekers or undocumented migrants. If wielded together, these powers could turn the US from a full to a partial democracy, or “anocracy.”
And why should that concern us? Researchers who study political conflict have developed reliable models and methods for assessing a country’s vulnerability and resiliency to violence. Like Freedom House, they look for indications of social, political, and economic unrest, like low trust in democratic institutions, as these can forecast a coming storm. The hope is, if given sufficient notice, a country can shore up its capacity to prevent conflict from snowballing. Or, at least, recover from it after the fact. Political violence experts are trained to be sensitive to illiberal and norm-busting actions and rhetoric by democratic leaders, particularly when public trust in the institutions best positioned to defend those norms is in the toilet.
The United States Institute of Peace writes: “The states that are most likely to experience armed conflict are governed by regimes that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic, but of a mixed character.” The new Democracy Index release from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which for the third year running rated the US a “flawed democracy” (downgraded from “full democracy”), again cited declining trust in government. The next democracy rating after “flawed” on EIU’s rubric? “Hybrid democracy.”
Meanwhile, US citizen trust in institutions is at historic lows, while partisanship is at levels last seen during the 1860s — a decade that featured an actual civil war. In this climate, it’s only natural that Trump’s decision to tap into emergency powers, a well-documented sign of democratic breakdown, would cause conflict scholars’ antennae to go haywire.
Public policy professor Jack Goldstone and seven colleagues found that the single most important predictor of the onset of political instability between 1955 and 2003 was a country being a factionalized partial democracy. Building off additional research from the Center for Systemic Peace’s Polity IV Project, they defined factionalization as a “pattern of sharply polarized and uncompromising competition between elite blocs pursuing parochial interests at the national level.”
It may seem counterintuitive that partial or compromised democracy lends itself more to instability and violence than even pure authoritarianism. Analysts who have compared internal conflicts across time and geography suggest this is because, under partial democracy, control of the organs of state power is still up in the air. Powerfully factionalized elites can mobilize citizens at the ballot box, in the streets, and ultimately, with violence, to do the fighting.
Goldstone and his fellow researchers developed a hugely influential model for predicting political instability. The description of the most dangerous politics may sound alarmingly familiar: a “winner-take-all approach … a polarized politics of exclusive identities or ideologies, in conjunction with partially democratic institutions … that most powerfully presages instability.”
Freedom House and sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele go into greater detail about what this dangerous politics actually looks like. They identify incremental steps that begin as perfectly legal and may initially appear innocuous, but through which, eventually, autocracy emerges. Among these steps are media consolidation and censorship, weakening watchdog institutions, politicizing and restructuring the judiciary, and undermining an independent civil society.
National emergency powers have the potential to weaken US democracy in all of these areas. They undercut our system of checks and balances, whether on how a president spends money or the rights that law enforcement must accord to residents. This further imbalances power in favor of the executive branch, which may both embolden it to take further steps and inflame its opponents. This triggers higher levels of elite and intergroup polarization, another key risk factor for political instability, while also deepening public distrust in the norms and institutions that ordinarily prevent isolated instances of violence from spiraling into self-reinforcing cycles.
Disturbingly, the Coast Guard reservist arrested in Maryland with an arsenal and a set of plans to target elected officials, journalists, and Jews seems to have understood this. His writings included musings on how to spark a cycle of violence in the wake of a disaster or demonstration. The would-be terrorist’s ruminations point to conclusions drawn by researchers and historians: Perceived external threats or attacks, when a country is already on edge, can dovetail with leaders’ use of loaded rhetoric to provoke vigilante justice, or solidify state-led discrimination or other arrangements that favor the executive.
Emergency powers have the potential to expand state-led discrimination dramatically, whether it is sending security forces into sanctuary cities, taking control of electronic communications systems, or expanding the revocations of citizenship already in process apart from the emergency declaration. Scholarship of mass violence suggests that the US history of large-scale violence against minority groups, combined with the recent rise in rhetoric from political leaders targeting minorities, has created an environment ripe for public acceptance of other exclusionary, undemocratic, or oppressive measures.
The country has lived through such spikes in rhetoric — as well as significant actual violence — before. It has been US democratic institutions, and leaders who felt empowered by them, that worked, slowly and imperfectly, to contain violence and reverse the conditions that gave rise to it.
The strength and durability of US democratic institutions are a primary source of the country’s resilience. The national emergency declaration and the profound cynicism that surrounds it are not just an attack on military construction and some other spending accounts. They represent an attack on the norms that preserve order and protect us from violence. It would be tragic if a blasé response to a pretend national emergency were to be, looking back, one of the steps in a trail toward a real one.