President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin finally had their much-anticipated first meeting on Friday.
Many compared Trump to Russia’s authoritarian leader, whom Trump has said he admires.
Since Trump’s inauguration in January, scholars, activists, and pundits have argued that the foundations of American democracy could be in danger. Trump’s sudden firing of the FBI director, who may have been investigating Trump’s role in potential interference in the US election by Russia, his attacks on the media as purveyors of “fake news,” and his assault on the notion of an independent judiciary are all warning signs that suggest an intent to consolidate power at the top.
But Trump is not likely to become Putin, no matter how badly he might want to.
As Trump has sought to break or ignore the rules, the checks and balances built into the U.S. political system have largely reined him in.
From strong democratic institutions centuries in the making to a populace used to speaking its mind, key aspects of American society have pushed back against Trump’s overreach. Putin was able to subdue challenges to his expanding autocracy because he inherited a country that less than a generation before had adopted the trappings of democracy, after hundreds of years of tsarist, and then Soviet rule.
So why have Trump’s autocratic impulses been held largely in check?
A few key institutions have provided a bulwark that has proven resilient even as it faces serious new threats.
A free and robust press
One of the first things Putin did after becoming president in 2000 was to bring nationwide Russian television stations under effective control of the Kremlin. Gradually, through ownership changes and legal manipulations, some major mainstream newspapers faced restrictions and ceased coverage of Putin’s family and corruption by his closest allies.
Social media remains an outlet for active political speech and is therefore a key threat to the Kremlin’s total control over information.
Unsurprisingly, in recent years the government pushed legislation through parliament to get more control over internet infrastructure and content, such as requiring that all user data be stored in Russia, and creating blacklists of content that can be banned and ordered removed without a court order.
People are increasingly being prosecuted on “extremist” charges for speech online that is sometimes provocative but not threatening.
In the U.S., Trump has repeatedly verbally attacked the press, most recently with his now-viral mock video of him physically attacking a CNN correspondent, and has described the media as “the enemy of the American people.”
But his efforts to discredit and undermine the media have not shaken its determination to report the news and criticize those in power. And the proliferation of blogs, tweets, and even start-up media companies ensures that the American public is constantly exposed to a wide range of views about the administration (and many other issues).
But with so many options for obtaining one’s news, the constant barrage of claims that mainstream journalists are purveyors of “fake news” any time they criticize Trump or his administration risks eroding many Americans’ understanding of what real news actually is.
As free and robust as U.S. media are, it will matter little if Americans stop consuming them.
Independent, democratically elected legislature
Several political parties are represented in the Russian parliament, but Putin’s own party, the United Russia, has a constitutional majority, giving it the power to pass any bill the government wants. The Kremlin also largely controls the other three parties. As far back as 2007, the parliament speaker famously said that “parliament was no place for discussions.”
And the absence of real debate has only become starker. Those who seek change and can mobilize support, such as the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, are stymied. Russian authorities have opened multiple lawsuits against him.
In 2015 he was convicted of embezzlement and handed a five-year suspended sentence. His brother and co-defendant was sentenced to three and one-half years.
While Trump is the Republican Party leader, a handful of congressional Republicans have opposed not only his policies but also to the way he governs – condemning his tweets, his slow approach to staffing government agencies, and his lack of attention to policy details in the healthcare debate.
The few Republicans prepared to break ranks with their party provide an important reminder that elected officials answer primarily to their constituents. Just what that means has been tested of late, as constituents themselves have demanded answers from their elected representatives.
While the U.S. electoral system remains clouded by issues of voter access, gerrymandering, and other weaknesses, it is can halt the harmful effects of a leader bent on expanding his own power.
In Russia, high-profile corruption cases or cases against Putin’s enemies are rife with examples of improper influence. The conviction of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the liquidation of his company was perhaps the most emblematic example. And after accusing Russian officials of tax fraud, the accountant Sergei Magnitsky died in detention and was later convicted posthumously for tax evasion.
The judiciary in many cases has served as a tool to help suppress independent media and activists who know that if prosecuted unjustly by Kremlin-backed officials, they will not find justice in the courts.
After a federal court stayed Trump’s first travel ban, he lashed out, called the ruling “ridiculous,” and lambasted the “so-called judge.” In fact, his eagerness to lambaste and discredit the independent judiciary predated his inauguration.
On the campaign trail, Trump notoriously claimed a federal judge’s Mexican heritage presented “an absolute conflict” that should have barred him from overseeing civil cases against Trump University. But the judiciary has remained independent and has ruled against Trump in high-profile cases, notably in challenges to both iterations of his travel ban, as well as to proposals that would reverse Obama-era environmental regulations.
No doubt U.S. courts will continue to be tested throughout the remainder of Trump’s presidency. With Trump set to fill more than 700 judicial vacancies, including an unknown number of Supreme Court appointments, during his term, Congress will need to ensure judicial nominees are qualified and independent.
Flourishing civil society
An important corollary to a free press is a robust civil society. The centerpiece of Putin’s post-election crackdown in 2012 was a campaign against independent nongovernmental groups. The "foreign agents" law targets independent groups that get foreign funding and do advocacy work by labelling them with terms synonymous with traitors and spies.
These organizations have been subjected to intrusive inspections, tied up in litigation, and slapped with crippling fines. Valentina Cherevatenko, a civil society leader in southern Russia, has been prosecuted for “malicious” noncompliance with the “foreign agents” law.
Though Russian groups have been fighting back, their work has been limited and the government has engaged in smear campaigns against them. This is particularly pernicious given the crackdown on independent media, which creates practically insurmountable obstacles for those groups in their attempts to reach out to broader audiences.
By contrast, many have touted the upswing in activism in the U.S. as a positive consequence of the Trump administration’s early policy decisions.
New organizations are being formed, lawyers and students have camped out at airports for days on end to help people affected by the travel bans, millions have protested, and congressional office phones ring off the hook. Indeed, the US activist tradition may provide more protection from a slide toward Putin-like autocracy than any other institution.
But independent organizations alone cannot change a government, or a style of governing. It is their interaction with a free press, an independent legislature and an impartial, independent judiciary that lend them much of their power.
The health and strength of all of these foundations are critical to American democracy and should not be taken for granted.
These institutions and traditions need to be protected and strengthened to avoid a more full-blown erosion of the rule of law.