Trump Is Winning. Democracy Is Losing.
The Weimarization of American politics may be picking up steam.
(Donald Trump pumps his fist after speaking during election night from the White House in the very early morning of November 4. By Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
It may well be the wisest, sanest strategy to treat Donald J Trump as an inconvenient bystander in the weeks that lie ahead before the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States. Trump lost the election more decisively than he first won it in what he called a “landslide”, and the margins for his opponent are far greater than could conceivably be overturned by any recount, or legal challenge. Not taking the bait of Trump’s defiance of the results is the cardinal rule in dealing with the child-like figure still in full tantrum mode in the White House. It’s nothing to worry about: just a ploy. And the strategy of staying largely above the fray worked beautifully for Joe Biden in slowly prying the short and vulgar fingers of Donald Trump from the presidency.
So fine. Don’t hyperventilate, Sullivan. It’s all going to be fine. Breathe.
But it’s not fine. Not even close. The very fact that we are dancing around an unprecedented democratic enormity by Trump and the major chunk of his party is damning enough. But minimizing the impact this destabilizing period will have on our democratic future does no one any favors. Trump and the bulk of the GOP are engaged in an unprecedented assault on American democratic legitimacy. They’re threatening to create a new normal: don’t concede a loss, claim, without proof, that there’s massive fraud, resist the transfer of power, try to overturn results, delegitimize the winner, sabotage the victor’s ability to govern. It’s a dagger aimed at the critical norms of liberal democracy itself.
In a priceless sentence, Maggie Haberman writes: “The president has insisted to aides that he really defeated Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Nov. 3, but it is unclear whether he actually believes it.” This ambiguity is rendered somewhat moot by the president’s Twitter fulminations — “WE WILL WIN!” — and by his Facebook feed: “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” Yesterday, he went for a full-on conspiracy theory: “REPORT: DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE. DATA ANALYSIS FINDS 221,000 PENNSYLVANIA VOTES SWITCHED FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP TO BIDEN. 941,000 TRUMP VOTES DELETED. STATES USING DOMINION VOTING SYSTEMS SWITCHED 435,000 VOTES FROM TRUMP TO BIDEN.”
This morning, he told Byron York that within two or three weeks, he was going to win Georgia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, because their results will be reversed because of fraud. The goal at the moment seems to be to prevent the certification of votes in some of those states, and so energize the base that Republicans in those state legislatures will have no choice but to send electors to the Electoral College who would reverse the results of the popular vote.
This was roughly the scenario sketched by Bart Gellman in the Atlantic a few weeks ago — a story dismissed by some as preposterous at the time. Yet Maggie Haberman has reported that Trump pressed aides this week “on whether Republican legislatures could pick pro-Trump electors in a handful of key states and deliver him the electoral votes he needs to change the math.”
Chill, Sully. This is all a kabuki dance to wean Trump from power. Let it go. It’s not going to make a difference.
And yet a poll found that 70 percent of Republicans — with no credible evidence at all — believe that the election was rigged. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, not exactly a fringe character, baldly told Fox News: “President Trump won this election. So everyone who is listening, do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.” Ten Republican state attorneys general have joined in the attempt to prevent Pennsylvania from certifying its election results. Senator Roy Blunt declared: “The president wasn't defeated by huge numbers, in fact he may not have been defeated at all.”
Secretary of state Pompeo insisted with a smile that there would be a transition to a second Trump term, even as he lectures other countries about respecting election results. He is treating the solemn democratic process as a joke. “We are moving forward here at the White House under the assumption there will be a second Trump term,” echoed White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro, this morning.
To put it plainly: this simply does not happen in a healthy liberal democracy. It is a sign of the deepest imaginable rot. It is the kind of thing that occurs in developing countries with warlord leaders and fledgling democratic processes. It violates the sacredness of a peaceful and consensual transfer of power in America — marked first by George Washington.
It renders the US an international outlier in terms of democratic practices, and makes a mockery of any American pretension to be a model for democracy. We’re not. We’re increasingly a cautionary tale. And the damage this past week has already inflicted on basic democratic norms is incalculable. More foreign leaders have accepted Biden’s victory than Republican officials. Think about that for a bit.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” an anonymous ‘senior Republican official’ mused to the Washington Post this week. “No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
The layer upon layer of complacency, cynicism, and nihilism in that quote sums up so much about the GOP elite these past few years. They are proof that their party is a cult controlled by one man, who can get anyone in his party to say that the sky is green if he wants to. The Georgia run-offs alone ensure that no one in the party will seriously challenge the president’s derangement until, if we are lucky, after those elections are held in January — in case he turns on his own party’s candidates. So we are left for two months with an urgent crisis of legitimacy — and for years ahead, an incoming president Biden who will be deemed the beneficiary of massive fraud by a significant chunk of the country.
Didn’t the Democrats do this first to Trump four years ago? Isn’t payback ok? Sure, many Dems did say that Trump won in 2016 because of Russia, with no solid proof of anything. Yes, Rachel Maddow is a disgrace. And, yes, some accused him of being an illegitimate president because of it, and because of his popular vote deficit. None of this was defensible rhetoric. And it’s a sign that our political culture has not just decayed on the right.
Nonetheless, Hillary Clinton conceded the election the day after and showed up at the inauguration. Barack Obama swiftly invited Trump to the White House to start the transition. Trump, in stark contrast, has declared himself the overwhelming winner, and blocked any cooperation with the president-elect, whom he openly regards as illegitimate. He is not even making specific claims. He is engaging in yet another Big Lie — a final attempt as president to gaslight the entire country and world. His spokesperson today affirmed that Trump would indeed attend the inauguration in January: "I think the President will attend his own inauguration - he would have to be there in fact."
I don’t think talk of a “coup” is responsible rhetoric at this moment; nor do I think “fascism” is a word in any way appropriate to this situation. I take the point that reacting to Trump in kind can deepen a cycle of mutual distrust and contempt that weakens liberal democracy still further. But this is the trap we’re in. Do nothing and the rot spreads. Do something proportional to Trump’s aggression and the rot deepens. Trump’s threat has never been that he wants to set himself up as a new Mussolini. His idleness and incompetence render that moot. His threat is that his psyche requires him to break every democratic norm, to hold the rule of law in contempt, and to deepen polarization so intensely that America becomes ungovernable at a federal level, and liberal democracy surrenders to one man’s ego.
I’ve referred to this process of accelerating illegitimacy before as a Weimar dynamic. By Weimar, I don’t mean a direct parallel to the 1920s and early 30s in Germany. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that nightmare. I mean rather a democracy where the center is always much weaker than the extremes on both sides, where democratic procedures lose legitimacy with the public at large with each election cycle, where street violence supplements debate with the connivance of elites, where propaganda replaces information, and where all the energy is destructive.
I mean a conservatism that keeps surrendering to right-radicalism, because it no longer believes in the liberal project writ large. I mean a liberalism so lacking in conviction that it is incapable of standing up to the woke left. I mean a media where outlets are incapable of housing a variety of opinions — because radicalized readers and activist journalists believe an open debate is a form of harm and oppression. I mean a left bent on packing courts, abolishing the filibuster, targeting religious freedom, and embracing direct race discrimination as payback for the injuries of the past. I mean a right indifferent to democratic norms, convinced that no Democratic president can be legitimate, consumed with conspiracy theories, and paranoid in a way only Americans can muster.
Trump did not start this. He is in many ways a product of it. But Trump has intensified this crisis in ways no one else could have — and the woke have responded in kind. He has, in this, a near-demonic skillset.
And he is not going away. Far from it. If he leaves office voluntarily, it will be to launch a movement founded around that very Weimar of constructs: a corrupt elite that stabbed the American people in the back in 2020, and robbed them of their votes. He will demand total Republican obstruction to anything Biden or the Democrats propose — because they are usurpers and crooks — and ensure his base remains permanently inflamed with anger and resentment. He will sabotage as much of our system as he can. And by pledging immediately to run in 2024, he will control the GOP as totally in the future as he has in the past.
The 2020 election did not resolve this crisis of legitimacy. It found two Americas, very evenly divided, and at war with one another. And in the days since it ended, it has become clearer and clearer not only that this house is divided, but that Trump would be more than happy to see it fall.
An older, frailer man — perhaps the last man standing in our political culture with deep affection for a less polarized past — has been tasked to hold our democracy together, even as the culture keeps tearing it apart. Pray for him.
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New On The Dishcast: Brian Muraresku On Psychedelics And Early Christianity
Brian Muraresku is the author of the new book The Immortality Key, currently the #10 audiobook on the NYT Best Seller list and the #9 hardcover on Amazon’s non-fiction list. A growing collection of reviews are on his website. My own review is here. The Immortality Key, his first book, examines the pivotal role that psychedelics may have played in the origins of Western civilization, first among the ancient Greeks and then early Christians.
This is not some kooky-ass book from some hippie who has decided that Jesus was tripping. It is a book of rigorous scholarship, textual analysis, botanical chemistry — you name it — all the skills of modern science to try to understand something that humans have always understood and has been part of humanity forever. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Above is a four-minute teaser of our long conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
See you next Friday.