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This period in U.S. history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president — the most consequential duty of U.S. citizens — was broken, perhaps for good.

True, the U.S. Constitution’s promise and central premise — that the people elect the president — has never been totally fulfilled. America’s aristocratic Founding Fathers didn’t trust the rabble (or slaves or women) to choose the person to fill the nation’s most powerful office. So, the United States ended up with supposedly wise men — the electoral college — who would select the president.

Under President Donald Trump, the cooked-up issue was whether the count in the electoral college actually represented the popular vote in their states. What has come to be termed “The Big Lie” was not just that the election had been “stolen” from Trump, but also included attempts to legitimize various underhanded means of attempting to reverse the true result.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, talk-show hosts joked that if Trump lost, he might simply refuse to leave the White House. But Trump had something more elaborate — and dangerous — in mind: if he lost, he’d declare that the vote count was wrong; that the election had been stolen.

According to The Washington Post, this strategy for a failed candidate had been floating around in right-wing circles for some time; but previous candidates for federal office had spurned the idea. Trump, however, has never been much concerned about the impact of his actions on others or the country. There’s little evidence that he grasps the Constitution.

But to question the veracity of the official election result is to undermine the assumption of the integrity of the election system. Yet a disgraced, rejected, twice-impeached former president has persuaded up to three-quarters of Republicans of his evidence-free claims.

It’s worth pondering how this could happen. An important factor is that the concept of utilizing The Big Lie was subscribed to not by Trump alone but also by a phalanx of right-wing activists, with some broadcasters perpetuating it.

Trump has the rhetorical skills of the talented demagogue; his rants are leavened with entertainment. He applies to the dangerous the cosmetic of fun. Also, a great deal of the American electorate is poorly informed. The teaching of civics has essentially died out. And Trump has encouraged distrust of the media. He’s turned the truth into a volleyball.

Given the large and impassioned following he’d already curried, the satisfying (for them) nature of his claim, and having dropped thousands of little lies, Trump had softened the ground for his most preposterous contention. Through derogation as well as raw muscle he has squashed potential rivals for party leadership — the canny Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried, but failed, to break Trump’s grip.

Now, should an incumbent Republican fail to exhibit sufficient obedience, Trump could “primary” that heretic by backing another Republican for his or her position. Thus, a large number of elected Republicans who know that his election claims are baseless (as are his denials that he fomented the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol) espouse them nonetheless because in addition to being wary of Trump they also fear their constituents who follow him. On top of all this, Trump is far and away the party’s most adept fundraiser.

What’s kept Trump from being an even greater danger to the country — his loss of the 2020 election at least halted his march on government authority, which included political control of the Pentagon and the Justice Department, both of which are supposed to have a bit of independence from the White House — is that, for all his shrewdness, tenacity and entertainment value, Trump does dumb things: he trips himself up by overdoing things.

He is, for example, in legal jeopardy for trying to bully some state officials into rigging election results. His demands that his political enemies be prosecuted even became too much for the theretofore supine Attorney General William Barr. The separating of migrant children from their families at the border was a national disgrace.

His demand that House Republicans remove Liz Cheney as chair of the Republican Caucus, because she was vociferously insisting that Trump’s lies about a stolen election were a threat to the Constitution, to be replaced by a toady, Elise Stefanik of New York, has made Cheney into a far more potent enemy.

In fact, there was something of a point to the Republican argument that it was awkward that one of the three House party leaders was an outspoken critic of the prevailing, if misguided, party position, but the Republicans couldn’t get around the more evident point that they were squelching dissent — on a fundamental constitutional issue.

The schism within the Republican Party over The Big Lie isn’t just about the past; it could decide the party’s future. Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory was narrow; a switch of only some 43,000 votes in three states (Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona) would have reversed the outcome.

And now, Republicans at the state level are rushing out legislation designed to make it harder for Blacks to vote, since, immorality notwithstanding, voter suppression has been deemed by Republicans as key to presidential victory. These laws could make it difficult for Biden or another Democrat to replicate the 2020 electoral map.

We Americans claim to be a country committed to the rule of law. But a democracy cannot succeed without voluntary cooperation, trust and restraint. The laws aren’t self-executing, and there is a good reason why Supreme Court nominations are now the subject of vicious contention. Though it has sometimes set boundaries to his excesses, as a result of Trump’s presidency, the Court is firmly in conservative control for some time to come.

If key figures consistently act in bad faith, laws won’t protect us in the end. This is why Trump and what he’s set loose are such a threat to our constitutional democracy.

Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” ©Project Syndicate, 2021

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