the national interest

The Trump Era Could Only End in a Final Attack on Democracy

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

On November 7, former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully.” The very question, Mulvaney insisted, insulted the president and his supporters. “Most of the inquirers,” he sneered, “are the same people who still don’t understand why nearly half the country voted for Mr. Trump.” The delusional belief that Trump would refuse to accept defeat was, to Mulvaney, yet more evidence Trump’s critics remained out of touch with the real Americans who supported him.

Republican behavior in the Trump era has often followed a pattern: First, Donald Trump floats a wild notion into the atmosphere. Then Republicans dismiss the possibility that he would do it. Then he does it. Then they justify it.

This mode of response began when Trump first ran for president, prompting Republican officials to indignantly dismiss the prospect he could win as an insult to their party. Now we have reached the point where a dozen Republican senators, and well over a hundred members of the House, are joining his demands to discard the clear result of the election and hand him an unelected second term.

As is the case with nearly every bad thing in the world, this one has produced a range of responses, some of which exaggerate its severity or immediacy. So it should be reiterated that Trump’s bid to overturn the election is not going to succeed, and has been doomed since at least the time Mulvaney’s column ran. Had the election results been just a couple tenths of a percent closer, Republicans would have had the opportunity to challenge the results, perhaps by persuading the Supreme Court to discard mail ballots that arrived after Election Day.

But while the Republican attempt to overturn the election does not pose an imminent threat to the Republic — Joe Biden will be sworn in January 20, regardless — it is hardly meaningless. We are watching yet another iterative stage in the party’s long evolution into authoritarianism.

Donald Trump’s authoritarianism is a combination of his unique sociopathy and sub-ideological worship for authoritarians and a broader tendency to accept it in his party. The Democratic Party as it currently exists could not produce a Trump. Nor could have the old Republican Party — until it crossed some threshold, perhaps during the 1990s.

Conservatives who find themselves astonished at their party’s willingness to support Trump, and inclined to lay the blame entirely on a lone madman president, should mull over the fact that their two most respected leaders from a quarter-century ago, Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr, have both thrown themselves enthusiastically behind Trump’s abuses of power. Gingrich has called Biden’s victory a “corrupt and stolen election,” and Starr has described it as “horribly lawless.”

In their own ways, Gingrich and Starr represented in embryonic form a will to power that grew into the current Trumpist form. After leading House Republicans to power in the 1994 midterm elections, Gingrich proclaimed his party to be the sole legitimate representative of the public will, and shut down the federal government repeatedly in an effort to compel Bill Clinton to accept the Republican plan to cut capital gains taxes and social spending. After that failed, Starr led a moralistic crusade to impeach Clinton for perjury after Starr maneuvered him into being asked under oath about a secret affair with his intern. Conservative elites hailed both as principled defenders of constitutionalism and the rule of law.

A more clear-eyed assessment is that they each carried out, in different ways, extraordinary new political methods borne of a refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Democratic Party–held presidency. Which is more plausible: that both Gingrich and Starr used to be principled conservatives, but then both lost their minds and fell in with Trump? Or that both men were reactionary extremists all along?

To be sure, Trump has not secured the cooperation of the entire Republican elite. The final stage of his effort to cancel the election has been so clumsy that he has driven away many of the conservatives who have defended him until now. (Senator Tom Cotton’s public dissent from the campaign to challenge the electoral votes in Congress is a notable and stinging dissent from one of Trump’s heretofore most loyal servants.)

And while it is nice that so many Republicans have finally decided to hop off the Trump train just before it crashes, they don’t seem to have learned any important lessons from the experience. The Journal editorial page, which spent years mocking concerns about Trump’s authoritarianism, is scolding the president for his autogolpe. But the Journal’s argument is that Trump is merely doing to Democrats what they did to him:

Democrats in 2016 abused the FBI to push the Russia collusion myth and refused to accept Donald Trump’s legitimacy. Hillary Clinton still doesn’t. Now some Republicans are returning the disfavor by challenging the ritual counting of the Electoral College votes by the new Congress this week.

The only problems with this equivalence are that (1) Trump’s campaign cooperation with Russia was very real, (2) the investigation was directed by (Republican) FBI officials, not “Democrats,” and (3) Hillary Clinton publicly conceded to Trump the morning after the election, and said he deserves an “open mind.” Other than that, sure, Trump is just doing the same thing Democrats did to him.

Trump has spent his entire presidency battering away at democratic norms. He has been previewing his intention to deny the legitimacy of the election since before the 2016 election, which he relentlessly dismissed as rigged. He has been hinting at his intention to stay in office beyond his constitutionally allotted term since at least 2019, when he began saying “the people” would “demand” he stay in office “longer” than eight years.

To support Trump’s reelection was always to endorse an attack on democracy. The chief divide between the party was between those Republicans who denied Trump’s clearly signaled intent to attack the democratic system, and those who reveled in it.

The Trump Era Could Only End in a Final Attack on Democracy