The president of the United States and 18 Republican attorneys general, led by Texas’ Ken Paxton, sought to throw out millions of votes in other states — demanding, in effect, a Supreme Court-ordered coup. This was insane, of course, but we should never forget that this is the end of a four-year process in which abnormal behavior was tolerated and Republicans became complicit in President Donald Trump’s authoritarian and corrupt behavior.
Think back a billion news cycles ago. During the previous transition (and for years after), Trump touted his electoral win, showing off his electoral map. President-elect Joe Biden, on the other hand, has said virtually nothing about his margin of victory. He knows he won; he now focuses on government. Trump’s obsession with his own personal triumphs, however exaggerated and distorted, was a telltale sign that he intended to develop a cult of personality.
Or consider how Trump handled family issues and finances. He never set up a real blind trust to separate himself from his business empire, and indeed continued to make money off his presidency (e.g., charging the Secret Service for luxury rooms at his hotels, funneling business to his properties). He put his daughter and son-in-law in powerful positions for which they had zero experience. Biden has no business empire and engages in no nepotism.
Even when news breaks that Biden’s son Hunter is under investigation for a tax matter, Biden says nothing on the merits of the issue, does not impugn the prosecutors and does not even advance the hope that his son will be cleared. “President-elect Biden is deeply proud of his son, who has fought through difficult challenges, including the vicious personal attacks of recent months, only to emerge stronger,” was all the campaign said. Hmm, this is novel.
Only as we return to normal do we full appreciate the serial assaults on democracy, decency and the rule of law. Biden, unlike Trump, does not:
- Decry the media as the “enemy of the people.”
- Single out individual lawmakers as “losers.”
- Elevate his supporters as “real” Americans.
- Select individual companies for retribution.
- Lob bizarre threats and insults at foreign leaders.
- Brag about the wealth of his Cabinet secretaries.
- Promise to “lock up” his opponent.
- Insist on concealing his tax returns.
- Declare that millions of votes were cast by immigrants living in the United States illegally.
- Designate an oil executive as secretary of state.
- Insist he knows more than the generals (and everyone else about everything).
- Scheme to ban Muslims from the country.
- Promise Mexico will pay for a border wall.
It is important to remember not only the culmination of Trump’s deranged authoritarianism (demanding to overthrow the election) but also how we got here. As Trump methodically assaulted democratic norms, constitutional restraints (e.g., the emoluments clause), basic standards of civility and objective reality, his Republican enablers remained silent or encouraged his misconduct. Not every infraction is of constitutional significance, but minor infractions, if not addressed, multiply. Small breaches of decorum lead to more serious violations. And 20,000 lies later, the MAGA crowd will buy just about anything, no matter how convoluted and incoherent.
The lesson of the Trump years is that one party by itself cannot uphold the habits of democratic self-governance. The courts can do their part (as they have in dismissing more than 50 baseless lawsuits), the media can do its job and civil servants can hold the line, but one party can by omission or commission grotesquely distort the views and expectations of tens of millions of people. A conspiracy-mongering, reality-defying populace that rejects the basic tenets of democracy will be Trump’s and the Republicans’ dismal legacy.