Bad week in Trumpland signals hope for American democracy
Written by Austin Sarat and Dennis Aftergut and published in The Hill 8/2/2021
The last five years’ deluge of disinformation and discord make it easy to lose faith in democracy, something never helpful to preserving it. Just when many lamented the Republican pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago as signs of Trump’s iron-fisted hold on his party, his control visibly faltered last week. Earlier polling had already shown a slip.
Still, Trump’s bad week does not mean that it’s time for foes of authoritarianism to rejoice or for anyone to assume that American democracy is out of danger.
A loosening of Trump’s influence and new steps toward holding him accountable will mean little unless current efforts to enact the For the People Act, or a Manchin-style revision, can cross the goal line. As importantly, Congress needs to adopt the June 21 Senate bill to stop election subversion.
If the measures in Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states this year allow partisans to exert control over which election officials count the 2022 and 2024 vote, the name of the Republican candidates will not matter. Our democratic republic will be at an end.
For the moment, though, let’s consider the week’s bad news for Trumpland:
- On Tuesday, Susan Wright, the Texas congressional candidate that Trump endorsed, lost her primary to Jake Ellzey, whose campaign pitched his bipartisan appeal.
- The same day, Merrick Garland’s DOJ advanced the cause of accountability by ruling that Trump acolyte Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) was not immune from liability in a lawsuit for allegedly inciting the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. That ruling ends the attempt that Trump’s lawyers had already foreshadowed to raise the same defense of the former president in Swalwell’s suit.
- On Wednesday, even Mitch McConnell, “Dr. No” to Biden legislative success, greenlighted the procedural votes in favor of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal. McConnell did this in direct defiance of Trump’s messages threatening Republicans who signed on — 17 Republican Senators signed on anyway.
- On Friday, the DOJ reversed Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision to withhold Trump’s tax returns from a congressional committee overseeing IRS audits and exploring legislation to correct. Garland’s reversal is another sign that Trump no longer can simply get away with making up his own rules and defying long standing norms.
- Also on Friday, the Justice Department released to Congress seemingly incriminating notes made by former DOJ officials of phone solicitations from then-President Trump to support his “Big Lie.” The notes indicate that Trump told acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen all he had to do was say that the November election was “corrupt” — “leave the rest to me and the R[epublican] Congressmen.” This seems like a redo from Trump’s playbook with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 — have someone announce an investigation of Biden so that Trump and his allies could blacken his rival’s name and prospects for success.
Outside of Trumpland, all this is good news — both for accountability and for the possibility that the Republican Party may still be able to fill the country’s need for a conservative-moderate party that is not off the rails in support of delusional extremism.
While progressives have made gains in capturing public support in recent years, the country remains, at heart, moderate to conservative in its politics.
The persuadable middle remains vital to governing the country, as the week’s progress on the infrastructure bill shows. Critically, the bill was kept alive by lobbying from an old-school, moderate-conservative business-labor coalition.
Yet our country has survived the traumas of Civil War, Jim Crow, the Father Coughlins and Charles Lindberghs who would have aligned us with Nazi Germany, and the Sen. Joseph McCarthys who would have imposed his orthodoxy on our political thought.
Last week’s developments offer a glimmer of hope that we will survive Trump too.
To do so, Congress must act to protect the vote and preserve the integrity of our elections.
The key for citizens is never to shy away from facing the brutal truth of our current difficulties, while not allowing it to rob us of faith. As Winston Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel at the Renne Public Law Group in San Francisco.