“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx wrote in his historical treatise about Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, “But they do not make it as they please.” Nor do they get to choose how they will be remembered. Triggered by deep-seated fears that he will be labeled a “loser” for all of eternity, Donald Trump is working diligently to make certain that, whatever accomplishments he might want to be remembered for — a strong stock market and economy, taking on China, peace in the Middle East — his legacy will be defined by his continuing efforts to destroy the democracy he was elected to lead.
Bull markets come and go, as do pandemics, but liberal democracy was supposed to be forever: the highest and best achievement of human society. And for more than two centuries, America has been a beacon of democratic promise — as Barack Obama describes so eloquently in his new book — not because of the circumstances of life on the ground at any given moment, but for what it aspires to be. The notion that he is the caretaker of that long history has never occurred to Donald Trump, as he has taken a sledgehammer to our core democratic institutions whenever it served his purposes. But nothing he has done to date has been more destructive — and looms to be more irreparable — than his continuing efforts to undermine public faith in elections themselves.
Louis-Napoléon might well have been a role model for Donald Trump. Elected President of France in 1848, Louis-Napoléon chafed at the notion that his legal term as president was coming to an end, and led a coup in 1851 against the government he had been elected to lead. Like Trump, the aristocratic Bonaparte fashioned himself a working class hero. He was successful in leveraging his support among the working class and — unlike Trump (as yet) — proclaimed himself Emperor in 1851.
Europeans understand the fragility of democracy in a manner that eludes Americans. Louis-Napoléon reigned as Emperor Napoléon III for twenty years, before France took its next stab at fulfilling the dreams of the French Revolution and continued down its own halting path toward democracy with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870. Most Americans know Adolf Hitler as the dictator who killed millions of Jews, gypsies, and others in extermination camps, until he was defeated by the US and our allies in the Second World War. But fewer realize that Hitler was democratically elected at a time when Germany, like France, was struggling to build a democracy, and once in office used legal means — along with the rage and resentments of his supporters — to transform Germany into a dictatorship.
Despite the long history of democracies being overthrown or migrating into illiberalism — often with the support of a large share of the population — most Americans never really imagine that such a thing could happen here. Yet the parallel with Louis-Napoléon looms large. As the world watched Rudy Giuliani’s deranged news conference a few weeks ago — Rudy with his hair dye streaming down his face, Sidney Powell with her QAnon-tinged rants — many concluded that the end of the Trump presidency had finally arrived in the form of a vaudeville routine disguised as a press conference. Trump’s cadre of national law firms had jumped ship on his efforts to overturn the vote of the people — having apparently decided that being co-conspirators in a latter-day anti-democratic putsch would not be good for business — leaving Trump to be represented by Rudy and his gang of legal misfits. Axios reporter Jonathan Swan summed up the absurdity of it all in a tweet: “The publicly-stated position of President Trump’s legal team is that the reason Trump lost Georgia is because Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has been bribed by a Venezuelan front company in cahoots with the CIA to throw elections to Communists.”
Yet, even as the widespread presumption was that Giuliani and Powell had gone rogue, and the Trump team officially cut ties with Powell, the President doubled down, insisting that a wide-spread conspiracy along the lines that Powell and Swan described did indeed deprive him of a massive electoral landslide. Far from being new, the rigged-election conspiracy narrative is one that Trump cultivated during his 2016 campaign, and this time around he worked diligently from early in the election season to condition his supporters to believe that only a massive conspiracy — with a focus on mail-in ballots — could deprive him of victory in November.
And it worked. Polls over the past several weeks have consistently shown that large majorities of Republicans believe that the election was rigged in favor of Joe Biden, and that a majority of Republicans — meaning tens of millions of Americans — believe that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the election. It is safe to say that today, Americans are living in alternate universes. For most of the country, we held an election, and Joe Biden won. He and Kamala Harris are now assembling their cabinet and preparing to take office on January 20th, as the Constitution provides. For those following Trump’s lead, he remains the rightful winner, and there is no such certainty of what will, or should, transpire next month. Speaking from the White House this week in a speech he posted on Facebook and described as the most important he has ever made, Donald Trump asserted that “If we are right about the fraud, Joe Biden can’t be President.”
George Washington might not have been able to imagine Donald Trump, but he did envision the situation that has transpired. Washington, along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, feared that the rise of political parties and the manipulation of partisan passions could lead to the undoing of the constitutional republic they had worked so hard to create. In his farewell address to the nation in 1797, Washington specifically warned that a group of people — “a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community” in his words — might succeed in leveraging heightened partisan passions to hijack a political party and use it as a vehicle — “an artificial and extraordinary force” as he described it — for pursuing their own interests “in the place of the delegated will of the nation.”
And so we are watching today. A major political party, animated by tribalism and stripped of the core principles for which it once stood, has become the tool and cudgel for one man and his family. It is a story that has played out throughout history in other countries; it just wasn’t supposed to happen here. Before our eyes, the transcendent notion that vox populi vox dei — the underpinning principle of democratic government that the voice of the people is the voice of God — is being put to the test by the President.
There was a brief moment this week when it appeared that the light of truth might pierce the reality distortion field that Trump has created around the election. Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia Republican election official — one of many local government officials in battleground states who will be recorded as the heroes of this moment — denounced the President, and his enablers in Congress, for continuing to rile up his supporters.
“It. Has. All. Gone. Too. Far. All of it.” Sterling began, standing before a phalanx of microphones, his voice shaking in anger. “Joe diGenova [a former US Attorney for the District of Columbia and a Trump campaign attorney] today asked for Chris Krebs, a patriot who ran CISA, to be shot. A 20-something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out, saying he should be hung for treason… Tricia [the wife of the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger] is getting sexualized threats through her cell phone. It. Has. To. Stop. This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this… Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed.”
Sterling’s press conference was reminiscent of a similar time in our history, when many across the nation’s capital cowered in fear of a bully, and a single person’s words broke the spell. That earlier moment came during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, when Joseph Welch publicly shamed Senator Joseph McCarthy for his reckless cruelty, with words widely credited with ending McCarthy’s reign of terror. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch admonished the Senator — and his 27-year-old chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who would go on to be Donald Trump’s cherished advisor. “Have you left no sense of decency?”
Of course, this is not the 1950s. Decency has no place in the Republican Party of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. Sterling’s words did nothing to shame the President, and his impassioned plea could not shake Congressional Republicans from their disgraceful silence. In today’s world, there is no shame and there are no confessions of complicity. Responding to Sterling’s reprimand, Trump tweeted a link to Sterling’s press event under the words “Rigged election,” and moved on.
To any dispassionate observer, the President’s efforts to overturn the election have quickly migrated from tragedy into farce, as he continues to move forward with claims of massive, systemic voter fraud despite his 1–41 record in lawsuits challenging state election results, and assertions by his own Attorney General, along with Chris Krebs, that no such fraud has been found. Most of the country is ready to move on, if only Trump would accept the will of the voters, as has the losing candidate in every presidential election since George Washington defeated John Adams in 1789. Yet, to suggest that Donald Trump is becoming a comical figure, a caricature of himself, is to ignore the enormous damage that he has done to the nation since it became apparent that he lost the election. What will come next remains to be seen; but if we have learned nothing else over the past four years, it is that we need to learn to imagine the unimaginable, as it may well be what happens over the weeks to come.
Trump’s speech from his bunker in the White House was a rambling forty-five minute tour de force of conspiracy theory, finger-pointing and self-pity, as he staked his claim once again that he was the rightful winner of the November election. In time-honored style of authoritarian demagogues, he wrapped himself in the flag: “If we don’t root out the fraud, the tremendous and horrible fraud that has taken place in the 2020 election, we don’t have a country anymore” — even as was doing his level best to undermine the future of the republic he had been elected to lead.
To watch that speech is to realize how close to the precipice we have come. As Trump spoke, it seemed as if at any given moment he wanted to give the call to arms that many of his supporters are clamoring for. Each time he paused in the speech and then began “Today I will …”, I fully expected that this was the moment when he would declare martial law, and suspend the Constitution, as suggested by his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
It didn’t happen, of course. But that does not mean it couldn’t. A few brief words are all it would take, and the future of the nation would be transformed.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.