Trump’s Dangerous Attacks on Democracy

Trump continues his campaign of sabotage against democratic institutions as Inauguration Day approaches.

America’s democratic project has always been tenuous. Our past is riddled with examples of why we can’t yet lay claim to being a fully democratic republic. Women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Black Americans didn’t win the right to vote in practice until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Both fought long and hard civil rights struggles which continue to this day.

Our institutions continue to be less-than-strong democratic pillars. Republicans continue to enjoy a significant structural advantage in a gerrymandered U.S. House, the Electoral College, and a Senate which gives disproportionate political power to small states. However, Donald Trump’s attack on democratic institutions, from the courts to our entire election system, is unprecedented in modern American history. This attack on democracy threatens to destroy already tenuous democratic institutions and norms. Social progress and civil rights rely on strong democratic institutions and that is exactly why Trump and the right-wing are attempting to destroy them.

Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s 2016 campaign CEOs and his Chief Strategist at the White House (January  – August 2017), called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” shortly after Trump was inaugurated in February 2017.

Bannon described part of what he had in mind in this CNN article:

If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation in — in an agency. That’s all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.

The Trump presidency consisted of four tumultuous years of stacking federal agencies and institutions with loyalists, some of which had close to no knowledge of the agency they were appointed to head, with the intention of stripping these institutions and agencies of their effectiveness. 

But we now see that this deconstruction went far beyond a few agencies. The aim of Bannon and the Trump Administration was the deconstruction of Ameircan democracy, because this is the only way they can force through their unpopular, authoritarian agenda and remain in power.

So, we arrive at the 2020 election. After trailing in the polls during the entire campaign, Trump spent the last few months of the campaign delegitimizing our election system, claiming that any Democratic win would be the result of voter fraud.

After the November 3rd election, Trump lawyers launched a massive litigation campaign aimed at overturning the results of elections in numerous battleground states. Lawyer Marc Elias keeps track of Trump’s lawsuits on Twitter. Elias notes that as of Dec 5th, Trump had lost 46 out of 47 lawsuits.

While these lawsuits likely won’t overturn election results, the constant drumbeat of baseless election fraud allegations is affecting public opinion in a dangerous way. According to a Reuters poll conducted Nov 13 – 17:

Fifty-two percent of Republicans said that Trump “rightfully won,” while only 29% said that Biden had rightfully won.

Asked why, Republicans were much more concerned than others that state vote counters had tipped the result toward Biden: 68% of Republicans said they were concerned that the election was “rigged,” while only 16% of Democrats and one-third of independents were similarly worried.

It’s not unusual for the losing side to question the legitimacy of the other side’s victory, as the Washington Post notes. The difference this year is that a sitting president has not conceded defeat, claims that he won in a landslide, is calling for election results in multiple states to be overturned, and is continuing baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. These claims coming from a president have the potential to foster enormous distrust in our democratic institutions, or worse. 

Trump’s attacks aren’t aimed solely at the election system. He’s looking ahead to after he’s forced from office in January, where he aims to continue to delegitimize President-elect Biden’s administration. 

On December 1, it was revealed that Attorney General Bill Barr is putting those plans into place: According to the AP:

Attorney General William Barr has given extra protection to the prosecutor he appointed to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, granting him authority to complete the work without being easily fired.

Barr told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he had appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham as a special counsel in October under the same federal regulations that governed special counsel Robert Mueller in the original Russia probe. He said Durham’s investigation has been narrowing to focus more on the conduct of FBI agents who worked on the Russia investigation, known by the code name of Crossfire Hurricane.

How “narrow” Durham’s investigations stay once the Biden administration is sworn in remains to be seen. But should he decide to hobble the new administration with a broadening investigation, Barr has already made it more difficult to get rid of Durham. 

The AP continues:

Under the regulations, a special counsel can be fired only by the attorney general and for specific reasons such as misconduct, dereliction of duty or conflict of interest. An attorney general must document such reasons in writing.

In this situation, the Biden administration would be faced with either giving in to prolonged investigations by Durham, ignoring Durham’s legal requests and appearing as though they may have something to hide, or even attempting to fire Durham altogether, which Barr has now made more difficult. Either way, Trump’s legacy of delegitimizing and damaging our democratic institutions will last well past his last days in office.

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