George Washington’s Worst Nightmare


October 4th, 2016 – Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Photo by Gage Skidmore | Wikipedia Commons)

October 4th, 2016 – Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Photo by Gage Skidmore | Wikipedia Commons)

“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 – despite accomplishments for which he may wish to be remembered – is working diligently to ensure that 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. Liberal democracy, however, is supposed to be forever: the highest and best achievement of human society. As Barack Obama describes so eloquently in his new book, America has been a beacon of democratic promise for more than two centuries, not because of the circumstances of life 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. Even before he was elected president, Trump was a disruptive force who flouted established norms of civility, and throughout his tenure, he has taken a sledgehammer to our core democratic institutions whenever it served his purposes. However, his most destructive actions are occurring before our very eyes. Nothing is more harmful – and perhaps 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 against his own government in 1851. Like Trump, the aristocratic Bonaparte fashioned himself a working-class hero. He successfully leveraged his support among the working class and 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 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 he was democratically elected at a time when Germany was struggling to build a democracy. Once in office, he used legal means – along with the rage and resentments of his supporters – to transform Germany into a totalitarian state.

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. The parallel with Louis-Napoléon looms large, however. 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 observers 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 people’s vote after apparently deciding that being co-conspirators in a latter-day anti-democratic putsch would not be good for business. This left 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:

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. He insisted that a widespread conspiracy along the lines that Powell and Swan described did indeed deprive him of a massive electoral landslide. Of course, embracing a conspiracy theory is par for the course for Donald Trump, including around elections . The rigged-election conspiracy narrative is one that he cultivated during his 2016 campaign. However, this time around, he worked diligently from early in the election season to prime 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. Over the past several weeks, polls have consistently shown that large majorities of Republicans believe that the election was rigged in favor of Joe Biden. Additionally, most Republicans – meaning tens of millions of Americans – think 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. George 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 warned that a group of people – “a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community” – might succeed in leveraging heightened partisan passions to hijack a political party and use it as a vehicle,“an artificial and extraordinary force,” 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. 

This week, there was a brief moment 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, denounced the President and his enablers in Congress for continuing to rile up his supporters.

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. Sterling’s words did nothing to shame the President, and his impassioned plea could not shake Congressional Republicans from their silence. 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. Trump 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 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 imagine the unimaginable. That may well be what we will witness in the weeks to come.

Trump’s speech from the White House was a rambling 45-minute tour de force of conspiracy theories, finger-pointing, and self-pity as he staked his claim once again that he was the rightful winner of the November election. In the 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.”

To watch that speech is to realize how close to the precipice we have come. As Trump spoke, it seemed as if he was on the verge of giving 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 going to be the moment when he would declare martial law and suspend the Constitution. 

It didn’t happen, of course. But that does not mean it couldn’t. A few brief words are all it would take, and our nation’s future would be transformed.

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