The 2020 election and Trump presidency are stress tests for American democracy and its first principles of freedom, equality and democratic elections. In our democracy, an enlightened citizenry, informed by a free press, renders its judgment and a losing incumbent peacefully transfers power to a new president.
The transfer of power has happened so many times we take it for granted. Yet, with this self-absorbed man in the White House nothing can be taken for granted.
Will the pillars of this freest and most successful democracy in history withstand this one man’s assaults on values, customs and norms that have made our republic an example to the world? Will they withstand his four-year assault on truth during which he has set loose upon the world a Pandora’s box of 20,000 lies?
The great story of American democracy is the ever-growing equality, freedom and enfranchisement that have turned a nation of propertied white slave owners into a land where every man and woman has a piece of sovereignty – that piece of sovereignty being the ballot.
The ever-expanding temple of democracy rests on the pillars of five remarkable stories of nation-building, all of which Trump works against.
1. The 400-year fight against slavery, segregation, lynching, discrimination and racism has brought legal equality to Blacks. Yet the knee on the neck of George Floyd showed true equality is elusive especially with Trump calling Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” while pleading with suburban women to love him for saving their suburbs from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
2. The centuries-long expansion of suffrage transformed a country founded by propertied white men into a nation of near universal suffrage. The 15th and 19th amendments and the Voting Rights Act paved the way. Yet the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act and GOP-controlled states continue to this day to disenfranchise voters based on Trumpian fictions about voter fraud. Trump is even planning to change reapportionment to base it on voters, not all people.
3. Women’s Suffrage and the women’s rights movement stopped schools from firing pregnant teachers and employers from paying women less. Advocates for LGBTQ rights won their own victories against sex discrimination, including same-sex marriage. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrought many of the changes. Yet Trump brands strong women nasty or monsters and the Equal Rights Amendment’s simple statement of legal equality remains unfinished business that will stay unfinished with another Trump term.
4. The Statue of Liberty’s invitation to the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” gradually led to a nation of immigrants living up to the E Pluribus Unum motto on the Great Seal of the United States. Yet Trump built a wall and branded many immigrants as drug dealers, rapists and criminals. He used that language of hate again in the final presidential debate just days before the election.
5. Over the past century the First Amendment has become a powerful shield protecting free speech, freedom of religion and the press from government interference. The press became a fourth estate to check the Congress and president when they lie about wars, weapons of mass destruction and pandemics. Yet Trump invents an alternative universe of false information as he wars against the legitimate news organizations he calls “enemies of the people.”
Without this national story of ever-expanding freedom, equality, diversity and enfranchisement, America would be a false promise. The greatness of our nation isn’t the freedom and equality that existed at our founding but the ever-growing freedom, equality and enfranchisement won by wars, rights movements and votes.
The thing is that this republic only works smoothly when all of these elements are working together. Everyone – man, woman, gay, straight, Black, white, Republican, Democrat, old, young, rich, poor – must have a vote and must feel they have an equal stake. The free press must sort facts from fictions to inform an enlightened citizenry to make the best democratic decisions.
But this election is different. These past four years have been different.
Unlike any other president, Donald J. Trump threatens to arrest his opponent, his last opponent and his predecessor for invented crimes that not even his lapdog attorney general will prosecute. These desperate actions follow four years of evading investigation, obstructing justice and flouting the rule of law by freeing henchmen convicted of crimes related to the last election.
Unlike every other president Trump won’t promise to turn over power if he is beaten, instead threatening weeks or months of court challenges on a Supreme Court he just packed. That is the act we expect from a tinhorn dictator in some remote corner of the globe, not of a U.S. president.
Unlike every other president Trump freely spreads false claims about his opponents. Recently he retweeted the claim Joe Biden “had SEAL Team 6 killed” to cover up President Obama’s supposedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden. Trump admitted he did not have proof because there is no proof. He said he was just getting “it out there.” Journalist Savannah Guthrie reminded him he was president, not a “crazy uncle.”
Unlike every other president, Trump has flatly called fake news real and real news fake. When it was reported that he had ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump called it fake, even though McGahn said it was true.
Unlike every other president he has appeased the Russian dictator, finding it impossible to criticize President Vladimir Putin for interfering with our elections or for placing bounties on the heads of U.S. troops.
Unlike every other president, the most respected leaders of his party and his highest appointments say he is unfit for office. Read the words of Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Powell, and Bolton. The military leaders whom Trump once called “my generals” aren’t taking orders any longer.
Unlike every other president who praised war heroes, this president ridiculed them. In a fit of anger he complained about having to fly the flag at half-staff for the late Sen. John McCain, a true war hero idolized by Democrats and Republicans.
Unlike every other president who released his tax returns, Trump didn’t. He’s claimed in TV debates for four years that he really wants to release them, even as he has fought in court to keep them secret. Turned out he paid only $750 the year he was elected, less than tens of millions of hard-working Americans who voted for him.
Unlike every other president, Trump continued to profit from his businesses while serving as president, even trying to force world leaders to meet at his resorts. In fact, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted negotiating with Putin’s aides for a Trump tower in Moscow until a few months before the 2016 election. Cohen went to prison for lying about it to Congress, but Trump blithely went on making money and ignoring the Constitution’s prohibition of emoluments.
Unlike every other president, this man uses the bully pulpit of his Twitter account to actually bully Blacks, women, Hispanics, immigrants, black professional athletes, female athletes, Gold Star parents. He insulted hundreds of people on Twitter and told more than 20,000 lies, by the Washington Post’s count, with the rate of lies doubling this past summer.
Unlike every other president, this president when faced with the national crisis of Covid-19 has failed to bring people together but has instead separated them by floating false information about ineffective cures and by ridiculing those who take safety precautions such as wearing masks. He lies again and again about the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci on masks and repeatedly pressures scientists to bend to his political will.
And then there is this man’s indecency. He brags about the way he assaults women, calls women who complain about his assaults liars and writes checks while in the White House to reimburse his lawyer for hush-money to an adult entertainer who said she had sex with him.
Oh, and don’t forget there were some good people among the torch carrying Nazis in Charlottesville, or that the Proud Boys should “stand by,” or that Q Anon is working hard against pedophelia when it is falsely claiming top Democrats are operating a sex ring. And yes, lock her up – the her this year being Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, even if that’s what the 14 Michigan militia members were trying to do as part of their terror plot.
But there is nothing so disturbing as the president’s ineptitude during the Covid crisis and its 220,000 deaths. Trump stubbornly refused to get the message, even after he got sick himself after ignoring his experts’ safety guidelines.
The 220,000 death toll is more than five times the battlefield deaths in Vietnam and approaches the 290,000 battlefield deaths in World War II when losses reached into every American community and altered the lives of families forever. That’s happening again today but there is no FDR.
And, yes, World War II is another lesson Trump refuses to learn as he offends European allies, cuddles up to dictators, supports Saudi leaders who cover up the torture and murder of a U.S. journalist and undermines the carefully constructed world alliances created to avoid a World War III.
The question is whether the temple of democracy can stand when the president is undermining all its pillars – fighting against expanded suffrage, against racial equity, against women’s rights, against immigrant rights, against reliable news organizations, against the rule of law, against the post-World War II order, against free elections and the peaceful transfer of power.
If all these pillars are weakened can the temple of democracy stand? And if there are four more years of this unprecedented assault on the American story, will we still be the freest most successful democracy in history?
William H. Freivogel is the publisher of GJR, a former editorial page deputy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and contributes to St. Louis Public Radio. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.