There is a tendency in some quarters to look at the way our nation is surviving the death throes of the Trump administration and proclaim that the guardrails of democracy held. I’m not inclined at this moment to be so generous. Trump will fail in his efforts to reverse the results of the election, but only because of the incompetence of his legal team and the magnitude of the challenge. It wasn’t a close election, but had Biden turned out 12,000 fewer voters in Georgia, 20,000 fewer voters in Wisconsin and 10,000 fewer voters in Arizona, he would have won those states, respectively, by 670, 608 and 457 votes. That probably wouldn’t have been enough to overturn the results through recounts but it would have been well within the margin of chaos. And without those states clearly in the Biden column, the Electoral College would sit at a 269-269 tie and we would be in the early stages of a civil war. So if the guardrails held, it’s only because the road we were on was wide enough to withstand the driving of the narcissistic autocrat at the wheel. Next time could be different.
Looking ahead to the transfer of power ritual in January, it will be tempting to celebrate the system and marvel at our ability to dislodge a would-be dictator through democratic means. This celebration is warranted and important — it took extraordinarily hard work to push Trump out the door — but so is caution, for while we have reached a clearing in the woods there is still a long way left to travel. What we do next will determine if we have granted ourselves only a four-year reprieve from darkness or if we will be able to work through the massive generational, social, cultural and economic changes that could propel reactionary politics well into the 20s.
We can start by drawing constructive lessons from the Trump interregnum, the most important of which is that a president determined to use his office to undermine republican governance can be remarkably effective if he is supported by an anti-democratic political party and core supporters who embrace his actions. This means we cannot count on institutions to save us from the people who staff them or norms to save us from people who can discard them. We have to address the conditions that make right-wing populism appealing to tens of millions of people, reclaim political institutions that make it all too easy to disenfranchise voters and ignore the policy wishes of the majority, and alter the political calculus of those who can ignore norms and laws without paying a price.
Joe Biden will inherit the challenge of restoring the country and helping it through the aftershocks of the Trump years while addressing traumas old and new that could lead to a second bout with authoritarianism if the solutions he advances are misguided or insufficient. Plenty of people will no doubt chime in with their ideas about what should be done, and I’m going to join the chorus. In my view, in order to treat a wounded nation, Biden needs to address the following three gaping needs:
- Crisis Management: Like FDR during the Great Depression, Biden will take over from one of the most ineffectual presidents in history during a period of acute crisis. Unlike FDR, he will not have outsized congressional majorities to address the moment with bold legislation. Also unlike FDR, who faced the Depression and World War II in succession, Biden will have to confront multiple crises at once: the pandemic; economic dislocation caused by the pandemic; a long overdue reckoning on racial injustice; and a climate change crisis that bakes in more longterm catastrophe with every day it goes unaddressed. The shortest route to defusing the appeal of reactionary politics is to find a way to get government to work for a broadly defined public interest, but Biden will not have many partners in this pursuit and he will confront opponents who want and need to see him fail.
- Institutional Repair: Add to the above-mentioned crises a fifth equally pressing one — the crisis of broken political institutions. We risk a second rendezvous with Trumpism unless all people can vote freely and safely, unless the preferences of the majority can find a voice in government action, unless the legislative and judicial branches stop serving as a backstop for reactionary interests, and unless we find a way to embrace a common factual understanding of the world through reform of our fragmented media.
- Accountability: When the Biden justice department begins turning over rocks we may finally learn the extent of the criminal activity perpetrated by the outgoing administration against the people of the United States. What we already know about illegalities large and small — from disregard of emoluments and the Hatch Act to the vast criminal activity detailed in the Mueller report — is enough to justify establishing a Presidential Crimes Commission, although Biden has telegraphed his desire to downplay investigations of Trump and his cronies and will leave the matter in the hands of his Attorney General. This is entirely appropriate — the president should never be in the business of prosecuting his political opponents — as long as investigations are not sidestepped or whitewashed. Accountability is a necessary step in the healing process and essential to elevating the cost of enabling Trump or a future demagogue. It will also be seen as vengeance by the millions already primed to believe the 2020 election was stolen from them, so it has to be managed with care.
In three subsequent posts, I will consider what effective crisis management, institutional repair and accountability could look like, and why each is a necessary component of a healing agenda that would make it possible to keep our republic.