What Is Donald Trump?
During the 2016 presidential primaries, many people thought Donald Trump was a “narcissistic, incompetent, misogynistic, racist, dishonest clown” — the words I used in my recent Washington Post review of The Big Cheat, a new book by veteran journalist and Trump-watcher David Cay Johnston. After winning the general election, Trump changed. He still had the same personal attributes, but the power of the White House made him a constant threat to American interests abroad, which he seemed willing to subordinate to his extended family’s quest for lucre, and to the lives of Americans at home, which he so blithely sacrificed to a pandemic he long refused to acknowledge. Today, however, he is something yet more terrifying.
Donald Trump has always had a special gift for infuriating members of the reality-based community — and the grammar-based community, the decency-based community, and the logic-based community, for that matter. Our attitudes toward him tend to be a mixture of incomprehension, frustration, and mockery: Boasting about passing a dementia screen! Covfefe! Drinking bleach! It’s easy to make fun of the clown. But that’s not what we should be doing today.
The Big Cheat doesn’t focus on the clown, although Trump’s ridiculous characteristics are amply on display. The book focuses more on Trump as president: collecting money from foreign officials via the Old Post Office hotel, making nice with politicians in countries where the Trump Organization had development projects underway, handing out tax breaks to large corporations and rich business owners, and surrounding himself with cronies who used their time in Washington to pad their own nests. There are stories and details that will be new to anyone except the most dedicated Trump watcher.
If that had been all there was to Donald Trump, however, the nightmare would have ended on January 20, 2021. America has recovered from a lot; we could have survived four years of Emoluments Clause violations. And since he left office, it is true that there has been a lot less abuse of power going on.
In the book review, I tried to identify what it is that makes Trump so significant— probably the most important historical figure of the century so far. Really, there’s one big thing: the possible end of democracy. If you think that’s an overstatement, go read Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic. Back in 2009, the article that made my co-author Simon Johnson famous was “The Quiet Coup,” also in The Atlantic. (It got a million page views, back when that was an achievement.) The title of that article was a metaphor. In three years we could see the real thing.
The basic problem we face today is the product of a structural weakness and an immediate crisis. In any democracy, someone has to count the votes. The particular weakness of American democracy is that state legislatures get to determine how their states’ electoral votes are determined, which means that a legislature could simply decide that it alone — the legislators, that is — can choose the electors. No state has done this yet, but several are doing the equivalent through less blatant means, typically by giving the legislature control over key nodes in the vote-counting process such as electoral boards, and the current Supreme Court is unlikely to protest. And so we are paying the price for decades of Democratic Party inattention to local and state races: Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s mansion in Georgia and Arizona, as well as the legislature in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (three states where the governor will be elected in 2022).
The immediate crisis is that a significant minority of Americans live in an alternative universe where the 2020 presidential election was stolen — enough, even with a weakened Donald Trump and thanks to the awesome power of Facebook, to demand that Republican politicians do everything they can to seal the outcome of the next election well in advance of 2024. In 1994 and 2010, fear of Hillarycare and “death panels” was enough for Republicans to win sweeping victories in the midterm elections; imagine what the “Big Lie” will do for them next year.
Which raises the question: What can we do? I’m not sure. Joe Biden won the 2020 popular vote by 7 million popular votes, and that was barely enough; change 46,000 votes and Trump would have won the tiebreaker in the House of Representatives. For Republicans not to use procedural means to flip the election — simply declare that voting process in some heavily Democratic city was flawed, nullifying the election and leaving the electoral votes up to the legislature — the Democratic candidate will have to win by a lot more than 7 million votes. It could happen, but those are daunting odds if the American democracy is at stake.
If we don’t get those votes, what are our options? We could protest, but there will be an army of wannabe Kyle Rittenhouses out with their AR-15s. More important, if Republican-controlled election officials simply use their statutory powers to invalidate results, the judiciary will go along, especially with a Supreme Court bought into the idea of legislative supremacy. And while I don’t think the armed forces would have supported a Trump coup on January 6, I think they will support a Republican Senate when it counts the votes of electors chosen either by disregarding urban votes or by state legislatures directly.
Here’s one alternative: We could all register as Republicans and vote for Larry Hogan or some other anti-Trump conservative in the primaries. That would probably split the Grand Old Party, and the Trumpists would have their own party in 2028, but it would buy us four more years. That might be enough time for the demographic cavalry (the youth vote, that is — Republicans are making inroads among ethnic minorities) to arrive. Or for Trumpism to implode, although I wouldn’t bet on it: few people thought the clown could run the circus for as long as he has.