It will be a miracle if American democracy survives this election

The American republic is in decline before our eyes. The principles on which it is based – that votes should be respected, that the law should be applied equally, that no one is greater than the Constitution – are changing one by one.

Both Donald Trump’s conviction and the response to it show a country where two parties start with their desired outcome and then reason backwards. The process is subordinate to the outcome – an attitude that is ultimately incompatible with liberal democracy.

I’ll get to the flaws in the lawsuit in a moment. But first let me ask a question to those MAGA activists who are screaming bloody murder about the verdict. Suppose you were to travel back in time ten years and say to yourself from 2014, “Ten years from now, you’ll argue that it’s fine for your candidate to pay off a porn star and then lie about it, provided there’s no technical violation campaign finance rules.” How do you think your younger self would react?

Ten years ago, today’s levels of polarization were difficult to imagine. Americans were aware that they lived in a free country. They understood that this meant loss at times. They taught their children to be loyal to the constitution over any party or faction. They had learned for themselves that their nation, born of a revolt against arbitrary rule, was intended to prevent the concentration of power; that it was, in the beautiful words of John Adams, “a government of laws and not of men.”

However, laws in themselves are not enough. A free society also rests on conventions, precedents and unwritten rules. The losers are expected to accept the outcome, the winners are expected to show restraint. Supporters of other parties should be treated as opponents and not as enemies. Compromise should be appreciated as a way to ensure national unity, and not as a sign of weakness.

At some point in the past decade, these norms were abandoned and politics became an all-or-nothing affair, in which any victory for the other side was considered cataclysmic. To some extent, a similar process is playing out in other advanced democracies – witness the under-reported rise of the authoritarian right in Europe. But Trump, both the catalyst and the beneficiary of the process, has taken things further in the US.

In 2016 and 2020, before a single vote had taken place, he declared that the only way he could lose was through fraud. In a healthy polity, those words alone should have disqualified him from serious consideration. In a democracy, there should be an electoral penalty for anti-democracy. But that treaty was also lost.

What is Trump’s superpower? He is not an orator. He never served in uniform. He’s like a toddler in his neediness, his self-centeredness, his whiny insistence that he has actually won. The stories he tells are best described by Shakespeare’s Prince Hal: “These lies are like their father who begets them – coarse as a mountain, open, tangible.”

No, what sets him apart is his willingness to go low. In a crowd, the man who comes out on top is often not the strongest, but he is the one most willing to fight dirty, to throw punches when others won’t.

As someone who loves the United States, I have come to this conclusion reluctantly, but there is no way around it. The qualities that attract Trump’s fans are precisely those that should be most abhorrent: his lies, his boasting, his cruelty. This is what his supporters have in mind when they talk about “taking off the gloves” and “saying what others won’t say” and “owning the libs.”

As incredible as it may seem to outsiders, Trump’s appeal rests on his character, not his policies. Ron DeSantis contested the Republican primaries that offered Trump’s platform, prepared by the same team, but with greater competence. Nobody wanted to know.

Three times, Republican primaries have chosen a man the Founding Fathers had in mind when they designed their checks and balances, a man they would have seen as a second-rate Caesarist who subordinates his public office to his private interests. It was up to voters to defend the most fundamental republican principle of all, that their national institutions are greater than the man who passes through them. They failed.

That brings us to the current crisis. The electorate’s lack of interest in character or democratic integrity led some anti-Trumpsters to resort to the rule of law, trying to win through the courts what they could not win at the urns. The various charges they have filed against the former president – ​​not just the hush money case, but also cases involving the alleged unlawful removal of documents from the White House and the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol – show him in a terrible situation. light. But that doesn’t mean he broke the law.

I wish Trump had been stopped during the primaries, but this conviction is a travesty. The case was brought by an elected prosecutor who vowed to go after the former president and was heard by jurors in an anti-Trump part of New York. Trump’s belief rested on the idea that he paid hush money only for electoral advantage — in other words, that he wouldn’t have paid it anyway.

There are, as this case shows, real problems in the American criminal justice system. But here’s the thing. The law must apply to everyone equally. It is precisely the bad laws that should apply to the most powerful people in the country, otherwise there will be no incentive to reform them.

Trump’s supporters do not advocate wholesale reform of the criminal justice system. They merely claim that this particular case was, in the words of Senator Marco Rubio, a “sham trial” engineered by “Marxists and the far left.”

Well, maybe it was. But let’s look at what Trumpsters said when the shoe was on the other foot.

“She shouldn’t be running,” Trump said of Hillary Clinton in 2016, fantasizing about a case against her. “If she wins, it would trigger an unprecedented constitutional crisis. In that situation, we could very well have a sitting president charged with a felony and ultimately face a criminal trial. It would bring the government to a standstill.”

Trump himself is now not only under indictment but a convicted felon, and if anything it has boosted his standing in the polls somewhat. Instead of being chastised, Trump continues to demand that those who cross him be locked up.

Little by little, the United States is beginning to resemble a Central American banana republic, where presidents who lose office expect to be jailed by their successors. The problem is not just that the justice system is being politicized; it is that the American people welcome this process as they turn against their opponents.

Perhaps we are seeing the impact of the geographic clustering that makes Democrats and Republicans strangers to each other. Perhaps it is the tribalism encouraged by identity politics. Or perhaps we’re witnessing the consequences of screen addiction, leaving people grumpier, more gullible, and with shorter attention spans.

Whatever the cause, the effect is clear to us. Americans have lost interest in the institutions that made their country great and free.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” said Ben Franklin as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787. But can you do that too, cousins? Can you?

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