The Memo

The Memo: The pre-Trump ‘normal’ is gone for good

One big question about former President Trump now has an answer — and it’s an alarming one for his critics.

In the later days of his presidency, his foes debated whether politics would snap back to normal if he lost his bid for a second term.

Some feared he had wrought permanent change on the political landscape. Others viewed his tumultuous presidency as a toxic aberration that might be neutralized soon after he left the White House.

So far, it looks like the first camp got it right.

Trump is almost six months removed from the Oval Office, but Democrats are warning of an all-sirens-blaring emergency for American democracy. And a group of academic experts declared on Tuesday that they agree.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison warned during a Tuesday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Republican laws that would tighten access to the ballot were just one element making this “one of those break-the-glass moments because our democracy really is in balance.”

After Republicans quashed a proposed commission into the Jan. 6 insurrection last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) lamented that “Donald Trump’s big lie has now fully enveloped the Republican Party. Trump’s big lie is now the defining principle of what was once the party of Lincoln.”

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told this column that the health of American democracy had gotten no better in the wake of Trump’s defeat.

“In some ways, I think it is worse because now it is very clear that you have much of one of the two political parties that is basically pursuing an agenda that is hostile to democracy,” he said.

Diamond was one of many academics who signed on to a “Statement of Concern” that was released Tuesday through the left-leaning New America group. The signatories described themselves as “scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm.”

They point to ballot restrictions, a failure to repudiate Trump’s fiction that the 2020 election was stolen from him and efforts to politicize election administration as among the warning signs.

To that list, Democrats would add Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric as well as that of his allies. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared to indicate support for a coup during an appearance at a QAnon-linked conference over the weekend. He later denied that was his intent.

Meanwhile, a poll last week from the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that a startling 28 percent of Republican voters agreed with the statement that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to “save” the country.

It’s very far removed from what some Democrats — including President Biden — had hoped for following Trump’s ouster.

Back in May 2019, only one month into his presidential campaign, Biden suggested that a defeat for Trump would lead Republican lawmakers to have a Damascene conversion.

“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke,” Biden said at a New Hampshire diner. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

Instead, the only epiphany many Republicans appear to have undergone is one in which they realize how inextricably their own fortunes are bonded with those of the 45th president.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a leading anti-Trump voice, has been banished from House leadership. Ultra-loyalists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have raked in fundraising dollars. Party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have quieted the criticisms they made of Trump in the immediate wake of the insurrection.

Some Democrats believe Republicans will bear an electoral price for their support of Trump.

“Republicans are so busy playing with a part of their base that they are forgetting about the rest of the country,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told this column. 

Pocan compared GOP behavior toward Trump to trying to control the back-and-forth of a seesaw.

“At some point, Trump’s popularity wanes,” Pocan predicted. “At some point that seesaw hits a point where, instead of being in control of it, your butt hits the ground.”

But some of the academics who signed Tuesday’s petition see it differently. They argue that Trump’s critics overestimated the degree to which his defeat would vaporize the volatile forces he had harnessed.  

“I think of Donald Trump primarily as a symptom rather than a cause of democratic dysfunction,” said Professor Larry Bartels, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.

“The fact that so many ordinary people have been willing to follow him so far is a telling indication of how politically polarized our society has become. The fact that so many political elites have been willing to follow him so far is even more telling, and even more unhealthy,” Bartels added. 

“However, if he had not come along to play the role he has played, someone else almost certainly would have — and if he disappears from the scene, someone else almost certainly will.”

Professor Jennifer McCoy of Georgia State University, also among the signatories to Tuesday’s statement, said that the situation the nation faces is “very serious.”

She noted her own work looking at what happened when polarizing “strongman” leaders lost power in Latin American nations. Much depended on the direction the ex-leader’s party took after his departure, she said.

“The polarizing figure, if they continue to play a role outside of government, they can continue the polarization,” she said. “And certainly we are seeing that here as well.”

Republicans and conservatives balk at all the talk of democracy facing an existential crisis.

McConnell, speaking to reporters in his native Kentucky on Tuesday, said that a commission into the events of Jan. 6 is “simply … not necessary.” Law enforcement investigations ensured that “nobody is going to get away with anything,” he said.

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Tuesday complained that Democrats were engaging in “overheated rhetoric” in their warnings about the likely effects of a proposed election law in Texas — a bill that was only derailed at the last minute when a Democratic walkout from the state House deprived proceedings of a quorum.

Even some Democrats suggest that the predictions of doom about American democracy can get a little overwrought.

Pocan said that an expansion of voting rights was “in the top five” things his party needed to do, along with passing a budget and making continued efforts to improve the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it came to warnings that the political system faced imminent peril, however, he was more sanguine.

“You know, most of that is coming from the political class in Washington, D.C., and state capitals,” he said. “Yes, there are people, unfortunately, who believe some of the QAnon conspiracy stuff and who believe the election was somehow rigged, thanks to Donald Trump and others saying it. But I think those are declining numbers and they are not nearly as intense as the rhetoric from the political class.”

Others strike a far more ominous tone.

McCoy warned that the polarization Trump provoked has seeped into almost every crevice of American life.

“Now it is in the society, it is in our social relationships, it is not just political anymore,” she said. “Our polarization has divided families, divided organizations, divided which information sources we will view. And that is very much more difficult in the longer term.”

Diamond, of the Hoover Institution, took an even darker view.

“I thought that we could agree to at least respect the results of an election, even if we were going to argue about everything leading up to them. But it’s like there are elementary lines of consensus that are taken for granted in any stable, successful liberal democracy, and they are all kind of evaporating now,” he said.

“Everything we thought we could take for granted, it seems we can’t.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2020 election Charles Schumer Democracy Donald Trump Jaime Harrison Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Marjorie Taylor Greene Mark Pocan Mitch McConnell political legacy Trump era voting rights

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