Bad week in Trumpland signals hope for American democracy

The last five years’ deluge of disinformation and discord make it easy to lose faith in democracy, something never helpful to preserving it. Just when many lamented the Republican pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago as signs of Trump’s iron-fisted hold on his party, his control visibly faltered last week. Earlier polling had already shown a slip.

Still, Trump’s bad week does not mean that it’s time for foes of authoritarianism to rejoice or for anyone to assume that American democracy is out of danger.

A loosening of Trump’s influence and new steps toward holding him accountable will mean little unless current efforts to enact the For the People Act, or a Manchin-style revision, can cross the goal line. As importantly, Congress needs to adopt the June 21 Senate bill to stop election subversion.

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If the measures in Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states this year allow partisans to exert control over which election officials count the 2022 and 2024 vote, the name of the Republican candidates will not matter. Our democratic republic will be at an end.

For the moment, though, let’s consider the week’s bad news for Trumpland:

  • On Friday, the DOJ reversed Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision to withhold Trump’s tax returns from a congressional committee overseeing IRS audits and exploring legislation to correct. Garland’s reversal is another sign that Trump no longer can simply get away with making up his own rules and defying long standing norms.

Outside of Trumpland, all this is good news — both for accountability and for the possibility that the Republican Party may still be able to fill the country’s need for a conservative-moderate party that is not off the rails in support of delusional extremism.

While progressives have made gains in capturing public support in recent years, the country remains, at heart, moderate to conservative in its politics.

The persuadable middle remains vital to governing the country, as the week’s progress on the infrastructure bill shows. Critically, the bill was kept alive by lobbying from an old-school, moderate-conservative business-labor coalition.

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While celebrating pro-democracy events, it is good to keep in mind that even the Founders constantly lost faith in the experiment they had launched in their lab at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Yet our country has survived the traumas of Civil War, Jim Crow, the Father Coughlins and Charles Lindberghs who would have aligned us with Nazi Germany, and the Sen. Joseph McCarthys who would have imposed his orthodoxy on our political thought.

Last week’s developments offer a glimmer of hope that we will survive Trump too.

To do so, Congress must act to protect the vote and preserve the integrity of our elections.

The key for citizens is never to shy away from facing the brutal truth of our current difficulties, while not allowing it to rob us of faith. As Winston Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the total about of the Senate infrastructure bill 17 Republicans voted to move forward: $1 trillion.

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America's death penalty, including "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty." Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel at the Renne Public Law Group in San Francisco.