Democracy's stress test: We survived the worst of Trumpism

Democracy's stress test: We survived the worst of Trumpism
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When asked about Republican control of the House in 1994, I answered that as a gay, left-handed Jew I was used to being in the minority. I now have an addition to that list: I believe the outcome of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE’s malign, ridiculous assault on the election results is evidence not of the fragility of our democracy but of its durability.

To the charge that I am minimizing the seriousness of the parade of horribles that culminated in the “Trumpling” of the venue where the voting math was stored, my response is that it's precisely the depths to which Trump and his minions plunged which convince me that the pro-democratic forces in our country are strong today and will get stronger.

Most important is that the increasingly desperate schemes of the Trump-Giuliani-Hawley-Cruz-QAnon alliance to subvert democracy never came close to succeeding.


From the unbroken string of legal defeats inflicted on them by Trump- and non-Trump-appointed judges alike, through the universally failed efforts to strongarm Republican state officials to lie about the election’s results, to the unsuccessful pressure on Republican state legislative leaders to usurp Constitutional powers, and ending with the spectacularly counterproductive effort to prevent Congress from registering the results, at no point did this contemporary version of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” pose any real threat to Joe Biden’s inauguration.

This is not just good news about today. It augurs very well for the future.

Among the concepts with which I had to become familiar after the 2008-2009 financial crisis was the banking “stress test.” This consists of constructing scenarios in which terrible conditions prevail to see if financial (or other) institutions can survive.

In recent weeks and months, our political system has gone far beyond passing a very difficult stress test. It has emerged unbroken from a stressful reality with conditions so dismal that it would have been dismissed as excessively gloomy, had it been put forward as a hypothetical by regulators.

Our political system just withstood an all-out assault by a maniacally deluded president in a society that has been beset by a debilitating pandemic with its devastating economic and social impacts, in which one of our two major political parties was largely complicit — all facilitated by untrammeled access to social media. I cannot imagine any greater threat to democracy that does not involve heavily armed alien-beings and the endowment of Trump supporters Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiBob Dole: 'I'm a Trumper' but 'I'm sort of Trumped out' Ex-Trump adviser Barrack charged with secretly lobbying for UAE Aides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book MORE and Michael Flynn with superpowers.


Nor is it plausible to argue that our escape from the abyss was fortuitous, a series of happy endings to events that easily could have ended badly. The attempted putsch of Jan. 6 was a total failure because of a combination of several strengths — and one weakness — that are firmly embedded in our existing reality.

The most compelling point is that the commitment of the majority of Americans to our constitutional processes has survived the turmoil of the past decade. That majority is regrettably smaller than the near-unanimity it has enjoyed, but it still is clearly large enough so that the more blatantly anti-democratic Trump’s crusade became, the more unpopular it was.

Going forward, it is the continued strong support of a large majority of voters that has created the dilemma for Republican politicians who face a choice between losing primaries to hard-core Trump supporters or losing general elections to candidates who support genuine democracy.

Next in importance is the steadfast loyalty of the military to democratic rule. Fear that there would be ambivalence or worse from the leaders of the armed forces was never well-founded, and it now stands as one of the clearest lines of demarcation between America and societies that have succumbed to authoritarianism.

Next is a facet of human experience that is not peculiar to America — in fact, it was most famously misstated by an Englishman. In modern democratic societies, Lord Acton’s assertion that power corrupts has been more often the opposite of the truth than the expression of it. It is the absence of power that encourages irresponsibility. Politicians who lack the ability to affect events are shielded by that very impotence from the charge that their advocacy has had adverse consequences.

While a majority of Republican federal officeholders either actively tried to corrupt the electoral process or were complicit in that effort, they were, overwhelmingly, those who had no real power. Contra Lord Acton, Republicans with true power — on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, in Republican-run states like Georgia or Arizona, and among Republican leaders of state legislatures — did their constitutional duty.

The last source of my optimism for the future is a weakness. Specifically, it is the false bravado of the Trump minions whose attempted insurrection ended not with a bang but with whimpers: “Please don’t arrest me; Trump made me do it; I was just there to observe; I didn't know it was illegal, etc.”

We cannot count on them always being intimidated into total inaction, as they were on Inauguration Day, and it is sad that our leaders will have to live with added security measures for some time to come. But the people to whom Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Polling misfired in 2020 — and that's a lesson for journalists and pundits Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe MORE was too kind when she called them “deplorables” are, ironically, a threat to the preservation of the very “law and order” that they claim to support — but not at all to the survival of democracy.

There is a danger ahead — not that the results of free elections will be disregarded, but that they will be fully executed. Despite a growing majority of voters opposing intolerant populism, the Electoral College balance between the two approaches to governance is ominously slim.

But here as well the impact of the last year will be to bolster democracy. The combination of the renewed appreciation of the positive role of government, evident in strong public support for COVID-19 relief, and the self-inflicted ongoing weakening of the Republican Party, together give President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE a better chance than his two Democratic predecessors to enact policies that diminish the anger that has fueled the populist surge.

Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.