Is American democracy already over?
Signs, signs, everywhere signs.
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A few years ago, around the end of the Trump Administration, I wrote a piece for The Week that posed a question that’s been burning in my mind for a few years now:
Will we know it when American democracy has ended?
The question has taken on a new urgency for me this week, because of the FBI’s search at Donald Trump’s residence in Florida. The former president’s allies in the GOP and on Fox News — and in the less-respectable precincts of the Internet — have exploded in rage and threats of violence and vengeance. These are scary times.
My friend and former colleague Damon Linker has been warning for awhile now against prosecuting Trump — despite what appears to be manifest evidence of myriad crimes — because he thinks our fragile country can’t handle the blowback.
I’d love to see Trump punished for any acts that broke the law, both for the sake of justice and in order to deter future acts of political treachery. The problem is that this is a polity, not a graduate seminar in Kantian ethics. If only one of the country’s two major parties accepts the legitimacy of prosecuting a former (and possibly future) president, then the rule of law will not be vindicated, only Democrats will think that justice has been done, and no future bad actors will be deterred. Rather than healing the country’s civic wounds, the effort to punish Trump will only deepen them.
Or, as he put it more succinctly in a tweet:
My position comes down to this:
Democracy can’t survive NOT prosecuting Donald Trump.
Democracy probably also can’t survive prosecuting Donald Trump.
If both these things are true — and man, I kind of think they are — then we have something of an answer to the question I posed at the outset. And it’s not a happy one.
The reason I asked the question, is because it seemed to me that one of the likeliest paths forward — after Trump made it clear he wouldn’t leave the White House peacefully — was that we’d have the trappings of democracy, elections and an adverserial press and all that, even without the reality of it. Look at Hungary if you want an example. It’s like the old frog-boiling metaphor: We wouldn’t know were stewed until it was too late.
And here we are. Everything looks kind of normal-ish. Democrats still hold power!
Either the Department of Justice will bring charges against Donald Trump, provoking violence that threatens to undo democratic governance…
…or it doesn’t, in which case the architect of crimes against that democratic governance will be free to try, try again.
Which means we’re just waiting for the right spark to set all this dry kindling ablaze. The fire is inevitable. We’re just waiting to find out we’ve been stewed.
I hope I’m wrong. I pray I’m wrong. I know my own tendency toward apocalyptic, doomerish thinking and I try to restrain myself. The events of this week have re-affirmed in my mind there is no good way forward. My own inclination is that a prosecution of Trump is probably necessary. The consequences will still be terrible. But they’ll probably be terrible either way.
A friend suggests a possible third option, which is that New York or Georgia prosecutes Trump for state-level crimes and possibly we avoid a big mess because it’s not Joe Biden’s government leading the charge. I don’t think Trump’s fans would see it that way, honestly.