Can US institutions survive Trump II?

Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 quickly recovered from the shock of seeing him become United States president in 2016 by taking comfort in the thought that the country’s democratic institutions were strong enough to withstand the autocratic assaults of this supremely narcissistic businessman-politician.

The belief in the promise of strong institutions lies at the core of American democracy. It means, among other things, that no one is above the law—that the rule of law will prevail over any attempt by any occupant of the nation’s highest office to subvert it or to use it for personal purposes. It means that the president’s behavior will be subject to legal scrutiny like that of any other citizen, and that the separation of powers will be upheld at all times.

The reality, however, is that America barely survived four years of the Trump presidency. At almost every point, the new president seemed to delight in testing the limits of what he could do in his position. Yet, each time he opened his mouth, he only exposed his ignorance and self-centeredness. The COVID-19 pandemic bared the costly consequences of having an incompetent and whimsical political leader who thought he knew better than the scientists and professionals who were tracking the virus.

Partly because of his administration’s disastrous handling of the early months of the pandemic, Trump lost his bid for re-election in 2020. But it was a defeat he could not accept, for it was above all a blow to his ego. On Jan. 6, 2021, while he was still president, he called on his most rabid supporters to march to the Capitol Building to prevent a joint session of the United States Congress from proceeding with the formal certification of the electoral results that showed his rival Joe Biden to be the winner. The Jan. 6 insurrection should have spelled the end of Trump’s political career. But that’s not what happened. Just a few months after he vacated the White House, Trump was warmly welcomed back by the Republican Party leadership as though he had nothing to explain. It was the first sign that the party could not dispense with the demagogue who had done so much to undermine its stability and traditions, but who continues to be the party’s number one crowd drawer.

The US is facing another presidential election. It will be a rematch between two aging political warriors, both of whom, for differing reasons, cannot seem to inspire confidence among the country’s educated voters. Trump is currently ahead of Biden in the opinion polls by a couple of percentage points.

The likelihood of Trump returning to the presidency has become so real and so urgent that the venerable magazine The Atlantic, in its January-February issue this year, felt compelled to devote an entire issue to what it thinks would happen “if Trump wins.” At the risk of being seen as a partisan magazine, the editor justified its warning, thus: “‘Of no party or clique’ is our original 1857 motto, and it is true today. Our concern with Trump is not that he is a Republican, or that he embraces—when convenient—certain conservative ideas … Our concern is that the Republican Party has mortgaged itself to an antidemocratic demagogue, one who is completely devoid of decency.”

The Atlantic spells out the bottom line for the American voter in the simplest of terms: decency. What this virtue amounts to basically is high-mindedness in decision-making and abiding respect for institutions. Biden can be accused of having a faltering memory, but he can never be charged with deliberately mocking the law, or, worse, turning the law into a weapon to be used against perceived political enemies.

A good case in point is the investigation conducted by a special counsel on the classified documents that then Vice President Biden appeared to have brought home with him or moved to his private offices but failed to return at the end of his term as VP. Robert Hur, the special counsel, was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, a member of President Biden’s Cabinet. Known for his competence and integrity, Hur happens to be also a registered member of the Republican Party. But not until recently did his political affiliation bother President Biden or his lawyers.

The investigation included many hours of interviews with the President, who warmly cooperated with the young lawyers that Hur had brought with him. This, in itself, is hard to imagine happening in a political culture like ours, where the president can always invoke more pressing matters of state to avoid having to answer questions from investigators.

In the end, the special counsel found no convincing evidence that would warrant indicting Biden for willfully retaining documents that properly belonged to the state. But rather than rejoice over this finding, Biden hurriedly called a press conference to take strong exception to the special counsel’s side comment that a jury might, in any case, be inclined to dismiss any charges against the president—“a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” By referring to Biden’s poor memory, Robert Hur reinforced the political slur that the president is senile and unfit to be re-elected. That small comment about the president’s memory eclipsed all the hard work he had given to the case as a government prosecutor.