Whatever else history records about the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it will offer a vivid, well-documented study in just how easily a democracy, even one as old and durable as the United States, can be unravelled.
Trump’s authoritarian impulses, contempt for presidential norms, incessant lying (more than 20,000 falsehoods to date, as counted by the Washington Post), coercive narcissism, petty vengefulness, environmental carelessness, blatant racism and unrestrained ego all run counter to what we should expect from the holder of the highest office in the world’s most powerful democracy. Trump’s bizarro self-centredness and contempt for democratic conventions are worthy of an anti-hero in a graphic novel set in some alternate universe.
Even a deadly pandemic, which has so far killed more than 233,000 Americans and grows more serious by the week, is of less concern to Trump than his own kleptocracy and the market gains he can amass for himself and his wealthy supporters.
Though Trump has had the rare privilege of appointing three Supreme Court justices in four years, his contempt for the rule of law, its conventions and instruments (like subpoenas) have been on regular display.
Trump’s presidency has clearly illustrated that the most serious threats to the American project, two and half centuries old, might come not from foreign adversaries but from reckless actors within; specifically, a self-absorbed chief executive enabled by a party too intimidated by his populist base to rein in his excesses. The grand old Republican party, once the political home of presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, has chosen pragmatism and power over the judgment of history.
The collateral damage to America’s reputation, both at home and abroad, has been substantial. Rather than ardently pursue the “more perfect union” described in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Trump has unapologetically stoked the smoldering fires of racial tension, inequality and income disparity. He has always governed on behalf of a minority, not the majority, of Americans.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University, wrote this week that “today, we are far closer to a breakdown than most democracy experts, myself included, would have dared anticipate just a few years ago.”
It was Reagan who adopted the notion of the United States as “a shining city upon a hill, whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” from a sermon by 17th-century Puritan John Winthrop. Under Trump, that beacon dimmed. America’s international reputation and moral leadership were tarnished. NATO no longer assumed American leadership. The United States’ trading partners, including Canada, learned to deal with unexpected irritants and tariffs, driven largely by Trump’s populist calculations or fits of pique, rather than carefully formulated policy. Under Trump, the shining city upon a hill became a kind of Nineveh moved to a deep valley.
If the 2016 election hadn’t already clearly shown it, this week’s muddy Biden-Trump result punctuated the reality: There are now two very different Americas sharing the same land mass. They are nearly antithetical identities, carved and emboldened by hyper-partisanship on both the political right and left. For too many voters, vanquishing the opponent supersedes dialogue, compromise and formation of shared agendas. High-minded ideals have given way to loyalty and fealty, no matter how low the bar.
Exactly four years ago, in this space, I quoted an editorial by New Yorker editor David Remnick, who wrote that in a truly vibrant democracy, “despair is no answer.” Rather, he said, Americans should once again take up the fight “to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals — that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.”
That sentiment still applies. America is now more divided than ever before. Over the coming months, following the uncertainty and court challenges prompted by Joe Biden’s election win, Trump will likely be even more unbridled than usual. It will be up to Americans of all political persuasions to pause, shake off the slung mud of a divisive campaign and try to rebuild their project in modern democracy with a renewed sense of bipartisanship and comportment with the rule of law.
The takeaways for Canadians are evident, too. They were foreshadowed by those who recalled the words of former prime minister John Turner at his passing just weeks ago: that public service should be graced with integrity; that democracy doesn’t happen by accident; that the needs of people come before partisanship.
America has shown us how thin is the veneer of democracy — and how quickly it can be scraped away by the sandpapers of cynicism and self-interest.
Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org