The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump skeptics gather to ask whether democracy can survive him

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, in a penthouse event center atop the American Psychological Association’s Washington offices, more than a hundred people from the political left to the center-right met to discuss their common question: How could American democracy survive President Trump?

The National Summit for Democracy, which grew out of 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin’s group Stand Up Republic and were co-sponsored by Protect Democracy, held workshops for people involved — broadly speaking — in promoting democratic elections and societies around the world. What was new was applying their work to the United States.

“The last two years have gotten us to rethink our focus,” a representative from Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund said Tuesday night.

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There were representatives from Poland and from open-press institutes next to representatives from the left-leaning groups MoveOn and Indivisible. Norm Ornstein, the longtime American Enterprise Institute scholar who has become a fierce critic of the modern Republican Party, had a front seat at Friday night’s dinner, where he pressed Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on an issue he was happy to talk about.

“The scarcity of subpoenas, the scarcity of hearings, the lack of any serious interest in getting things done — in history’s eyes, this will be seen as a terrible failing of this Congress,” Whitehouse said. “It’s going to be hard to explain why we didn’t do that.”

McMullin, who was drafted to run for president by Trump-skeptical conservatives, has dug in against the president even as some former anti-Trump allies have gotten on board. He and running mate Mindy Finn, a political strategist, founded Stand Up Republic, and then Stand Up Ideas, as campaign and think-tank offshoots of the protecting-against-Trump project. In 2017, Stand Up Republic spent $500,000 on ads urging Republicans not to vote for former judge Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race; in 2018, Alabama write-in candidate Mac Watson was among the attendees of the two-day summit.

Whitehouse was part of a bipartisan lineup Tuesday, handing the microphone to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring this year after becoming one of Trump’s leading Republican critics. Flake warned specifically that “authoritarians all over the world are taking aid and comfort” from Trump, and that the president was going to encourage left-wing populism to grow in the countries he attacked in his speeches and tweets.

“Words matter, and my concern has been that when the president uses rhetoric like he did during the campaign, referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists, it has a real impact,” Flake said. “It has an impact in the Mexican elections, which are happening this year. It may well contribute to the election of a leftist populist leader in Mexico. And if it does, it will likely mean that Mexico will turn their back on a lot [of] intelligence sharing, security sharing with us.”

Whitehouse suggested that the Trump-era threats to democracy consisted in large part of manipulating the media, new and old, to mislead the public. With some effort, he said, it was fixable.

“We changed the way we looked at pollution after the Cuyahoga River fire,” Whitehouse said. “We changed the way we looked at our diets — it used to be canned vegetables, red meat and all that stuff. We live 10 years longer as a result. In the same way we took care of pollution and junk food, we need to figure out, as citizens, how to take care of the pollution and junk food in our news diet.”