The Post's View

A second Trump term might injure the democratic experiment beyond recovery

(Jamiel Law for The Washington Post)

AFTER HE is nominated at a pared-down Republican convention next week, President Trump will make this argument to the American people: Things were great until China loosed the novel coronavirus on the world. If you reelect me, I will make things great again.

Our Democracy in Peril
Part one of a series of editorials on the damage President Trump has caused — and the danger he would pose in a second term.

Seeking reelection in the midst of the worst public health crisis and sharpest economic downturn of our lifetimes, this may, realistically, be the only argument left to him. But, fittingly for a president who has spoken more than 20,000 lies during his presidency, it rests on two huge falsehoods.

One is that the nation, his presidency and, above all, Mr. Trump himself are innocent victims of covid-19. In fact, his own negligence, ignorance and malpractice turned what would have been a daunting challenge for any president into a national disaster.

The other is that there was anything to admire in his record before the virus struck. It is true that the economic growth initiated under President Barack Obama had continued, at about the same modest rate. Mr. Trump achieved this growth by ratcheting up America’s deficit and long-term debt to record levels, with a tax cut that showered benefits on the wealthy.

But beyond the low unemployment rate he gained and lost, history will record Mr. Trump’s presidency as a march of wanton, uninterrupted, tragic destruction. America’s standing in the world, loyalty to allies, commitment to democratic values, constitutional checks and balances, faith in reason and science, concern for Earth’s health, respect for public service, belief in civility and honest debate, beacon to refugees in need, aspirations to equality and diversity and basic decency — Mr. Trump torched them all.

Four years ago, after Mr. Trump was nominated in Cleveland, we did something in this space we had never done before: Even before the Democrats had nominated their candidate, we told you that we could never, under any circumstances, endorse Donald Trump for president. He was, we said, “uniquely unqualified” to be president.

“Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together,” we warned. “His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.”

The nation has indeed spent much of the past three-plus years fretting over whether that experiment could survive Mr. Trump’s depredations. The resistance from some institutions, at some times, has been heartening. The depth of the president’s incompetence, which even we could not have imagined, may have saved the democracy from a more rapid descent.

But the trajectory has been alarming. The capitulation of the Republican Party has been nauseating. Misbehavior that many people vowed never to accept as normal has become routine.

A second term might injure the experiment beyond recovery.

And so, over the coming weeks, we will do something else we have never done before: We will publish a series of editorials on the damage this president has caused — and the danger he would pose in a second term. And we will unabashedly urge you to do your civic duty and vote: Vote early and vote safely, but vote.

“I alone can fix it,” Mr. Trump proclaimed at his convention four years ago.

How has that turned out?

His campaign, as our columnist Michael Gerson has noted, was based on the premises that Mr. Obama and all his predecessors had made such a botch of things that nothing could get worse — and that expertise and moral leadership were not only irrelevant, they were handicaps.

Mr. Trump has decisively refuted these premises.

By most objective measures (the stock market indices being the exception), things today are worse.

But, you say, is it fair to blame him for the coronavirus?

No. Mr. Trump did not cause the pandemic; and China, as he says, mishandled it at the start.

But every other nation in the world has had to deal with the same virus, and most of them have done so far more competently, and with more evidence of learning and improvement as they go, than the United States.

More people have died of covid-19 in the United States than in any other country. Even adjusted for population, the death rate here is almost five times worse than in Germany, and almost 100 times worse than in South Korea.

These are facts. This is reality. And the excess deaths and illness are directly attributable to Mr. Trump’s failures of leadership.

He failed to prepare the nation for a pandemic, though experts for years had warned of the possibility.

When the virus emerged, he first praised China’s handling of it, then imposed travel restrictions too slapdash to offer any protection.

For months, when he could have been preparing the nation, he insisted the virus would just go away.

When reality washed that nonsense away, he allowed government experts to guide the nation for a few weeks. But as the nation began to make some headway, Mr. Trump — more concerned with the impact on his reelection prospects than with the risk to human life — urged Americans to ignore expert advice and “liberate” their states, never mind masks or social distancing.

The result is the worst of all worlds: unneeded deaths, no possibility of real reopening and intensification of the markers of “carnage” that Mr. Trump railed against four years ago: unemployment, inequality, opioid addiction.

Perhaps most frightening: Even now, there is no plan, no learning, no strategy for testing and reopening. Under his leadership, it is all too easy to imagine that our children will still be out of school a year from now, or two, or three.

A president’s first duty is to keep the nation safe. If he has failed at home, maybe Mr. Trump has a better record overseas?

He continued a successful campaign to demolish the Islamic State, the self-styled caliphate that established itself on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border after Mr. Obama’s premature disengagement. The recently announced peace deal between Israel and the tiny United Arab Emirates is a step forward. Mr. Trump has kept the nation out of major conflict.

But neither the country nor the world are safer four years on. The nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, which Mr. Trump said he could easily take care of, are less constrained than ever. Russia continues to illegally occupy parts of three sovereign nations, including Ukraine. The malign dictatorship in Venezuela, which Mr. Trump vowed to dislodge, remains firmly entrenched.

To the greatest challenge of our time, Mr. Trump has failed most destructively. That challenge is the rise of authoritarian powers, most notably China. Like dictatorships before them, they threaten the values upon which this nation was founded: individual dignity and liberty, the freedom to worship and speak and think. But unlike past dictatorships, they are bolstered by technologies that enable unprecedented surveillance and intrusion into what was once the private sphere.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said 80 years ago, when democracy was similarly under threat, “There can be no ultimate peace between their philosophy of government and our philosophy of government.” If they should gain the upper hand around the world, “We should enter upon a new and terrible era in which the whole world, our hemisphere included, would be run by threats of brute force.”

Mr. Trump, in his fourth year, has branded China an enemy, mostly because he needs a pandemic scapegoat, but also because he hopes it will give him a campaign issue.

But for three years, he embraced and admired Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and made clear his indifference to China’s genocide of its Muslim Uighur population, its stifling of Hong Kong, the repression of its own people. Mr. Trump’s one concern was mercantile, and even there he failed: China’s economy is no more open to U.S. business than it was four years ago.

A president truly attuned to the Chinese threat would be investing in American universities and science; welcoming the smartest young people from around the world to study and work in the United States; and building alliances with like-minded democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Canada and Germany. In each case, the president has done the opposite.

Most of all, he would be modeling the virtues of democracy, but again he has done the reverse, admiring and embracing the methods of strongmen such as Mr. Xi. Mr. Trump denigrates a free press, makes a mockery of free markets, elevates insult over civil exchange, shows contempt for the rule of law in civilian and military courts, devalues truth, and dismisses legitimate oversight from Congress, the courts and executive branch inspectors general.

Last fall, Mr. Trump became the third president in history to be impeached. The House of Representatives charged him with what amounts to extortion for personal political gain: Mr. Trump held up an arms sale and a White House meeting in an effort to pressure the president of Ukraine to slander former vice president Joe Biden. The House also charged Mr. Trump with illegally refusing to cooperate with its investigation.

In February, the Senate voted to acquit the president, with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah the lone Republican honest enough to acknowledge that the evidence was irrefutable. A few other Republicans, perhaps embarrassed by their own moral collapse, suggested that Mr. Trump would be chastened by impeachment and mend his ways.

Instead, he has been emboldened, and his behavior in the half-year since provides an indication of the lawlessness we can expect if Mr. Trump is reelected. He has swept aside U.S. attorneys who would not bend the law to his whim; fired officials throughout the government whose only offense was to do their jobs honestly or seek to hold his administration accountable; sicced unbadged troops on peaceful protesters in D.C. and Portland, Ore., for the benefit of his reelection campaign; and ignored and lied about credible reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers.

He has sought to undermine confidence in democracy itself, lying about the prevalence of fraud, floating the possibility of delaying the election and even suggesting he may not accept its results.

These are high crimes and misdemeanors, as the framers of the Constitution understood the term. But this time it is up to us, the American people, to remove Mr. Trump from office.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this editorial: America is at a crossroads. Voters will choose our path in November.

Miles Taylor: At Homeland Security, I saw firsthand how dangerous Trump is for America

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s post office blunder will test GOP loyalty

George T. Conway III and Lawrence S. Robbins: No serious lawyer would argue what Trump’s Justice Department is arguing

Jennifer Rubin: As it turns out, there really was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia

Greg Sargent: A harsh new anti-Trump ad shows how Democrats view 2020

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us