The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I needed reassurance that actions have consequences. The election was just a start.

Patrons celebrate and react to President-elect Joe Biden being named winner of the 2020 presidential election on Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House on Saturday in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

What I needed on Election Day was some reassurance that actions have consequences.

We’ll be debating for years what was worst about the Trump presidency. Was it his contempt for Americans? His goading of his supporters into acting on their worst impulses? His gleeful disregard for truth and fairness and facts? His lethal incompetence in the midst of a crisis? His cruelty?

To me, it was that none of this seemed to matter. Trump could insult his supporters and threaten their livelihoods, but they remained steadfast. We don’t know whether they’d stick with him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, but we do know that he could lie with impunity.

According to the Post database, Trump told 22,247 lies between the time he took office on Jan. 20, 2017, and Aug. 27, 2020, a pace that averaged 17 false claims a day. The president quickened his pace to 50 per day in the past few months. After Trump’s convention speech, CNN’s Daniel Dale raised fast talking to an act of heroism by debunking on live TV more than 20 lies the president had just told. But Trump’s supporters didn’t waver; his Republican colleagues didn’t flinch. And he kept appearing on television as if he were a normal president.

He was impeached, of course. But even that consequence felt ... inconsequential. It focused on two counts — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — and moved just one Republican to vote to convict on a single count. And afterward, Trump’s support actually grew. A whistle blew, but the game went on.

Some of these outrages are concealed or complicated, fodder for investigative reporters and congressional committees. But some we got to watch. For instance, it’s illegal for federal employees to campaign on the government’s dime, but dozens of Trump administrators rallied, tweeted and shilled for the president’s reelection in their official capacities. And what happens if you repeatedly trample the Hatch Act? Not much. The Office of Special Counsel recommended that Kellyanne Conway be fired for it; her response was, “blah, blah, blah.”

That sums up the Trump years for me: flagrant violations followed by zero repercussions. We watched his administration break the rules — of governance, of civility, of fairness, of political discourse — over and over, but only a few paid a price for it.

At least, until Trump got covid-19. After months of playing down the virus that had killed and continued to kill tens of thousands of Americans, after defying public health regulations and mocking those who followed them, after behaving in a way that was, according to every credible scientific source, bound to increase a person’s chances of getting covid-19, he got covid-19. One plus one really did equal two. I wasn’t happy he was sick, but I did like the logic of it: that his reckless behavior, behavior that had affected thousands of Americans, affected him too.

But then, using all the resources at the disposal of the president — including a drug not widely available to the public and a “precautionary” hospital stay — he bounced back with uncommon speed, speculated that he was immune and admonished the public not to let covid-19 “dominate your life.”

Consequence? Not enough to change anything.

So I pinned my hopes — my need for all of it to matter — on the election.

Here’s what happened: Through massive effort, we just barely managed to fire the worst president we’ve ever had. Seventy million Americans still voted for Trump, and 80 million declined to vote. Election Day did not give us a satisfying nationwide, forehead-slapping, what were we thinking moment. It gave us the logical outcome of four years of Trump’s dishonest, inept, vindictive and divisive leadership: He lost.

After the past four years of living upside down, this logical outcome absolutely came as a relief. A bell-ringing, firework-setting, horn-honking, singing, dancing relief.

But it wasn’t enough. We can’t prosecute all of the crimes of the Trump administration, but we have to address the worst abuses of the public trust. It does America no good to act as if this were just another administration, with the normal amount of self-dealing and spin, as if, hey, politicians will be politicians, and whaddya gonna do?

There are things we can do. Two days after the election, major networks responded to the president’s lies about voter fraud not by fact-checking him afterward, or airing a statement by “the other side,” but by cutting away from him mid-press briefing. On Monday, Fox News declined to show Kayleigh McEnany baselessly accusing Democrats of voter fraud. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t ... continue showing you this,” said Neil Cavuto.

You might call that too little too late. I call it a start.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s narcissism has become the GOP’s Achilles’ heel

Paul Waldman: Republicans have declared war on democracy itself

The Post’s View: President Trump lost. Too many Republicans keep pretending he didn’t.

Michael Gerson: The election is over, but there’s no end to Republican bad faith

Dana Milbank: Trump is now sabotaging national security to soothe his bruised ego

Matt Bai: Republicans: Unshackle yourselves from the Trump craziness