The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is losing in court. But his threat to democracy is growing.

Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on June 26 Wellington, Ohio. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When a group of rioters smashes doors and windows, assaults and overruns police, and goes rampaging through the Capitol, it’s obviously an attack on democracy. But there are other, equally dangerous attacks to which the American system is being subjected right now. They could well be successful, if we allow our memories to fade and convince ourselves that the terrible things we see are just a new reality we have to live with.

Yes, we’re talking about Donald Trump and the ongoing threat he poses to everything we thought our system stood for. But this is also about the circles of accommodation spreading outward from him — his party, the business interests that prop it up, the media that normalize it, and the way the rest of us react to it.

The battle over how we’ll understand January 6 — and whether anyone beyond the violent, deluded individuals who carried out the attack on the Capitol will ever be held accountable for it — is in a critical phase. On Tuesday, a federal judge turned back Trump’s effort to use executive privilege to hide hundreds of pages of documents relating to his administration’s actions around the attack from the congressional committee charged with investigating it.

Trump’s assertion that a former president can continue to shield records that likely reveal misconduct or even criminality from exposure for as long as he likes is both repugnant and just what we would expect from him. Too many times to count during his time in office, he argued that laws and rules simply didn’t apply to him. “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said. Now he asserts that his power extends even beyond his term.

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Trump has also told even private citizens like his friend Stephen K. Bannon (one of the many accused and convicted criminals in his orbit whom he pardoned before leaving office) that they need not comply with subpoenas, because he says so.

Most disturbing of all, he just might prevail. Once Tuesday’s ruling came down, Trump’s lawyers immediately filed an appeal, and the last few years have shown that there’s always a chance that the courts — up to and including the Supreme Court — will approve even the most preposterous claim if it’s made by a Republican.

On the same day that Trump was losing in district court, a federal watchdog released a report showing that “At least 13 senior Trump administration officials illegally mixed governing with campaigning before the 2020 election, intentionally ignoring a law that prohibits merging the two and getting approval to break it.”

You may think this is all old news. But as Trump prepares for a possible 2024 presidential run, there is every reason to think he’d be even more corrupt, more contemptuous of the law, and more willing to degrade every democratic institution in pursuit of his own interests should he ever regain power.

The chances that he could succeed are increased by the normalization of his own corruption and that of those around him. You might remember how in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, some corporations announced that they would cease contributions to the Republicans who voted to overturn the election. But now that memories have begun to fade, some of those companies have resumed lining the pockets of the lieutenants in Trump’s war on democracy. With the 2022 midterms in sight, GOP lobbyists are confident [cq]that the corporate money will begin flowing in full force once again.

Outside of Washington, Republicans are making thuggery a core strategy in taking hold of local systems. Any election official unwilling to sign on with Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, or any school board member overly concerned about the health of their community during a pandemic, can expect abuse, intimidation, and even death threats. If they make the reasonable decision to step away, as many already have, they’re sometimes replaced by Trumpists who have no more respect for the law, fair procedures, or democratic traditions than their hero does — and who, like him, don’t care who knows it.

That is one of the hallmarks of Trumpism: Not just contempt for the law, but pride in one’s lawlessness. “I’m not denying anything,” one Trump supporter who threatened the Arizona secretary of state told Reuters, “because I’m a patriot.” On the phone message he left that official, he said, “They’re going to hang you for treason, you f‑‑‑‑‑‑ b----.”

What do you think will happen in 2024 if Trump is the GOP nominee, the race is close, Big Lie proponents have been installed as election officials all over the country, Fox News is filled with allegations of fraud, the entire Republican Party has accepted the idea that if the presidency can’t be won legitimately it must simply be seized — and the rest of us act like it’s anything less than one of the most terrifying crises in the United States’s history?

In the early days of the presidency that brought us here, people would often respond to the latest shocking piece of news by saying “This is not normal.” The greatest danger we face is that any of us will look at not just the Trump years but what is happening right now as normal.

It is not. And if we don’t appreciate it for what it is — not just partisanship, not just the rough-and-tumble of politics, but one of the greatest threats American democracy has ever faced — things could get even worse.