The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The mini-Trumps are as big a threat to democracy as Trump is

Former president Donald Trump takes the stage at a GOP rally in Prescott Valley, Ariz., last month. (Reuters/Rebecca Noble)
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Republicans are eroding American democracy day by day. It’s not a fully coordinated effort directed by former president Donald Trump or national party leaders. Instead, GOP officials, particularly at the state and local levels, are regularly taking actions that add up to an antidemocratic movement. They are reducing news media access, making it harder to vote, aggressively gerrymandering legislative districts and using government power to threaten their political enemies. We are not seeing democracy die in darkness but rather democratic decline in the light.

Here are seven of these actions, all of them taken since June 9. (There are many more I could have highlighted.) Conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of a scheme by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to stop Democratic Gov. Tony Evers not only from appointing his choices to state boards and commissions but also in some cases requiring him to keep in place the selections of his predecessor, Republican Scott Walker. Those Wisconsin judges also banned the use of ballot drop boxes. Georgia Republicans’ Senate nominee, Herschel Walker, started refusing to commit to any candidate debates. U.S. House Republican leaders, who have not released a list of policies they would adopt if they won a majority in November, made one firm commitment: extensive investigations of Hunter Biden and other members of the president’s family.

Florida Republicans barred some journalists of mainstream media publications from a recent party conference while admitting those from right-wing outlets. Pennsylvania’s election agency was forced to file a lawsuit to get three GOP-controlled counties to count mail-in ballots from recent primaries. Indiana’s Republican attorney general launched an investigation of a doctor in the state after she conducted an abortion for a 10-year-old girl from Ohio who had been raped.

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I mentioned June 9 for a specific reason: That was the start of the congressional hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The hearings are depicting one huge antidemocratic move — the attempt by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. And they are showing how it was stopped: Trump legitimately lost the election to Joe Biden; institutions, such as the news media and the courts, actively opposed his moves; some individuals, including longtime Republicans and people close to the president, refused to go along or obstructed the scheme.

In contrast with Jan. 6, these smaller-scale antidemocratic actions are often successful. That’s in part because they aren’t as brazen. Trump’s moves before and on Jan. 6 obviously and rightly generated more pushback than did Florida Republicans keeping reporters from hearing their speeches or Wisconsin judges not allowing voters to use ballot drop boxes.

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But there are also some structural differences that make it easier to erode democracy at the local and state levels compared with nationally. In the red states where many of these antidemocratic actions are taking place, gerrymandering and voters’ hatred of the Democratic Party mean that, unlike Trump, GOP officials in these states basically can’t lose power no matter how badly they behave.

At the national level, there are political and economic incentives for Republicans who oppose the party’s antidemocratic turn to speak out. For example, Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump communications director, has become a critic of the ex-president and is now a political commentator for CNN and reportedly will soon get a hosting role on ABC’s “The View.” But a Texas Republican staffer who publicly rebukes Gov. Greg Abbott isn’t likely to end up with two prestigious television gigs. Also, the news media covering Washington remains fairly large and is able to closely scrutinize public officials, while local and state media continue to decline in size and influence.

Tens of millions of Americans have watched the Jan. 6 hearings, but I suspect many of them have never heard of the seven antidemocratic GOP actions I described above or of numerous others, even those that have happened in the states and cities where they live. And that’s a big problem. I worry that the anti-Trump politicians and the news media, in their focus on Trump and Jan. 6, have created the impression that America’s antidemocratic movement is centered on one man and one day.

In reality, antidemocratic sentiments were rising in the Republican Party well before Trump became its leader. In 2013, North Carolina Republicans adopted a voting law that a federal court later ruled had, with “surgical precision,” tried to make it harder for Black people to vote.

And, as shown by all of these incidents that have happened during the hearings, those sentiments are still rising in the party — and keep turning into actions.

The biggest danger for American democracy is that Trump or a figure like him succeeds at something bold and extreme like Jan 6. But an almost equally important danger is that a bunch of mini-Trumps, some of whom you have never heard of, take several hundred actions, most of which you will never learn of, that gradually create either a national government or 25 to 30 state governments where elections are rigged by gerrymandering and voting restrictions, where news coverage and other forms of public accountability are nonexistent, and where people worry about retribution if they disagree with their political leaders.

America stopped Trump on Jan. 6. But we are not yet stopping Trumpism.