The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the guardian of American conservatism, consistently ridiculed worries about Trump’s autocratic tendencies. A year into his presidency, it opined that his tenure “must be terribly disappointing to the progressive elites who a year ago predicted an authoritarian America because Mr. Trump posed a unique threat to democratic norms.” It claimed that all Trump could really be accused of was “excessive” rhetorical attacks on the media. Senior Republicans refused to even make such tepid objections. Some, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), quickly morphed into sycophants, eager to encourage his worst impulses.
After the pandemic began, many conservatives pointed out that Trump did not use the crisis to expand executive power, which proved that he has no authoritarian tendencies whatsoever. But this is a profound misunderstanding of authoritarianism. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt both used souped-up authority to save the nation from dire emergencies. That did not make them tyrants. An autocrat seeks power for himself, to strengthen his own hold on the office and destroy his enemies. Vladimir Putin accumulated power not so he could provide social security to Russians but to ensure that no one could ever challenge him.
After the 2020 elections, most Republican leaders remained silent as Trump spread cancerous lies and conspiracy theories. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the second-most-important Republican, refused to acknowledge that President-elect Joe Biden had won the election for weeks and declared that Trump was “100 percent within his rights” to mount all his court challenges. But the fact that one can use certain legal mechanisms does not mean that one should. Norms are as important as laws. The erosion of democracy in other countries — from Hungary to Turkey to India — has taken place, for the most part, through entirely legal means.
That senators such as Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), both well-trained constitutional experts, have used the law to subvert democracy is the best example that smarts and education do not ensure that a person will act with honor and decency. Keep in mind that just hours after the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill, they, along with six other Republican senators and 139 members of the House, voted to support the demands of those insurrectionists.
So why, after all this, do I see some hidden good news? First, the insurrection ultimately failed. Order was restored, and within hours the results of the November election were certified. Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. In fact, this week’s chaos has put the rebels on the defensive — most prominently the leader of the insurrection, Trump, who, two months after the election, finally pledged an orderly transition. It has also finally led some Republicans, including McConnell and Vice President Pence, to stop coddling Trump. Perhaps they have come to recognize that tax cuts and judges are not worth the shredding of democracy. And don’t forget that voters in Georgia rejected Trumpism this week, electing two Democrats to the Senate and granting Biden a governing mandate.
For four years, I have wondered when the Trump fever would break. When, I wondered, would people see that he was not a comical figure, enjoying his bizarre reality television version of the presidency, but a narcissist and a demagogue, stoking racism and hate, deeply at odds with the democratic character of the country? This week, it might have happened. You don’t need the whole country to snap away — even by the time Richard M. Nixon resigned, a quarter of Americans still supported him — but you need enough that it resets the norm. Perhaps we had to go over the edge to climb back.
When I was growing up far away from the United States in the 1970s, I found myself following events there with intense interest. Those years were filled with turmoil. The United States suffered its first major military defeat, the president resigned in disgrace, and the Soviet Union was poised to take advantage of its rival superpower’s weakness. Yet despite it all, I still felt a deep attraction to America. The chaos and disruption were evidence of an open society in the midst of great change, a place that showcased all the anger and turmoil that come with wrenching dislocations and transformations. But these things were also the sign of a country airing its problems and facing its challenges; a place that, having weathered the storm, would find new resilience, energy and strength. I believe that today as well.