As Trump embarks on a reelection campaign and basks in the aftermath of the Senate impeachment trial — in which, thanks to a Republican Party wholly captured by Trumpism, acquittal was seemingly always a fait accompli — he is adding to the strains on America’s polarized democracy. His calls this week for prosecutions of his perceived enemies and public attacks on federal judges and prosecutors involved in cases against his allies were so abnormal that it led to an unlikely rebuke from Attorney General William P. Barr, a Cabinet official largely viewed by Trump’s opponents as shamefully acquiescent.
The Washington Post’s White House reporters described a president “simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party.” He is willing to test the rule of law even further and is comfortable doing so, they reported, “to the point of feeling untouchable.”
“If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there’s nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy,” Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney, told my colleagues. “That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”
The president’s demagoguery has left a deep mark on American society. An investigation by my colleagues sifted through 28,000 reports of bullying in U.S. schools and found hundreds of incidents in which Trump-inspired rhetoric was used to harass children, especially students from Hispanic, black or Muslim backgrounds.
“Since Trump’s rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America,” my colleagues wrote. “Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.”
This unsettling trend speaks of a deeper malaise and entrenched divisions. David Roberts at Vox argued that the United States is in the grips of an “epistemic” crisis: A decades-long right-wing project to create its own media bubble cemented a polarized political reality in which rival camps can’t even agree on the facts of their disagreements.
“That is what a tribalist like Trump wants: for communication and compromise across tribal lines to become impossible, so that loyalty becomes the only measure and everything is reduced to pure struggle for dominance,” Roberts wrote.
Lawmakers are still trying to check Trump’s power. On Thursday, every Democratic senator and eight Republicans in the Senate passed a resolution to curb Trump’s ability to order future strikes against Iran. But Trump is almost certain to veto the latest effort by Congress to assert its oversight authority over an emboldened executive.
Former Trump administration officials have emerged in public to criticize the president’s behavior and policies, including former White House chief of staff John Kelly on Wednesday. Myriad Republican politicians and operatives in private bemoan Trump’s hold on the party, but few are willing to risk overt dissent. Those who do are dragged through the coals by Trump and his loyalists.
“The Republican Party is betraying democracy, and these are historical times,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works,” told Business Insider. “The Republican Party has shown that it has no interest in multi-party democracy. … They are much more concerned with power, with consolidating power.”
The ruling party’s cynicism has engendered visions on the left of its wholesale defeat.
“The Republican Party is now a reliable opponent of equality and a malignant force in American life — a cancer within a patient in denial about the nature and severity of her condition,” wrote the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu. “It should be not only defeated but destroyed — vanquished from the American political scene with a finality that can only be assured not by electoral politics or structural reforms alone, but by a moral crusade.”
This is, of course, hardly the first time the United States has been so divided. An important piece in the New Yorker by Harvard historian Jill Lepore examined the sense of democratic crisis that was felt by many Americans in the 1930s. She details the astonishing New Deal-era civic engagement that took place in response, the profusion of debates, publicly backed artistic projects, town halls and radio shows that drew in millions around the country.
“Our wisdom or ignorance stands in the way of our accepting the totalitarian assumption of Omniscience,” the historian Charles Beard argued at the time, when explaining how Americans would resist the pull of communism or fascism. “And to this extent it contributes to the continuance of the arguing, debating, never-settling-anything-finally methods of political democracy.”
There’s plenty of arguing now in America, but it’s hard to see any glimmers of civic reconciliation.