In his Inaugural Address on Wednesday, Joe Biden said that after four years of Trumpian chaos — including two months of thrashing against the results of the election, culminating in an attack on the Capitol itself — “democracy” had “prevailed.” But it might have been better, if inappropriate to the moment, for the new president to have said that democracy had “survived.”
In so many ways, Donald Trump was a stress test for our democracy. And as we begin to assess the damage from his time in office, it’s clear we did not do especially well.
Forces we thought would constrain Trump out of simple self-preservation — public opinion and the demands of the election cycle — were of no concern to a president with ironclad loyalty from his base and a multipronged propaganda network at his side.
Institutions we thought would curb his worst behavior — the courts, the federal bureaucracy — had a mixed record, enabling his desires as often as they stymied his most destructive impulses.
And Congress, designed to check and challenge a lawless president, struggled to do its job on account of partisanship and party loyalty. With just 34 senators on his side, a president can act with virtual impunity, secure in the knowledge that he won’t be removed from office, even if the House votes to impeach him and a majority of senators wants to see him go.
Yes, we held an election, and yes, Trump actually left the White House — the Secret Service did not have to drag him out. But the difference between our reality and one where Trump overturned a narrow result in Biden’s favor is just a few tens of thousands of votes across a handful of states. If it were Pennsylvania or Arizona alone that meant the difference between victory and defeat, are we so sure that Republican election officials would have resisted the overwhelming pressure of the president and his allies? Are we absolutely confident the Supreme Court would not have intervened? Do we think the Republican Party wouldn’t have done everything it could to keep Trump in the White House?
We don’t have to speculate too much. At points before the election, key actors signaled some willingness to stand with Trump should the results come close enough to seriously contest. And recent reporting from Axios shows that the plan, from the start, was to try to use any ambiguity in the results to claim victory, even if Trump lacked the votes.
We were saved, in short, by the point spread. This does not reflect well on American democracy. But it does make clear the source of our dysfunction: the Republican Party.
This is not a new insight, but it’s worth repeating all the same, especially in light of President Biden’s inaugural call for unity, decency and the common good. The Republican Party in 2021 is a party in near total thrall to its most radical elements, a party that in the main — as we just witnessed a few weeks ago — does not accept that it can lose elections and seeks to overturn or delegitimize the result when it does. It disseminates false accusations of voter fraud and then uses those accusations to justify voter suppression and disenfranchisement. It feeds lies to its supporters and uses those lies, as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did, to challenge the fundamental processes of our democracy.
When in power in Washington, the Republican Party can barely govern, and when out of power, it does almost everything it can to stymie the government’s ability to act. And it was the party’s nearly unbreakable loyalty to Trump that neutered the impeachment power and enabled his fight to overturn constitutional government, which ended on Jan. 6 with a deadly mob wilding through the Capitol.
To even begin to fix American democracy, we have to make the Republican Party less dangerous than it is. The optimal solution would be to build our two-party system into a multiparty one that splits the radical from the moderate Right and gives the latter a chance to win power without appeal to the former. But this requires fundamental change to the American system of elections, which is to say, it’s not going to happen anytime soon (and may never).
The only other alternative — the only thing that might force the Republican Party to shift gears — is for the Democratic Party to establish national political dominance of the kind not seen since the heyday of the New Deal coalition. Parties tend to change when they can’t win power. It’s part of the problem of our time that the Republican Party can win a large share of national power — up to and including unified control of Washington — without winning a majority of votes, because of its advantage in the counter-majoritarian elements of our system. Without that advantage, there’s immediate incentive to do something different.
This, too, is unlikely. Even if President Biden has a successful four (or eight) years in office, it is difficult to imagine anything that could prompt the kind of national realignment that would give the Democratic Party a durable advantage in the House, the Senate and the states. In a system that awards political power on the basis of land and boundaries as much as it does votes, Democrats would have to reverse the convergence of geography and partisan identity — where rural and exurban voters mostly vote for Republicans while their urban and suburban counterparts mostly vote for Democrats — in order to win the kind of victory that would force the Republican Party off its current path and into the wilderness. And even then, as the example of the California Republican Party and Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader of the House, demonstrates, there’s no guarantee that the party will change its tune.
The Trump stress test, in other words, has revealed a nearly fatal vulnerability in our democracy — a militant, increasingly anti-democratic Republican Party — for which we may not have a viable solution.
With that said, I don’t think we’re doomed to minoritarian rule by reactionaries. Political life is unpredictable, and there’s no way to know what may change. Lofty dreams can enter reality and obvious certainties can vanish into thin air.
But one thing is certain. The crisis of our democracy is far from over. The most we’ve won, with Trump’s departure, is a respite from chaos and a chance to make whatever repairs we can manage.