Opinion

Donald Trump is still busy trying to bulldoze democracy | Austin Sarat and Dennis Aftergut | Opinion


The red light flashing danger to democracy grew more intense on 19 November. We thought it could hardly get worse, with Trump toady Lindsey Graham sticking his nose into Georgia’s business – he asked, per Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and a witness, about tossing legal ballots. And then the president did him one better.

After calling a member of Wayne county, Michigan’s Board of Canvassers who had previously voted to certify that county’s pro-Biden vote, he invited Republican Michigan legislators to the White House.

The same legislators who, under the Constitution’s article II, could theoretically appoint a slate of Trump electors to Congress on 3 January when the president is formally selected, in total defiance of Michigan’s 154,000 more voters who chose Joe Biden.

This has been the president’s plan all along: if he loses, fracture democracy’s foundation, the vote. Create chaos, as is his wont, and see where the shards and chips fall. Delegitimize the victor to keep Trump the center of attention, to hold his base, dominate and intimidate Republicans everywhere.

The president may be hoping that his desperate, post-election maneuvers will miraculously deliver, and that three battleground state Republican legislatures will send alternate slates. Not impossible. But the odds are somewhere south of cherries across the board on your first pull of the slot-machine arm.

For one thing, few legislators are likely to see a promising political future in defying their state’s majority. For another, in the event of a dispute where a state sends competing electors’ slates, under the 1887 Electoral Count Act, governors have the ultimate authority to certify electors, and defying the voters would be equally damaging to them. Moreover, the governors of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada are Democrats.

So let’s keep the focus where it belongs, on Trump’s ability to shake trust and confidence in our democracy. No republic stands without that trust and confidence. Trump understands that. Time and again he has shown that the Republic and its people do not matter to him.

He did not care about abusing his office in pressing Ukraine’s president to investigate Trump’s most feared rival, Biden. He has paid no attention to the raging Covid pandemic or any other public business now that he has been defeated. He does not care about anything other than himself, and ultimately, proving that he is not a loser. If he cannot be a winner now, then maybe in 2024.

Think of the most shameful presidential acts in our history. Watergate springs to mind, with a conspiracy inside the White House to cover up a bungled burglary of Democratic party headquarters and steal secrets to ensure Richard Nixon’s re-election. As politically corrupt as it was, that conspiracy did not purport to negate majority votes cast for a presidential campaign opponent.

A century ago, another administration behaved in such a way as to undermine democracy. In October 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith, kept the secret from the press and acted in his stead, even signing his name to documents in the belief that she was simply a “steward.” That was an immense fraud on the country, even if its intent was to preserve the people’s faith in our government.

Even as a fraud, however, nothing Wilson did undermined faith in our electoral system by asserting that a president who had decisively lost both the popular and electoral college votes had been cheated of his office.

The country cannot now allow such a disruption of faith to ramble unhindered through our constitutional system. These are the things to do.

The president-elect must go quickly on the offense. This is not the moment to turn the other cheek. Too much is at stake. Joe Biden must use his bully pulpit, abandoned to him by the president, and pressure every public leader, Democrat or Republican, to put patriotism first.

Leaders of every stripe must be called out unless they speak out as did the business community leaders who have demanded an end to Trump’s dangerous game.

The president-elect must use the courts preemptively to compel Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, an official with full authority to “ascertain” Biden’s “apparent” victory, to use that authority so that the full peaceful transfer of power can proceed as our national health and security require.

To be sure, some have pointed out the risk, with a Trump-populated judiciary, of losing such a suit outweighs the potential gain. That may have been true before Trump invited Michigan legislators to the White House, demonstrating his corrupt intent to feloniously deprive citizens, mostly citizens of color, of their votes, and to undermine our Republic’s foundation. With that action, the balance tips toward action that tells the country that the incoming president represents the rule of law and its active defense.

Editorial boards, particularly in Michigan, must speak with one voice in favor of our elections and denounce any legislator who abandons their constitutional duty to appoint electors reflecting the majority’s will. Grassroots organizations need to mobilize letter-writing campaigns, television appearances, community meetings and demonstrations against any elected representative whose action says that he or she does not respect the ballot box.

If we survive this moment of danger, the US must attend to the difficult process of legislative, perhaps even constitutional, reform to prevent the next assault on democracy. In the meantime, we need an all hands on deck approach, mobilizing political leaders and civil society that the US has for a long time used to promote democracy abroad. Now is the time for those techniques to be deployed to save democracy at home.

Power in this country resides in the people. We need to use it if we do not want to lose it.

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