Jonathan V. Last is the editor of The Bulwark, and previously was senior writer and digital editor at The Weekly Standard and GOP thought leader; he has become known as one of the founding intellectual authors of the Republican “Never Trump” philosophy. Since 2015, he has published a series of very astute analyses and predictions about the elections. Reprinted with pernmission.
Donald Trump’s authoritarian attempt has presented four tests to American democracy.
The first test was for the institution of the Republican party. The GOP failed this test when it capitulated to and normalized Trump through the summer and fall of 2016. After Trump was elected, the institution of the Republican party failed the makeup test as it reflexively defended every one of Trump’s illiberal postures. It failed another makeup test with the first impeachment and failed yet again in the post-election period, during which the party aided and abetted Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the election and then decided against permanently removing him from politics via the second impeachment.
The second test Trump presented was to the general public. Demagogues often come to power via the popular will. Trump did not. The majority of Americans voted against him in 2016. When the Electoral College allowed his minority rule, an even greater majority came out to remove him from office in 2020. The majority of Americans passed Trump’s test.
The third test was for the rule of law. Would the structures of the American legal system be sturdy enough to hold Trump’s crimes to account? Would the potential downstream effects—of protests, political upheaval, electoral consequences—prevent the rule of law from being applied to Trump? This test came in multiple parts, but as of last night, we have a fairly definitive answer: The rule of law held.
Consider how the laws were applied to Trump:
- 2 impeachments
- 60+ court decisions against his attempt to overturn the 2020 election
- Jury verdict against him on charges of defamation
- Indictment on charges of falsifying business records for the purposes of interfering in an election
- Indictment pertaining to obstruction of justice in the removal of classified records from the White House
When we talk about the rule of law being tested, we are concerned with processes, not outcomes. The test is simply: Is Trump subjected to due process via the rule of law?
If any of the various prosecutors circling Trump decide not to bring charges because they believe there is insufficient evidence, that’s fine. If juries decide that Trump is not guilty of the charges leveled against him, that’s also fine. What’s important is that the machinery of the justice system functions as designed, even when the alleged lawbreaker is the former and possibly future president of the United States.
So we can say with some degree of certainty that America’s justice system has also passed the Trump test. Maybe not perfectly and not in every situation. If you were going to grade it, it might not get an A+. But this is a pass-fail situation and the rule of law has passed.
The final test Trump has posed is to Republican voters.
In 2016, they failed this test by throwing in their lot with a man who was manifestly unfit for the presidency.
But maybe they didn’t realize they were being tested.
Perhaps Republican voters didn’t understand what Trump was. Or believed that he would change. Or assumed that various institutions would constrain him. Or thought that the myriad predictions and criticisms of him were overblown.
Pretend that it’s the spring of 2016 and you told the median Republican voter: I just stepped out of a time machine and I can tell you two facts about the future: Donald Trump will be president. But after losing re-election he will incite an insurrection and direct thousands of armed supporters to attack the Capitol for the purpose of delaying the Electoral College vote count and murdering his vice president. Knowing this, will you still vote for him?
I suspect that the median Republican voter in 2016 would never have believed you. He would have viewed this fact set as so outlandish that he would have dismissed it out of hand.
Four years later, the median Republican voter not only believes that these events were real, but supports Trump’s role in them.
Another failed test.
Republican voters now know exactly who and what Donald Trump is. They are aware of his alleged crimes. They understand his vision for a post-democracy, illiberal America. There are no more pennies to drop. Anyone who is cognitively capable of grasping reality must have done so by now.
Trump is presenting himself to this group again and asking for their support.
What Republican voters tell pollsters in the coming weeks and months will be the equivalent of pop quizzes.
What they do with their primary votes in 2024 will be their final exam.
If Republican voters reject Trump, then it will be a happy day for America. It won’t be the end of the struggle for liberal democracy, but it will be (at least) a tactical victory that could represent the high-water mark for authoritarianism in America.
But if Republican voters choose Trump again?
I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.
On the one hand, half of the institutions tested by authoritarianism will have held, and that’s encouraging.
On the other hand, if Republican voters and the institutional Republican party are not capable of resisting authoritarianism on their own and rely on outside groups to preserve democracy for them . . . that’s not sustainable. Not in a country where the Electoral College makes minority rule as likely as not.
Reprinted with permission, © copyright TheBulwark 2023