May 24, 2024

Trump Losing in Court Won’t Save U.S. Democracy

The federal trial of Donald Trump on charges he sought to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 election will be the most important in American history. But it will not be enough to save our democracy.

The conviction of Trump on those charges is essential, what justice demands, and critical to the future of the rule of law in America. But it will not be enough to save our democracy.

The defeat of Trump in the 2024 election (should he be the Republican candidate) will help ensure that he does not pardon himself or launch further assaults on our system. But it will not be enough to save our democracy.

Ensuring losses for the Republicans who rally to Trump’s defense, despite overwhelming evidence of his crimes—who minimize his wrongdoing for transparently political reasons, who carry the MAGA torch with promises (as Gov. Ron DeSantis did) that they will replace the FBI director as a form of retribution for the Trump prosecutions—is vitally important. But it will not be enough to save our democracy.

That is because quite apart from the harm done (and still threatened) by Trump and his followers, our system has already sustained such deep systematic damage that it is more than just at risk. It is profoundly broken.

Part of this is the result of a decades-long systematic effort by those on the right to promote minority rule in America and, in particular, to ensure that the interests and power of a small fraction of Americans—primarily rich, white, Christian men—would remain protected. Part of this is due to the fact our system was born deeply flawed and our efforts to fix it were fitful and incomplete. Part of this is simply due to neglect, to failing to do the work of reassessment and reinvention that the Founders themselves anticipated would be a central strength of their legacy.

It is naïve to think that a single act, a single trial, a single election cycle will be enough to repair the damage that has been done.

When big donors on the right—the Kochs, the Mellons, Harlan Crow and the backers of the Federalist Society among them—began their effort decades ago to win statehouses, they knew theirs was a long-term project that would take many years to achieve

They sought the power to set state election rules and gerrymander, so they could control Congress and get their preferred judges lifetime judicial appointments to advance their practical and ideological goals, and so they could put presidents in place who support those efforts.

A protestor holds a banner in front of the federal courthouse after he was indicted again.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The same is true for the disciples of Roger Ailes and, later, Rupert Murdoch on the right. They sought to create a media ecosystem that would promote their political perspectives, their “values,” their candidates, and ultimately their skewed view of facts—even when they were completely divorced from reality.

Undoing this will be a generational effort. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers failed the country in crucial ways on this front. We must hope that Millenials and Gen Zers are not so feckless.

It is time to recognize that as bad as Trump was and is, and as dangerous as the MAGA movement remains, we must address the structural problems that have enabled them and the minority of Americans who support them to gain and wield power.

Some of these are vestiges of the system conveyed to us in the Constitution and by prior generations that grant disproportionate power to less populous, largely rural, largely red states by virtue of the structure of the Senate and, by extension, the Electoral College.

Some of these are the results of traditions that emerged over time in places, like the U.S. Senate, that have illogically and unjustly granted individual or small handfuls of senators huge and, frankly, inappropriate power in determining whether presidential nominees can be confirmed or pieces of legislation heard or approved.

Some of these are the result of efforts to place extremist jurists in lifetime judicial appointments and to maximize conservative control of the Supreme Court for decades to come—to promote and defend a narrow minority view. (Enabling the members of that court to operate without oversight, without a code of ethics, in the deeply corrupt manner now accepted, compounds the wrong here.)

The people who founded this country felt amending the Constitution might be an avenue to address some of the problems cited above. But precisely because the system they created enabled too much power to be conferred to too few people, that avenue is likely closed to us for the foreseeable future.

But it is not out of the question that reformers in the decades ahead could reset the balance among our states by creating new ones, like the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico.

It is naïve to think that a single act, a single trial, a single election cycle will be enough to repair the damage that has been done.

It is not impossible to imagine substantial reforms to Senate rules that eliminate the filibuster and certain ill-considered privileges individual senators now hold. It is not out of the question that lifetime judicial appointments could be ended, courts rebalanced or expanded to be fairer, and ethics laws created for the Supreme Court.

It is not out of the question that campaign finance laws could be rewritten to end the hugely disproportionate power of the rich—publicly financed, shorter campaigns are an idea successfully embraced in other democracies worldwide. Gerrymandering must end. Voting rights must be effectively protected. The rights of all citizens regarding race, gender or gender identification, sexual orientation,and religion must be scrupulously preserved and indeed, expanded.

There is no doubt that the first step toward many of these reforms must take place at the ballot box. We need to have a Congress and state legislatures that reflect the shifting demographics of America. In other words, while it is vital to defeat Trump in 2024, if you really want to have a chance at protecting and repairing U.S. democracy, you need to vote and ensure others get out and vote to defeat the enemies of democracy and the proponents of minority rule, however they may present themselves.

But it is also vitally important that this long-term effort be approached systematically, strategically, and relentlessly—just as the right’s efforts to pervert our system have been.

This will take the better part of our lifetimes and those of our children. There are no magic bullets.

And the opponents of democracy will continue their work, as the appalling MAGA GOP response in defense of Trump has demonstrated. Their now regular refrain that America is a republic not a democracy is not only wholly inaccurate (we are and have always been intended to be both) it is a tell. It is them saying that they do not value and actively seek to undermine and destroy majority rule in this country.

We can see in Trump’s crimes, the arrogance of Justices like Alito and Thomas, the abuses and failings of the McConnell Senate, the extremism of the MAGA-dominated House, and governors like DeSantis or Greg Abbott, where a failure to contain their pernicious efforts and those of their benefactors will lead us.

We must now build on the opportunities this moment offers, to finally push back on behalf of those they would disenfranchise. Indeed, we have an obligation to our children and to generations to come to do all we can to restore, advance and protect our aspiration to truly have a system that is by, for and of all of the people of this country.

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