Even as America hits low ebb with an out-of-control pandemic and staggering economic pain, there is, at least, the comfort that the nation can wrest itself out of its current situation if only it can find the political will.
As we wait for most Americans to be vaccinated, there is overwhelming evidence that mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding indoor events would save thousands of lives. Liberal economists know, even if sometimes congressional Republicans refuse to admit it, that massive government stimulus spending would save jobs and stabilize lives until a post-pandemic recovery.
But America also faces a third cataclysmic crisis: the deliberate destruction of democratic norms and values by a tin-pot president dreaming of military coups and his Republican acolytes. And unlike the other two crises, there is no certainty anywhere about how American democracy fully recovers.
Where is the roadmap for how a wealthy country—244 years after the Declaration of Independence inspired the world—gets over the authoritarian temptation? What do you do after a defeated president encourages nutcase conspiracy theories involving Hugo Chavez, the Chinese, the Republican governors of Georgia and Arizona, the Senate GOP leadership, the Justice Department, and the FBI to justify his claims about a “rigged” election?
Until recently, I toyed with the notion that Charles de Gaulle in 1944 offered a model when he concocted a mythology about the role of the Resistance in defeating the Nazis. At the Hotel de Ville, de Gaulle declared in what may have been his greatest speech, “Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of the whole of France, of France that is fighting, of France alone.”
Maybe, I thought, the incoming Joe Biden administration could adopt the de Gaulle Gambit. In this retelling of history, almost every American would be considered part of the resistance to Trump, including large swaths of the Republican Party. Only dead-enders like Jared, Ivanka, Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and the Proud Boys would be barred from benefiting from a nationwide bout of amnesia.
But that strategy died when 126 House Republicans—including party leader Kevin McCarthy—asked the Supreme Court to throw out the lawful election returns in four pro-Biden states because Trump didn’t like the result. They were making the implicit argument that any president can reverse the results of an election with the help of the permanent conservative Supreme Court majority.
It isn’t just the craven House Republicans. A CBS News Poll, conducted in mid-December, found that 79 percent of Trump voters believed that the election was not settled and should continue to be contested. In 1944 de Gaulle terms, it would be as if a sizable proportion of Parisians believed—and indeed hoped—that the Nazis still controlled the city and that any reports to the contrary were “fake news.”
What then is the solution for Biden and the Democrats—along with Never Trump Republicans—as they try to restore normalcy to American democracy?
Biden has his own answer to that question: As he has often said in the past, while you can always question the judgment of your political rivals, you should never question their motives. That makes sense in a legislative setting when you are groping toward a deal. But when it comes to the Trump supporters who encouraged or ignored affronts to democracy during the past four years, motivations become all-important—as a way of classifying people and dealing with them in the future.
Trump’s Republican enablers fit into roughly three camps. There are the true believers who worship the Great Leader with such zeal that they are willing, even eager, to abandon truth and logic in obedience to the latest Trump tweet. Another sizable group—heavily represented in politics and among Fox News hosts—are the cynics who ignore Trump’s excesses because the last four years have been so good for them personally. The third category, and probably the largest, is made up of the cowards, who might disagree with the president in private but who quake and shake in fear that crossing him publicly will cost them votes, business contracts, and friendships in the locker rooms of their country clubs.
Some of the true believers—at least those who have not spent the last four years spewing racism and hatred—deserve a certain degree of pity because they were victims of a con man. They are the ignorant and the gullible who, in a different context, might have greedily sent their banking information to a Nigerian email address. Often, victims of scams initially refuse to believe that they have been taken in. The best strategy is to reintroduce them patiently to the world of reality (“Sorry, but the families of deposed African despots don’t want to send you money”) in the hopes that eventually their delusions will fade.
Cynics present a trickier problem. For the TV hosts obsessed with ratings (I see you waving your hand, Tucker Carlson), the expectation is that new controversies (maybe “The War on Arbor Day”) will eventually provide richer fodder than Trump’s lies. Some cynics such as Mitch McConnell will, alas, continue to creep along the corridors of power in the Senate. Biden’s only strategy in dealing with them is to highlight situations in which their political self-interest lies in moving away from Trump. To some degree, Biden is already following this strategy as when he said in a pre-Christmas press conference, “I’m not going to villainize the opposition, but I am going to stand and say, ‘This is what we got to do.’”
The easiest group to deal with are the cowards because they knew the right thing to do all along—they just lacked the gumption to act on their instincts. The hope is that these Republicans will rediscover their moral compass with Trump out of the White House. It is telling that Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse became far more outspoken in his attacks on Trumpism after he won reelection in November, telling a Nebraska newspaper, “The Republican Party should be talking a lot more like Ronald Reagan than like QAnon.”
The trick for Biden and the Democrats is to welcome timorous conservatives like Sasse back to the world of defenders of democracy without demanding humiliating public confessions from them. Such restraint is admittedly difficult because almost all congressional Republicans (with the exception of Mitt Romney and the late John McCain) have much to atone for during the Trump years. But demanding vengeance on such figures, however emotionally satisfying, prolongs every conflict.
In a sense, this is the Muddling Through Option. It depends, in part, on the theory that once Trump is stripped of the trappings of power, he will no longer be the left’s and the right’s round-the-clock obsession. Without the White House as a backdrop for Trump’s craziness, without every cable TV network regarding the president as a profit center, regurgitating and amplifying his lies and libels each day, the hope is that the contagion that afflicted democracy will slowly fade. Even Trump rallies and speeches might attract a diminishing audience, as the festival of grievances grows increasingly repetitive.
I wish it were possible to claim that almost all Americans were in the Resistance and put these four years behind us in de Gaulle fashion. But never underestimate the long-term power of simply muddling through.