Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 6, 2023
A friend emailed with the question of why it is taking a book from lifelong conservative Liz Cheney to herald the idea that election of Donald Trump will usher in a dark period for democracy and its institutions, to say nothing of his promised vengeance presidency if he wins.
His point was that the loss of democratic principles — and the adoption of a king-like autocratic view of leadership that Trump advocates — ought to be top of all political agendas and anti-democratic promises ought to be banner headlines.
I heard his point, but was confused at the same time, since warnings about the end of democracy seem to be looming large in most publications about political news and public affairs. But there is a sense of hesitation in the news media about just how seriously to take the word of campaigner Donald Trump, who has shown repeated propensity to reach for the outlandish just to grab the spotlight for an hour or a day or a news cycle.
Indeed, Trump now has added democracy to his limited list of stump speech about political victimhood, unfair prosecutions, and the ever-present but under-evidenced assertion that President Joe Biden is corrupt, or a weak paper figure propped up by staff and by former President Barack Obama. Gist of the Trump argument is that if we still believed in democracy, we wouldn’t be seeing criminal and civil trials against him as a former president, would-be president, or announced presidential candidate.
Trump does not seem to see his own promises of a fully weaponized Justice Department to sic on political enemies, of arrest of generals who challenge him, of interruption of voting rights, of internment of vast numbers of migrants and immigrants, of the unleashing of military troops on domestic streets, of the overturning of Civil Service for appointees who pass a Trump political loyalty test, of disruption of courts and judicial independence, and a much longer list of institutional destruction as evidence that he wants to do away with government as we know it.
What Are We Hearing?
A fair sampling of articles just this week in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Salon, Slate, among other publications are all on the theme that democratic values are doomed in a second Trump administration. The Atlantic Magazine’s January issue is out with a set of 24 essays from different viewpoints on the single question of why democracy will quake in a Trump election win. There are days on MSNBC in which it seems like there is no other topic than Trump delusions about democracy.
Polling has identified concerns about democracy to be among top voter concerns, obviously with more interest from self-identifying Democrats than Republicans.
The issue does not seem to arise on Fox News, Newsmax, or Breitbart, where searches for Trump and Democracy or Autocracy turn up on sarcastic references to how Joe Biden is running amok in allowing Justice Department and state prosecution actions to be launched against Trump’s interest. Yesterday, there were multiple articles suggesting that “left-wing media outlets are stoking fear” about a second Trump administration, as Breitbart put it, sidestepping the very statements that Trump makes about invoking an Insurrection Act to send military troops into the street, for example.
There has been nary a question through three debates among Republican candidates opposing Trump about democracy being on trial or even about linkage between Trump’s increasingly harsh language about rooting out leftists, Marxists, fascists, and “vermin” of those who would question his role in (or out of) office as enemies.
Among the sites that do regular press critiques, the running themes for months have been about how to account for fact-slippery statements from Trump and about the level of confrontation that news reporters should be bringing to interviews with him. How Can Trump Possibly be Ahead? asks Press Watch, in a tone made sarcastic by Trump promises to suspend the Constitution in pursuit of personal freedom in his own criminal cases and suspension of rights for others.
In other words, the question is actively out there among those who pose questions, but not an issue for those who prefer not to hear that there might be questions. If you insist on “news” reports that still say there was widespread 2020 election fraud despite findings by 60 courts, or that the Jan. 6 did not involve Trump-led cohorts despite nearly 1,000 court convictions, or that Biden is sitting at home in the White House directing federal and state prosecutors on how to bring criminal and civil charges aimed at Trump, you’re unlikely to hear that democracy is an endangered species here.
The Cheney Book
Liz Cheney, the former Republican, conservative leader who has emerged as a leading anti-Trump voice over the issues of democracy because of election denial lies, is making the rounds on television in conjunction with her new book.
As a former Republican insider until her public shunning, Cheney now embodies the challenge over democratic values underlying all other public agenda items.
NPR says her book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, is a no-holds-barred accounting from inside the Republican party of the days before and after Jan. 6, Trump’s efforts to remain in office after losing the 2020 election and her often-lonely role in trying to thwart them. She makes clear with names and places that the anti-election schemes were from Trump but carried out with a network of her colleagues, some of whom feared election retribution and even physical violence from Trump supporters.
The dangers she describes are ongoing, from Trump’s defiance of the institutions meant to check him, to the Republican politicians who she says put their own ambitions ahead of their duty to the Constitution.
In her media interviews, Cheney — who may run for president herself — repeats that if Republicans “go down the path of nominating Donald Trump, certainly the party itself will have lost any claim to be a party that is, in fact, supportive of the Constitution.”
All well and good, but we shouldn’t need her voice to tell us for the first time that Trump is seeking a presidency based on retribution and vengeance that will sweep away democratic values in the way,