American democracy persevered because of those who rejected the arrogant counsel that the system would hold: The protesters who mobbed airports and filled the streets, the organizers who planned meetings and knocked on doors, and the voters who flooded the polls by the tens of millions.
The wounds of Trumpism haven’t proved lethal to the democratic project, but they are very real.
Trump’s initial attack on American democracy occupied much of the first two years of his administration, but was arguably the least damaging in the long term. As a candidate, Trump both encouraged and benefited from the intervention of the Russian government in an American election. As a candidate and as president, Trump sought to deflect blame from the Kremlin, illegally obstructed the investigation (arguably successfully) into its interference, and then pardoned supporters who had refused to cooperate with investigators.
Yet to the extent that Russia’s gambit succeeded in tilting the 2016 election, it was because of the last-minute intervention by James Comey, then the director of the FBI. Comey’s decision to violate Department of Justice guidelines regarding disclosure of information that could affect elections—while keeping the bureau’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had illegally coordinated with the Russian government secret—was an indispensable factor in Trump’s 2016 victory. Trump and his allies spent the next four years railing against rogue actors in law enforcement and intelligence agencies, willfully ignoring the fact that Trump owed his presidency to such people.
As president, Trump attempted to use the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander that would enhance the political influence of white voters at the expense of Black and Latino voters. That scheme was foiled by bureaucratic incompetence on the administration’s part, as liberal activists used the trail of breadcrumbs it had left behind to uncover the nature of the scheme just before the Supreme Court was set to rule on it. If Trump had won a second term, he might have succeeded in manipulating the census for political ends.
A year before the 2020 election, Trump tried to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into falsely accusing his most likely Democratic rival of a crime. The actions of a lone whistleblower led to Trump’s plan being revealed, and subsequently to his first impeachment. The Democratic congressional leadership might have preferred to avoid impeachment, but his actions made it necessary; to allow a president to use his authority to frame a political rival without consequence would be to invite him to do it again. Impeaching Trump failed to remove him, but it exposed and neutralized a campaign smear that his enablers in the press were, until that moment, eager to amplify.
The case for impeaching Trump was straightforward: If presidents can use the awesome power of their office to frame their political rivals for crimes, they can prevent the rise of anyone attempting to challenge their hold on power. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to support conviction, argued on the Senate floor. Romney was correct; the Founders had devised impeachment precisely for the possibility of a chief executive who abuses his power to stay in office.