The contents of Donald Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are undoubtedly grim. There is no real ambiguity about the thing: Trump is pushing Raffensperger to commit electoral fraud—to, in Trump’s words, “find” him the votes he needs to overturn his loss in Georgia. Call it what you want—an attempted coup, an impeachable offense, whatever—it’s bad.
And yet I will admit to being somewhat bemused by the reaction to the whole affair, which has consisted of a lot of heavy-breathing columns about Democracy. Here’s a typical example from the New York Times’ Peter Baker:
President Trump’s relentless effort to overturn the result of the election that he lost has become the most serious stress test of American democracy in generations, led not by outside revolutionaries intent on bringing down the system but by the very leader charged with defending it.
In the 220 years since a defeated John Adams turned over the White House to his rival, firmly establishing the peaceful transfer of power as a bedrock principle, no sitting president who lost an election has tried to hang onto power by rejecting the Electoral College and subverting the will of the voters — until now. It is a scenario at once utterly unthinkable and yet feared since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s tenure.
There are but 16 days left in President Trump’s term, but there is no doubt that he will use all of his remaining time in office to inflict as much damage as he can on democracy — with members of a now-divided Republican Party acting as enablers.
The call, an audio recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner, was as outrageous as it was chilling. Legal experts can debate how close to the line Trump was with the telephone call. Others can speculate about the president’s current state of mind. The content of the call speaks for itself, and the audio excerpts should be heard by anyone who cares about the integrity of elections in America.
You know there’s trouble in the land when writers start pulling out ye olde phrases like “there are but 16 days left” and talking about John Adams.
Now, as I said at the beginning of this blog, I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of what Trump is doing. Running around trying to get people to help you steal an election is a pretty cut-and-dry terrible way to occupy your time. I think my bemusement, about this and all the other freakouts we’ve had about the damage Trump is doing to our precious institutions, comes from the weirdness I feel towards people who had a ton of faith in those institutions in the first place.
It’s particularly blinkered to view the United States as a guardian of democratic values, whether at home or abroad. Domestically, this is a country that denied Black people full political rights (on paper at least) until 1965; that has some of the most anti-democratic governing bodies possible; that has gone out of its way to suppress peoples’ votes for centuries; and whose presidential elections are only open to the kind of tampering Trump is attempting because they are decided by the Electoral College instead of, y’know, just counting who got the most votes across the country. Stolen elections happen all the time in this country. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, currently one of the people being lauded for standing up to Trump, is only in power because he stole an election. He just did it the right way—by getting voters purged—rather than the tacky way Trump is doing things.
Abroad, well, just try telling people in about a zillion countries around the world that the United States respects democratic principles. Our standing as a supposed bulwark of freedom is one that has always been achieved through both tacit and active support of bloodshed and repression across the globe. It is an indictment of the Peter Bakers of the world that our self-image is so impermeable, even when it is so clearly based on fantasy.
As is so often the case with him, Trump is merely taking what has always been implicitly true about this country—that it promises full political rights to a select few, and that its respect for the trappings of democracy is built on sand—and making it explicit. He is bringing the tawdriness out into the light. That he is doomed to failure is not so much a testament to the power of the American way as it is a testament to his weakness and incompetence.