Trials matter, convictions/penalties too, but radioactive fallout outlives the outlaw
Whatever Trump’s ultimate liabilities, even convictions won’t offset his profoundly destabilizing impacts on now a far less governable country. Notably, the worst Trump crimes against America won’t be resolved in a courtroom. One cannot say with confidence whether the tectonic array of Trump transgressions are one-time disruptions – or kickoffs for a subsequent go-round by savvier or more predatory schemers.
Beyond doubt is Trump’s scandalous career con – clogging up court resolution (until death do us part?). Yet, even if found culpable on Georgia voter fraud, witness intimidation, or tax evasion, only full clarity on sedition (and inciting an armed Capitol riot) begins to address Trump systemic bust-ups. The nails aren’t even hammered in Trump’s political coffin, as if serial law breaking, an unfit character or growing derangement is insufficiently disqualifying. Some onerous crimes against democracy, not strictly illegal, have ready fixes: mandate no candidates can defy (or impugn) certified election results without facing serious penalties. Equally serious, systemic train wrecks, however, pose huge, longterm challenges:
1) Trumpist assaults against public confidence in legitimate democratic voting. No authoritarian losers should be able to destroy election credibility simply because they lost – then incessantly complain. No one with Trump’s willful blindness – on registering voters, fundraising rules, administration of elections, or what constitutes fraud – should escape now manifestly destructive intentions to reverse clear, majority outcomes.
2) Trumpist assaults against public confidence that federalism is absolutely necessary to manage this culturally-divided amalgam – a bi-coastal, urban/rural, incredibly-varied landscape with painfully high income inequality. Aside from military defense, federalism is what truly made America great, forcing enlightenment on slavery, enacting a fistful of neglected rights (across voting, civil, workers’, women’s, children’s, housing, education and gender), basic research in science and technology, infrastructure (however currently neglected), even reigning in corporate, investment and banking excesses (mergers, monopolies, restraint of trade, union busting).
It is the indefensible void of federal oversight that explains endlessly horrific mass shootings. Washington’s expertise on drug, food and consumer safety, health care, stock trading and more are not matched elsewhere. Trump repeatedly demonized an alarming number of critical federal agencies, badmouthing the FBI, the CIA, the FDA, the Federal Reserve, Veteran Affairs, the Civil Service, the Secret Service, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon, allegedly rife with generals dumber than he (a logical impossibility).
3) The assault of Trump’s malignant narcissism against any rules, laws or Constitutional constraints he deemed in his way. At least Nixon was lawyer-enough to appreciate what breaking the law meant – thus his more tactical, insular disruption. Being our first anti-president, Trump not only scoffed at the law, but undercut the concept of law, as the basis for justice, in turn the basis of civilization. That’s why smarter fascists elsewhere force statutory changes before they do their worst, then bragging, “I only enforce the law.” Nazis passed racist legislation before scapegoating, then murdering countless “enemies of the state.”
Enabled by the dishonorable GOP, Trump’s four years was a virtual rampage, answering to neither laws nor judges, Congress nor the majority. Thus, the systemic threats to law and order surpassed personal violations but invoke the appalling fiction that the concept of law itself is optional, even arbitrary in a democracy, especially if no one should be above the law. What campaign pitched lawlessness and disorder?
4) Trump normalized assaults against the centrality of science and professional expertise, not just on health, welfare and disease but disruptive behavior from violence, crime, drug usage, business fraud, gun deaths, police abuses, etc. Modern life depends on tested, adaptable, independent knowledge, not knee-jerk defaults to lying, faith alone, the Gospels, social networks, FOX distortions, or back-fence chit-chat. Trump’s most “systemic” intellectual crime is the opposition to reason, evidence and logic – how civilized nations define problems, collect data, then make decisions. “You can’t fix stupid” fits the brew of Trump ignorance, denial and petty calculation, causing needless pandemic fatalities, the most costly episode since WWII.
5) Demolition of consensual truth as an epistemological standard for awareness and action. Trump capitalized on and reduced the intelligence of his terrified base, apparently staggered by the dynamics of a modern, secular, diverse, global world. As with law, Trump attacked the nature of truth by substituting lies as if equivalent (or better, more open to vast manipulation), thus reinforcing corrosive, fundamentalist biases on religion, guns, race, and procreation. That culminated in the most telling, rightwing myopia: absolute certainty what Trump’s base knows is all humanity ever has to know. Trump’s cognitive litany challenged the very concept of knowledge, whether lying about wind turbines causing cancer, amazed that “no one knew how complicated health care is,” lying to the CIA about the number of people at his inauguration, proposing to buy Greenland, then befuddled by the diplomatic crisis when Denmark balked, alleging the moon was part of Mars, claiming that raking forests would prevent forest fires, or confused why we can’t simply nuke hurricanes. And many more.
6) Trump’s undying defiance, the engine driving his strongman takeover, of the core to every democracy: peaceful transfers of power. If losers never give up, elections aren’t about voter mandates but inciting violence, if not the next civil war, hot or cold. Trump could still be president if he were as good at scheming a coup as he is at debunking, then crashing essential democratic systems. He corrupted what credibility still accrues to the Electoral College (with sleazy, fake elector slates) on top of overt fraud/blackmail (in GA), then desperately siccing Jan. 6 mobsters against an indisputable Constitutional mandate. Say what?
7) Trump spearheaded public incivility, devastating the good will that fosters national debate and dissent. No democracy tolerates badgering the media, let alone dissenters, as “enemies of the people.” To lie constantly, then repeat ad infinitum, makes already disliked politicians no more trusted than phone scammers. What democracy survives a continual farce that impugns the very notion of representative government? Further, by giving full license to disrespect all but older, white, male, Protestant Republicans, Trump fed waves of misogyny, racism and immigrant hatred – impugning Gold Star families, even “suckered” US soldiers killed in wars that Trump disdained. Also not strictly illegal, the calculated amplitude of bad faith has sent public discourse to abysmal lows in nastiness, provocation, and shameless abuse of the opposition.
8) Trumpism represents a systemic assault on his own Republican Party. His contempt for non-MAGA RINOs has and will further damage the once conservative brand after 170 years. On display (even without Jan 6 mortifications) are growing numbers of ex-Republican Never Trumpers, centrists and more than a few Republicans finally disgusted by this serial lawbreaker. Many big donors now judge Trump an erratic, malicious, unelectable loser, even a menace who squandered whatever prior “favorables” existed. More predictable backlash will taint the entire Republican party – only accelerated by a looming, premature Trump campaign. Can anyone not imagine even more profound systemic catastrophes wrought by a second Trump term – or a third or fourth – until an intervening jaws of life extricates him from the Oval Office? One hopes our institutional systems have enough “jaws of life” on call to restore equilibrium. Redemption surely will take much longer than the single term that caused the devastation.