What’s at stake in 2020 election

Under Trump, our democracy is in peril

Sasha Abramsky, a SN&R contributor who teaches at UC Davis, writes Signal:Noise, a twice-weekly column for the Nation magazine, and a weekly subscription-based column at <a href=theabramskyreport.com.">

Sasha Abramsky, a SN&R contributor who teaches at UC Davis, writes Signal:Noise, a twice-weekly column for the Nation magazine, and a weekly subscription-based column at theabramskyreport.com.

The three years since President Trump’s election have been a continual stress test on America’s political institutions and cultural norms.

With wholesale attacks on immigrants, presidential tweets that get more bizarre and brutal, assaults on the free press, a nihilistic onslaught against environmental protections, an embrace of white nationalist rhetoric, and a normalization of economic self-dealing, the Trump era has corroded values, shattered the integrity of the political system and lowered the bar for acceptable behavior for elected officials.

“Anyone whose heart remains calm today, has no heart,” the scholar Victor Klemperer wrote in his diaries on the early Nazi era, later published as the book I Will Bear Witness. He chronicled how Germans became inured to sadism and after Kristallnacht in November 1938, he wrote sorrowfully that the torching of synagogues and killing of Jews “made less impression on the nation than cutting the bar of chocolate for Christmas.”

Eighty years later, are we Americans surviving the stress test better than did those pre-war Germans? The answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, solid majorities of the public refuse to buy into Trump’s propaganda and lies. They oppose his policies on immigration, health care and the environment, and his approach to women’s rights and to gay rights. According to some recent opinion polls, a thin majority of Americans now favor Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

At the same time, the courts have done a surprisingly good job of upholding constitutional and legislative norms, refusing to allow arbitrary power grabs through executive actions and sweeping regulations. For example, two versions of the anti-Muslim travel ban were thrown out before the Trump administration threaded the needle and produced a formula that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually accepted.

The courts have also stepped in to protect Dreamers and hundreds of thousands with Temporary Protected Status and to stop a permanent system of detention camps for immigrant families along the southern border, and they have pushed back against Trump’s use of military construction funds to build his much-touted border wall. Recently, courts have been standing up to the Trumpist notion that the president can do no wrong by upholding congressional subpoenas for his tax returns and allowing a case alleging violation of the Emoluments Clause to proceed.

But these are precarious legal victories, vulnerable to eventually being overturned by the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority cemented into place by Trump’s two nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The lower court rulings are only holding actions rather than permanent blocks on Trump’s claims to unfettered power.

Anti-Trump protestors rally in Sacramento in November 2016.

Photo by karlos rene ayala

Resistance and oversight

The mixed-bag answer holds politically as well. State legislatures, especially in big liberal states such as California, have successfully stood up to Trump on environmental policies, gay rights, workplace regulations, the minimum wage, health care access and more.

Congress, however, has been at best stalemated, and at worst an enabler of this extremist presidency. When the GOP controlled both the House and Senate, Trump pushed through a tax bill that gave away billions to the wealthy, but failed to get other major legislation enacted.

Now that Democrats control the House, there is even more of an impasse on big policy changes. Trump’s signature themes—such as funding the border wall and dramatically reducing immigration—won’t pass the House. And Democratic measures on the environment, gun control, the minimum wage and so on aren’t even being debated by Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s, Trump-enthralled Senate.

Where the House is being more effective, of course, is in oversight. Since early 2019, its hearings and investigations have exposed the systemic criminality, cruelty and corruption of the administration. Trump will likely be impeached by the House before year’s end because of his abuse of power, his obstruction of justice and, quite likely, his violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

Yet Congress has been ineffective in stopping Trump from using executive fiat to move the nation rightward. The best that can be said of the legislative situation after three years of Trump is that the further right his administration swings, the more that officials in California and other progressive states see the moral urgency to craft their own social safety nets, their own environmental protections, their own living wage laws and their own infrastructure investments.

Ultimately, however, local and state solutions don’t have the clout of federal policy. And if the gangster-president wins reelection, it’s a pretty sure bet that the federal government will be even further weaponized to penalize states that don’t go along with his policies. Should Trump somehow thread the Electoral College needle again in 2020 and win reelection, his assault on blue states’ rights will intensify.

Such a calamitous result next year would utterly shred what remains of the country’s democratic political system and of the global institutions that, for decades, have worked on the assumption of American economic and political stability. It is almost impossible to imagine that after eight years of a rogue president, America would emerge in 2024 in any meaningful way recognizable as the same country or the same democracy that it was pre-Trump.

And it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which such a morally bankrupted and diminished America—a country looked at with a combination of resentment and bemusement by allies and foes alike—continues to be the world’s superpower. Sure, it would still be militarily unmatched, but increasingly that would be viewed as a vast contributor to global instability rather than as an anchor keeping global alliances and international trade on an even keel.

All of that and more is at stake on Nov. 3, 2020.

Trump supporters gather in Sacramento in March 2017.


Courts and climate change

Let’s start with the federal courts. Trump has already reshaped the lower courts as few presidents before him have done, and has already installed two Supreme Court justices. Whoever wins in 2020 will over the succeeding four years almost certainly get to nominate one and possibly two or more, justices to the high court. If a hyper-conservative super-majority is locked into place, say goodbye to meaningful environmental reforms, gun control, abortion rights, what remains of voting rights protections, the tattered remnants of trade union rights, legal protections for undocumented immigrants and perhaps even to birthright citizenship.

As for the environment, if we don’t make a serious effort to rein in carbon emissions over the next few years, we will have missed our narrow window to prevent a climate catastrophe. So in the 2020 election, we carry with us the weight of future generations. Will America continue to give power to politicians who either do not believe in the science of climate change, or are too beholden to corporate interests to get behind big structural reforms? Will America continue to be a fossil fuel-driven economy, or will it throw its support toward Green New Deal-styled investments and priorities? Will we make an effort to limit global warming, or will we essentially accept it and seek instead to benefit economically and militarily from the opening up of Arctic shipping lanes and from newly accessible mineral deposits under Greenland’s melting ice?

Trump’s staggering contempt both for the environment and for any and all international efforts to control carbon emissions speaks to a more general political threat. The tycoon-politician is temperamentally a deeply authoritarian and nationalist figure. He views democracy as a hindrance, and its system of checks and balances as at best an inconvenience and at worst a “phony” restriction on his untrammeled power. Trump has “joked” about being in power for more than two terms and has even expressed enthusiasm for countries that have a president-for-life. His campaign team openly talks about a Trump dynasty in which his children and his in-laws would be groomed to inherit his political mantle. He has repeatedly mocked and humiliated allied democracies, and has repeatedly fawned upon dictators.

No more limits

If Trump survives impeachment, runs for reelection under a cloud of rampant criminality and abuse of power and still wins, he will feel entirely empowered to disregard any and all remaining constitutional limits. What we have seen since January 2017 will be but a milquetoast prelude to the violence, the intimidation and the near dictatorship of a second term. And it would be even worse if a Trumpified-GOP regained control of the House and oversight largely ceased.

Trump, like all fascists, secures his hold on power by nurturing a cult of personality, by waging war on truth and on facts, by holding science in contempt and by dragging public discourse and the broader culture down to his gutter level. He mocks “cultural elites” for their education and dismisses political opponents as traitors. And he glories in debasing and degrading the politicians who require his ongoing favor in order to secure their own positions. Witness how Trump has repeatedly humiliated a man like Sen. Lindsey Graham, knowing that, at the end of the day, Graham will simper at his every kind word and perform whatever moral and intellectual gymnastics are required to stay in the Great Leader’s good graces.

America is being reshaped by an obscene fascination with the personality of one, bloviating, narcissistic political figure.

It’s easy to succumb to fatigue in this exhausting, Alice-through-the-looking-glass political moment. It’s easy to simply stop paying attention because engagement in such a moment is a sure-fire way to raise one’s blood pressure and foul one’s mood. But the easy option is frequently the most dangerous one.

Too much is on the line in the 2020 election to not get engaged and to not vote. Our history, our moral standing, our environment, our place on the global stage—all of that and more is at stake. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to generations to come to get involved. For this is the fight of our political lives. Too many people sat out in 2016, too many fell for the false equivalency argument. It was a bad argument in 2016, and with all that’s unfolded since, it’s an even worse argument now. There is no moral justification for fence-sitting.

We have a duty to make sure that the Republican nominee isn’t just beaten but is thrashed. If the GOP candidate is Trump, we have to ensure that he is so thoroughly defeated that there is no room for him to refuse to accept the result, to withhold the peaceful transfer of power, as he has hinted that he might do. If it’s one of his acolytes, we have to so thoroughly defeat him or her, as well as the entire GOP supporting cast, that political parties learn that if they tie their fortunes even temporarily to a demagogue, eventually they will be destroyed.

In 2020, we must send an overwhelming message saying America rejects the cruelty and the irrationality, the narcissism and the hubris of Trumpism. Anything less will leave us all tarnished and diminished.