Before we Americans undertake gymnastic contortions patting ourselves on the back for heading off an autocratic insurrection that would have nullified the presidential election, perhaps we should take a sobering look at just how lucky we were.
Yes, democracy, the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States ultimately prevailed over Trump’s sustained, multi-front efforts to hijack the final — and abundantly validated — outcome of the election that delivered the presidency to Joe Biden.
But for all his bluster and bloviating, Donald Trump would go only so far in his quest to stay in power by any means. After exhorting his ultranationalist followers on Jan. 6 to march from the White House to the Capitol where some violently invaded and vandalized the building in a failed effort to stop Congress’s Electoral College vote certification, Trump didn’t (or couldn’t) push things any farther, earning him the scorn of some far-right groups that had urged him to stay in office by force.
House and Senate members were hustled into secure quarters seconds before marauding pro-Trump throngs tried to crash the House chamber and succeeded in overrunning the Senate. But Congress returned and completed the prescribed constitutional duty of confirming Biden’s victory.
His heretofore dutiful attorney general, Bill Barr, had already spoken the brutal truth to Trump that his stolen election claims were “bulls**t,” and then resigned with less than a month left in Trump’s unraveling single term.
After finishing 0-60 in court challenges based on groundless claims the election was stolen from him, Trump finally found himself, after the failed Capitol putsch, isolated and checkmated. Banned from both Facebook and Twitter, he could no longer communicate with his feral followers.
Even Trump’s slavishly devoted vice president, Mike Pence, found himself in an irreparable rift with Trump after nearly falling into the hands of Capitol rioters who shouted about hanging him. Trump offered Pence no aid and didn’t call once to inquire about his wellbeing or anyone else’s during the siege. Last Wednesday, when Trump became the first president since also impeached-and-disgraced Andrew Johnson in 1869 to boycott his successor’s inaugural, Pence blew off Trump’s sparse final sendoff at Joint Base Andrews to attend Biden’s inauguration as the departing administration’s lone representative.
Not even in the lawless tenure of Richard Nixon before Watergate forced his resignation had America lurched so close to authoritarian rule. While Nixon showed no qualms about using federal agencies to spy on and disrupt his enemies or to later conceal those crimes from Congress, the press and prosecutors, he did not wage an unceasing campaign to degrade the essential institutions of democracy as Trump did.
Trump sought to turn the Justice Department — the national agency most responsible for the “law and order” he espoused — into his personal law firm, demanding of two attorneys general that they torment his foes, clean up his indiscretions and display loyalty to him above all else. He appointed federal judges — including three Supreme Court justices — betting wrongly that when push came to shove, that they would side with him rather than their oaths and the Constitution.
He installed his toadies within the nation’s intelligence agencies to produce findings favorable to him rather than accurate, actionable information on adversaries of the republic. Concurrently, he alienated America’s most durable post-World War II allies to play footsie with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.
He missed no opportunity to undermine an already enfeebled independent press, ironically labeling it “fake news” even as he defied medicine, science and fact to traffic in mind-boggling falsehoods from conspiracist fiction factories and hostile foreign powers.
As Americans, we are lucky that we didn’t have to find out what would happen had Trump heeded the delusional D-list hangers-on who had his ear in the final days and urged him to cling to power by attempting to declare martial law. We will never know what would have happened had the Republicans picked up the additional 10 or more House seats last fall that could have given them Senate and House majorities when the 117th Congress convened to conduct the Jan. 6 electoral vote certification.
We are blessed that Republican and Democratic election officials in six decisive swing states held firm to the truth and the law when Trump dispatched his lawyers to try and reverse their totals. Trump himself came across like a sitcom Mafia don in trying to shake down Georgia’s GOP secretary of state and his lawyer in a desperate recorded phone call.
Ultimately, our greatest saving grace may have been Trump’s own glaring personal failings and character defects. He has no more restraint over his whims and peeves than a poorly parented toddler. He has no brake between his spleen and his mouth (or his smartphone), where he telegraphed (or, precisely, tweeted) his every venal impulse or intention. Had he devoted the time he spent gorging on cable news to crafting a coordinated national plan for battling the pandemic, he could be at the start of a second term now rather than sulking in defeat at Mar-a-Lago.
Ultimately, his unrestrained narcissistic excesses and his lack of empathy were his Achilles heel. He was easier to read than a Louis L’Amour novel.
The next aspiring autocrat — from the fringes of either the left or right — won’t be as clumsy, boorish and reckless. This man or woman will know how to remain silent and keep his or her schemes secret. She or he will be a better student of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Michael Corleone — “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
This person will cloak his or her despotic tactics in savory sweetness rather than Trumpian bile. She or he will not stumble over no-brainer basics like leading the charge to protect the nation from a deadly contagion. There will be no Holy Bibles held up for a garish photo op on the grounds of a church where the air still stings of the teargas federal forces had used moments before to disperse peaceful protesters.
The Trump next time will be fine Tennessee whiskey, not bottom-shelf rotgut. It will poison our freedoms slowly, incrementally — almost imperceptibly. A misinformed or incurious electorate won’t realize that the rule of law has given way to the dictates of a single person until it’s too late, until our Constitution and the institutions that support it are so atrophied that, as a people, resistance will be futile.
The answer is educated discernment, putting in the work required of informed citizenship — the ability and willingness to go beyond facile fantasies shopped by conspiracy mongers and diligently find facts on our own. Learn firsthand what the Constitution says; don’t take some talking head’s word for it. Challenge unsupported conclusions and demand evidence. Use your freedom-of-information laws and look up original documentation from places of authority. Hold media and government alike to high standards for that same proof.
Ultimately, protecting and preserving this noble endeavor in self-governance now nearly a quarter of a millennium old rests with a quotation popular in the 19th century: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”