Why Trump’s Challenges to Democracy Will Pose a Threat to Biden
The biggest threat to democracy Trump poses won’t emerge until after he exits the White House.
An attempt at an illegal power grab somehow keeping Donald Trump in the Oval Office was never likely to happen, let alone succeed. Trump always lacked the authority, and the mass support, required to steal an election he overwhelmingly lost.
Nevertheless, over his term as president, he repeatedly , like brazenly promoting his own business interests, interfering in the Justice Department, rejecting congressional oversight, insulting judges, harassing the media, and failing to concede his election loss.
It Wasn’t a Coup
Trump never really , which is a from one executive to another, where force or the threat of force installs a new leader with the support of the military. Coups are the typical manner in which one dictator succeeds another.
A coup displacing a legitimately elected government is quite rare; prominent examples from the past 100 years include Spain in 1923, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973, Pakistan in 1999 and Thailand in 2006.
Even if Trump’s most ardent supporters , there aren’t enough of them to credibly threaten civil war. Despite their ability to breach a , a sustained insurrection would be easily quashed by law enforcement.
Trump couldn’t even which happens when an elected executive declares a state of emergency and suspends the legislature and judiciary, or restricts civil liberties, to seize more power. There have also been very few of those governments over the last 100 years. The most prominent examples are Hitler’s Germany in 1933, Bordaberry in Uruguay (1972), Fujimori in Peru (1992), Erdoğan in Turkey (2015), Maduro in Venezuela (2017), Morales in Bolivia (2019), and Orbán in Hungary (2020).
A US president can’t dismiss the legislative or judicial branches, and elections are not under his control – the Constitution declares that they are . And the declaration of election results is also well outside the power of the president (or ). It doesn’t matter whether the losing side formally concedes; the .
The attack on the Capitol may have threatened the lives of federal legislators and Capitol police officers, but the most it achieved was to interrupt, briefly, a ministerial procedure. Within hours, both the House and Senate were back in session in the Capitol, carrying on their certification of the electoral votes cast in 2020.
Still a Threat to Democracy
By objecting to the outcome of the election, Trump highlighted aspects of the process that many Americans were previously unaware of, ironically ensuring the public is better informed about the . In that way, he may have, paradoxically, made American democracy stronger.
And it was fairly strong already. There was no evidence of any sort of widespread fraud or other irregularities. Major media organisations continue to and the regarding the election, the President’s disinformation campaign. In 2020, voter turnout was . Despite the pandemic, Trump’s rhetoric and threats of foreign tampering, the .
But beyond elections, Trump has threatened America’s other bedrock political institutions. While there are many seemingly disparate examples of his disregard for the Constitution, what unites them is impunity and contempt for the rule of law. He has committed numerous – including potentially on 6 January. He is facing a and both about possible misdeeds he committed in office and from before he became president.
The framers of the Constitution feared many things , but perhaps one anxiety eclipsed all others: a lawless president who never faces justice, and was never held accountable during or even after leaving office. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and .”
But the question of real, lasting – and legal – accountability will fall to Biden, and his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland. They will decide whether to continue existing investigations and potentially start new ones. State attorneys general and local prosecutors will have similar powers for the laws they enforce.
Newly-elected leaders can often face strong incentives – and encouragement – to prosecute their predecessors, as Biden does now. But that approach, often called restorative justice, can also if lame-duck executives anticipate this and decide to hunker down and fight instead of conceding defeat. Consider Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, toppled by Western military intervention and killed by his people in 2011. He refused to flee or seek asylum for fear that both foreign governments and his own successors would .
Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is when outgoing presidents in transitioning democracies enshrine protections against their prosecution directly before leaving office that the . This was the case in Chile with dictator Augusto Pinochet, who left power in 1989 under the aegis of a constitution he foisted on the country on his way out.
By contrast, the after-the-fact pardoning of crimes – as Gerald Ford did of Richard Nixon – runs the risk of creating a larger threat to democracy: the idea that rogue leaders and their henchmen are above the law. If Trump finds a way to pardon himself, he may reduce his legal vulnerability, but he can’t erase it entirely.
If prosecutors or Congress let Trump off the hook, they may be the ones breaking new and dangerous ground, truly shattering the rule of law that underpins American democracy.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)
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