Column: The depth of Trump’s danger to democracy

To the Valley News
Published: 10/15/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 10/15/2020 10:10:08 PM

We all know the saying, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” And, we remember the disaster that befell the Titanic when her skipper sailed too close to the iceberg and an underwater spur ripped the ship open below decks.

It was an irreparable wound dealt by an unseen adversary. I believe that four more years of Donald Trump’s presidency is likely to do the same thing to American constitutional democracy.

This is about much more than the traditional political issues that are debated in presidential and congressional campaigns. Having said that, I will also address them in the context raised by COVID-19 and the resulting racial and economic crises it has revealed.

But the “Titanic Effect” is a political issue itself. It couples personal behavior that corrodes the norms that have informed bipartisan government with constitutional corruption that re-interprets historic understandings of the Constitution, including its critical importance of maintaining the balance of power among the three branches of government. The “tip of the iceberg” is what we see and hear from the president every day. But the rest of that iceberg — the lies, deceptions and constitutional infringements that have accumulated steadily since the day Trump was elected — is the truly dangerous threat. And it is gouging a hole in our commonly held understandings of behavior and the law — and is ready sink the ship of state.

This president challenges and undercuts the rule of law and common decency on a daily basis. He promotes racist behavior and practices, armed militias, and active suspicion of and disbelief in science. He threatens the sanctity of the voting process. And he ignores the tenets of the Constitution when he ignores the emoluments clause, end-runs the confirmation process for administration appointees, and encourages active conflict between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Department of Justice on the issue of Russian manipulation of the 2016 election and the Ukraine.

Taken one at a time, this daily barrage has the effect of water torture, a drip, drip, drip of bad news. But taken collectively, it constitutes a pattern of unconstitutional and immoral behavior that is eroding the foundations of a shared vision of what government does and how government does it. When Trump uses the White House and our national monuments as props for his campaign, that is illegal. When he asks the secretary of state to address the Republican National Convention from abroad, he is setting a precedent that has historically been expressly forbidden. If we turn the symbols of government into political stages, it goes not only against the rules, but it weakens our shared assumptions about democracy.

I believe the post-COVID-19 Congress and president are going to have to deal aggressively with food, housing and income insecurity, racism, campaign finance reform, voting rights and climate change. The acute deficiencies in each of these areas have been harshly illuminated in a way that we can no longer ignore. Having said that, these issues should constitute the basis for debate between and within the major political parties. That is what governing is and should be about. And the resulting accountability for elected officials at the ballot box is what elections should be about.

But the “Titanic Effect” of Trump’s presidency on our democracy makes his accountability at the ballot box in November the first order of business.

I cannot support him or those who align with him in their elected offices. Republican submission to Trump and his way of governing reveals a party without personal principles that is led by a tyrant in “democratic” clothing. And I urge other Republicans and independents to understand the deep danger that Donald Trump poses to our democratic way of life.

Peter Smith is a former U.S. representative from Vermont and a member of the steering committee for Republicans and Independents for Biden.

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