Politics

Trump Is Working Harder Than Ever to Undermine Democracy

He’s praising autocrats, destroying faith in elections, and tightening his grip on the GOP.

Trump speaking behind a dais with an American flag overhead
Former President Donald Trump speaks on Wednesday in Pharr, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

On Wednesday, two dozen House Republicans flocked to Texas to show their support for Donald Trump. They joined the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, in applauding the former president as he toured the border, denounced the U.S. government, and repeated the lie that he had been removed from office illegally. “Biden is destroying our country, and it all started with a fake election,” Trump declared as the lawmakers looked on in silence or approval. He accused the United States of “phony elections,” called it a “sick country,” and bragged that as president, he had seized military funds—against the will of Congress, and in defiance of the Constitution—to fund his border wall.

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For many Americans, Trump’s disappearance from Facebook, Twitter, and the mainstream media has left the impression that he has gone away. That impression is false and dangerous. Trump has tightened his grip on the GOP, and he has escalated his campaign to undermine American institutions. His authoritarian movement is a direct challenge not just to President Joe Biden but to the larger alliance of democracies. The fundamental political conflict in our country is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between people who believe in a democratic republic and people who don’t.

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Biden understands the gravity of the threat. Since the day he took office, he has pledged to confront China and Russia, rebuild “democratic alliances,” and “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back [against] authoritarianism’s advance.” In February, Biden said he had made clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over.”

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The authoritarian menace extends into our country. In his inaugural address, Biden noted that he was taking office “just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy.” He described his inauguration, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, as “the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause: the cause of democracy.” A month later, in a conference with European allies, Biden implicitly connected Putin’s propaganda to Trump’s attacks on NATO and the American electoral system. “Russian leaders want people to think that our system is more corrupt or as corrupt as theirs,” said Biden.

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Trump is working to spread that message of American corruption and to destabilize the U.S. government. In rallies, interviews, and emails to his supporters, the former president rejects the 2020 election as “fake,” a “hoax,” and a “crime.” He calls Biden’s government “illegitimate” and “unconstitutionally elected.” In May, he said his supporters were right to call him “the true President,” and he essentially demanded to be restored to office, arguing, “If a thief robs a jewelry store of all of its diamonds (the 2020 Presidential Election), the diamonds must be returned.” Republican leaders, far from repudiating Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack, blocked his conviction in a Senate trial, thwarted a proposed commission to investigate the attack, and reaffirmed their allegiance to him. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked twice whether Trump was “accountable in some way” for “the events leading up to Jan. 6.” McCarthy refused to answer.

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Trump trashes democracies, extols autocrats, and advocates a foreign policy based on profit, not human rights. In a Fox News interview on June 16, he savaged our allies in Europe—“They are in many ways worse than China,” he asserted—and called for closer ties with Russia, arguing that “we need things that they have,” such as “valuable land in terms of mineral rights.” At a rally in Ohio on Saturday, Trump praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and bragged that China was helping American farmers by honoring trade deals, thanks to Trump’s “great relationship” with President Xi Jinping. In a written statement, Trump urged foreign governments to “ban Twitter and Facebook.”

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Forty years ago, Republicans cheered when Ronald Reagan, on the eve of his presidential election, called America a shining city on a hill. Now they cheer when Trump parrots Russian propaganda that American democracy is fake. On June 5, in a speech to the North Carolina Republican convention, Trump scoffed, “All over the world, they used to say, ‘Oh, they’re [America] the land of the free, they have great elections.’ We don’t have great elections.” On Saturday, at his rally in Ohio, he said of the 2020 election, “What happened here is what the State Department used to criticize in communist countries. … [T]hey did a North Korean-style turnout.” On Wednesday, as Abbott nodded along, Trump said the United States was becoming a “banana republic” and a “third-world country … because our elections are a mess.”

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When you watch this parade of madness and cynicism, it’s tempting to write off the whole GOP. But that’s a mistake. To defeat authoritarianism, we need help from Republicans who believe in a republic. It’s a small faction, but it’s real, and last year in Arizona, it was arguably decisive. In January, 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump; in February, seven Senate Republicans voted to convict him. The third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney, sacrificed her leadership post to defend democracy against the former president. Every week, Trump denounces more Republican officeholders. His stated list of Republican enemies includes four senators, three members of the House, two governors, and state legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Last Friday, Trump went after Reagan, sneering that the 40th president’s endorsements, unlike Trump’s, “didn’t mean anything.” The more Trump talks, the more enemies he makes. Every one of those enemies can be part of the alliance for democracy.

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One of Trump’s targets, Sen. Mitt Romney, understands what’s at stake. In a CNN interview on Sunday, the Utah Republican warned that Trump’s lies about the election were “being used around the world” to undermine “support for democracy.” “There’s a battle going on in the world right now between the autocratic nations, like China and Russia, and nations that believe in democracy,” said Romney. The goal of the authoritarians, he explained, was to discredit elections by “point[ing] to the United States” and saying, “Look, they can’t even run an election there that’s not fraudulent.”

Romney is echoing what Biden and many Democrats have said. He’s standing with the president not because they agree on policy—they don’t—but because they agree on democracy. A decade ago, when Romney was the Republican presidential nominee, that agreement might have seemed trivial. It’s not trivial anymore.

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