Leveraging Our Differences

During the trial, the mob will be gone but the threat to democracy has only begun

Donald Trump's second impeachment trial
The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump began Tuesday.
congress.gov via Getty Images

Jacobson is a consultant who advises elected officials on foreign and economic policy. He is a member of theTruman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank.

Jan. 6. was not the end of the threat to our democracy. It was the moment the undeniable threat could no longer be denied.

The knowledge that ours is the world's rarest form of government, an understanding of the forces now fully unleashed in our country, and the choices Republican leaders have made in the last month — all should leave us with the sober realization that the battle for democracy has only just begun. The Senate impeachment trial won't change a thing.

In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, it was tempting to believe American democracy would be just fine. Widespread condemnation of Donald Trump's actions, and the swift transfer of power, has created a potentially false sense of security. But if we set aside partisan considerations, and focus only on preserving a democratic form of government, history shows we shouldn't be so naive.

Examining successful autocratic breakthroughs in the last century, and democratic resilience to such anti-democratic insurgencies, reveals the current direction of the Republican Party. Rather than ending the threat to our democracy, it is actually keeping the threat alive.

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In moments when democracy has prevailed over right-wing insurgencies — movements that blend fascist, ethnic nationalist and anti-democratic energy — the center-right has isolated and pushed out extremist forces. Or, it has formed a coalition with the left to prevent the insurgents from gaining control. The GOP has done neither of these so far.

More than half of Republicans in Congress (147 of 261) voted to overturn the election hours after the storming of the Capitol. Rather than distance himself from the disgraced former president, who spent months attacking the bedrock of our republic, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went to Trump's home in Florida two weeks ago to smooth things over. The day before, 45 of the 50 Republican senators voted against even having an impeachment trial, arguing it's unconstitutional to try a president after he leaves office — an incredibly dangerous precedent for the rule of law.

Rather than denouncing radical elements in the party, those in the GOP who voted to impeach Trump now face political peril while those pushing wild anti-semitic conspiracy theories have been protected. Republicans at the state level, citing concerns around election integrity built on lies about voter fraud, have introduced more than 100 bills to make it harder to vote — including efforts to severely limit voting by mail.

These are naked attempts to shrink the opposition's electorate.

What has not happened to restore trust in our elections, though, is the party's leaders standing up to tell their voters the truth. Consequently, the vast majority of Republicans still believe the election was stolen, providing future fuel to the fire that led to the insurrection. Autocratic breakthroughs are enabled by the flawed view that such movements can be contained.

Eventually, dissenting voices get removed and the extreme elements take over the power structure. This gives insurgents the opportunity to capture the government and pursue anti-democratic aims they justified as necessary to right a previous injustice. Add in an intentional disinformation campaign — amplified by expansive communication networks and an ethnic nationalist call for a return to glory, which defines opposing voices as a threat to the real nation itself — and you have a recipe for disaster. In other words, what the GOP and its support apparatus are doing now is exactly the wrong thing for democracy.

Two paths stand before the rest of us. One allows us the chance to strengthen our republic. The other risks the destruction of the American experiment and a future that looks more like Hungary, Turkey, Russia or Venezuela. These illiberal regimes maintain a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy while the rules of the game are fixed in their favor and the levers of power are weaponized to weaken all opposition, thus curtailing civil rights.

The right path demands sustained civic engagement for many years from the vast majority of our people. The wrong path offers the seductive lure of a return to normalcy.

The right path demands accountability and substantial systemic reforms to our political system. The wrong path calls upon us to sweep this under the rug in pursuit of a shallow unity.

The right path requires us to restore a foundation of shared facts in a choose-your-own-truth world. The wrong path asks people to compromise with delusion to restore harmony.

The right path requires us to fully confront white supremacy and systemic racism. The wrong path allows us to dismiss sedition as the actions of a rogue, unrepresentative mob.

The right path requires us to acknowledge that we only have one political party committed to democracy, governing and the rule of law. The wrong path allows us to treat Trump as an aberration, rather than a reflection of what the modern GOP has become.

The long-term fate of our republic may just lie in whether or not Republicans do what is necessary to purge themselves of a cancer much deeper than Donald Trump. If not, to ensure we go down the right path, every American committed to the preservation of our democratic republic must form a broad pro-democracy coalition that rejects the current GOP path. History shows that average voters struggle to win these fights, though.

We should never forget that a failed attempt to overthrow the government often precedes a successful attempt down the road. The Nazis had a failed coup a decade before they came to power in Germany in the 1930s, for example, and Hugo Chavez failed in 1992 in his first attempt to capture control of Venezuela.

A day after his supporters stormed the Capitol, this is how Trump concluded his video address acknowledging his presidency was ending: "To all of my wonderful supporters, I know you are disappointed, but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning."

We should take Trump's words seriously and literally. If this is just the beginning, they may come for the republic again.