As Donald Trump's brazenly chaotic and exhausting presidency comes to an end, he leaves behind this fundamental question:
Did his relentless attacks on our democracy make its festering problems even more malignant than he found them? Or did his unstoppable assault on civic institutions and governing norms succeed in highlighting the system's fragility while also tempering its resilience?
The nation's collective behavior in the years ahead will determine whether American democracy's metaphorical glass has been irreparably emptied or has a sufficient reservoir for survival. For now, the 45th president's infuriated yielding of power on Wednesday allows for a quick countdown of seven ways he rattled the republic the most. Such inventories are a necessary first step for those dedicated to fixing the system — so the next four years under Joe Biden don't come close to replicating the stress and anxiety of the Trump era.
7. He exposed the limits of governing without experience.
Ron Galella/Getty Images
Commander-in-chief is the only position of public trust Trump ever sought — or held. A real estate promoter and reality television star, he had never so much as served on a small-town zoning board until Jan. 20, 2017. All of his 44 predecessors had been leaders in federal or state government: governors, members of Congress, generals or Cabinet secretaries.
Fans saw his unique measure of inexperience as a badge or honor for the ultimate outsider committed to dismantling business as usual. But skeptics worried his total lack of familiarity with how governments operate, both mechanically and ethically, would be a debilitating if not dangerous liability.
At the start, much of Trump's norm-busting behavior and disregard for the rule of law came off as a form of willful ignorance that was a part of his unique brand of political theatrics.
But even Republican allies soon found themselves ascribing his most perplexing and outrageous conduct to someone "still growing" into the presidency's awesome requirements and limits. It was an excuse many kept citing almost to an end marked by his mismanagement of a crippling pandemic and the violence that flowed from his refusal to accept defeat. Those miseries, fueled by his inabilities on the job, will be more prominent parts of his legacy than the achievements for which he claims credit: installing three Supreme Court justices and 54 appeals court judges, pushing a substantial tax cut through Congress, and engineering expansive business and environmental deregulation.
6. He propelled political spending to unseen heights.
President Trump attends a 2018 fundraiser in South Dakota.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Trump claimed the White House in the second presidential election after the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision effectively unlocked the last meaningful shackles impeding the flow of money in politics. He claimed to have spent $66 million of his own money, smashing the record for self-funding by a national candidate, and the grand total for candidate and outside group spending on presidential and congressional races topped $7 billion for the first time.
Four years later, those numbers seem almost quaint. The enormous potential business consequences from Trump's reelection or defeat combined with the political passions of millions of Americans — at all income levels and all along the ideological spectrum — pushed the campaign finance system into overdrive.
Two billionaires, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, each tapped many multiples of their fortunes more than Trump but gave up near the Democratic primary's starting gate.
More importantly, spending on all federal elections more than doubled, cresting $14 billion for 2020 — the size of West Virginia's budget, Instagram's revenue and Amazon's projected profit for the year. That was because small-dollar donations, contributions by business super PACs, and money from outside groups backed by billionaire donors and closely tied "dark money" groups all went through the roof.
Trump did not single handedly cause the cavalcade of cash, but neither did he make any effort to slow it or assure its minimal regulation was carried out. Most seats on the already weakened and gridlocked Federal Election Commission were kept vacant until the end of his presidency. Only at that point came Trump's unintended but potentially biggest contribution to the cause of campaign finance reform: the wave of companies closing their checkbooks indefinitely to Republicans who backed Trump's effort to overturn the election.
5. He toppled the boundaries of civil discourse.
The presidential bully pulpit has the ability to shape the national conversion, and Trump did so with a tone that was consistently hyperbolic, defiant, uncompromising — and largely free of facts. Civic educators, parents and politicians all agree his rhetorical legacy is making it more difficult for Americans to bridge their differences through conversation.
His pronouncements bore all the hallmarks of demagogues and autocrats, focused on delegitimizing all criticism and maintaining the allegiance of his loyalists. And his refusal to reflect subtlety or countenance compromise had a profound effect on magnifying the polarization of politics. Nuance is almost impossible in 280 characters, a point Trump underscored in the more than 60,000 tweets and retweets before both Twitter and Facebook locked him out this month. But in short bursts or meandering ramblings at rallies, Trump made little time for the truth: Fact checkers have come up with 30,000 as the consensus total of his presidential lies and falsehoods.
The only oddly saving grace was that his social media addiction and love of speechmaking produced a new sort of government transparency. Salted amid all the disinformation was a steady diet of policy pronouncements, personnel moves, shifting views and flat reversals — along with stream-of-consciousness insights into the complex mindset of the world's most powerful person.
4. He succeeded in expanding the swamp he vowed to empty.
President Trump plays a round of golf at his Virginia course in November.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
If one aspect of Trump's 2016 candidacy made democracy reformers happy, it was his repeated vow to "drain the swamp." But his disregard for that campaign pledge went way beyond shelving his own plans for tightening lobbying regulation, limiting campaign donations from foreign companies and setting congressional term limits.
Instead, he personally led an unprecedented presidential enhancement of influence for well-heeled private interests — starting with his own. The rasher of pardons at the end of his term, larded with clemency for his own political allies and favor-doers, was only the final example after four years of special and sometimes lucrative treatment for the people and institutions in his familial, financial, social and political orbits.
The government was compelled to spend millions at Trump's properties — the golf courses where he played most weekends, the D.C. hotel that became a de facto Oval Office waiting room, the Florida resort he made his weekend White House and the hotels around the world where his family stayed. His eponymous real estate business kept pursuing deals with both American allies and adversaries. He sidestepped anti-nepotism rules so his son-in-law Jared Kushner could have a top West Wing post. He used his office to promote companies run by supporters and to steer federal contracts and other government business to allies.
Beyond that, he named former lobbyists and corporate executives to jobs with oversight of the industries of their former clients, and four of "only the best people" in his original Cabinet were forced out under ethical clouds. He went to the Supreme Court to preserve, at least for his time in office, his distinction as the first president since the 1970s to keep his tax returns a secret.
Finally, on his last night in the Oval Office, he revoked an executive order, signed days after he took office, that had stopped his appointees' from spinning through the revolving door to lobby for five years after leaving the administration.
3. He sought to obliterate the balance of power.
President Trump meets with Democratic congressional leaders in December 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
While intermittently attacking the independence of the federal judiciary, and more frequently the integrity and importance of a free press, Trump has reserved a special measure of substantive scorn for the powers and prerogatives of Congress. And the legislative branch — mostly under the control of Republicans the past four years and dysfunctional to the point of paralysis in any case — has essentially permitted itself to get bowled over by all the stiff arms.
All presidents have sought to recalibrate the system of checks and balances to the favor of executive power and the disadvantage of those who write the laws and conduct government oversight. But Trump stands out as the most aggressive and assertive in modern times. He invoked rarely used emergency powers to execute plans (construction of his border wall, most famously) that Congress explicitly rejected. He used money Congress appropriated for specific projects and spent it instead on proposals lawmakers rebuffed. He threatened government whistleblowers who revealed untoward administration behavior and dismissed inspectors general who did likewise, violating rules designed to protect their honesty and independence.
Most notably, perhaps, he consistently ordered his administration to slow-walk, challenge in court or flatly ignore congressional subpoenas — on matters ranging from the bureaucratically arcane to the underpinnings of Trump's first impeachment.
The silver lining here is that Democrats newly in charge on Capitol Hill have prepared a comprehensive package to realign the balance of power, even with Biden in the White House. And because the new president is a Democrat (and their own authority is on the line), Republicans may be willing to give the package a bipartisan stamp of approval.
2. He sowed unmatched distrust in the electoral system.
No other president has done so much to incubate distrust in the elemental acts of American democracy — the casting and tabulating of ballots for public office.
But the public consciousness is now saturated with Trump's more recent and even more insidious unprecedented assault on democracy, working to reverse the election he lost even to the point of fomenting a mob attack on the Capitol. And so his remarkable effort to undermine the electorate's faith in the security and reliability of voting has slipped to secondary consequence.
That campaign began seven months before Election Day, perversely a part of his effort to simultaneously leverage and downplay national anxiety about how the burgeoning coronavirus was going to upend every aspect of American life.
"Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters," he told reporters at a briefing April 7. "There's a lot of dishonesty going along with mail-in voting."
It was the first of more than 150 false or misleading claims, catalogued by the Washington Post during the campaign, concerning fraudulent ballots or the alleged dangers of absentee voting — inconsistently focused on states that proactively deliver vote-by-mail packets to all registered voters. And that does not include the burst of wholly inaccurate claims in the summer that he had the power to postpone the election if he decided unilaterally it was not going to be on the up-and-up.
The crusade ended up backfiring. Either because of political pressure or as a consequence of the most litigated election ever, two-thirds of states made it easier to cast a ballot in 2020, mostly by making it easier to vote by mail. By highlighting the states' control and other aspects of the election system that generally get overlooked, Trump ended up ensuring the public was better informed than ever about voting mechanics.
That, and Trump's polarizing nature, prompted 67 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot — the highest turnout in 120 years. Two-fifths of the votes came in envelopes, up from one-quarter in the previous two elections. There was no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities, prompting Trump's own administration to declare it the most secure election in history. And, ultimately, the president's own strategy worked decisively against him by producing a "red mirage" on election night: His dominance of that day's volume at the polls disappeared when mailed votes were counted and went decisively for Biden, the candidate who did not declare them untrustworthy.
1. He fomented an insurrection against his government.
President Trump rallies his supporters before they storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
No other president has been impeached twice, and Trump would not have been — and just a week before leaving office — but for the shocking seriousness and palpable validity of the alleged offense. The Senate will soon try him on the House's charge of "inciting violence against the government of the United States" in his quest to overturn Biden's election.
Whether formally convicted or not, and then barred from seeking the presidency again, on his last full day in office he heard Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell affix the blame for the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. "The mob was fed lies," he said. "They were provoked by the president."
The damage and injury wrought by the thousands of violent insurrectionists who heard his rhetoric that day as a call to arms, to disrupt the tabulating of the Electoral College results that sealed his defeat, will almost certainly stand as the most tangible evidence of his assault-on-democracy-itself legacy. The memory has been lastingly seared on the global consciousness.
The riot was quelled and the election result was finalized — albeit with two out of three House Republicans, and one in six GOP senators, voting with the ousted president and against the election that ousted him.
So does Wednesday's inauguration — a peaceful transfer of power, perhaps, only because 25,000 troops are belatedly standing guard — mean democracy has survived or only that its fragility has been magnified? Are the politicians' fresh declarations after the riot — "This is not who we are" because "We are better than this" — viable exhortations for a recommitment to longstanding virtues or only naive bromides about a past that has rarely been as venerable as described?
Probably it means the system has proved itself both resilient and more threadbare than ever before.
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"I can't breathe." The panic in my brother's faint voice struck me like a hammer blow. These words have become dreadfully familiar. We were at my uncle's house for an overnight stay and my brother's asthma had flared up. But for Black folk nationwide, these words are far more ominous.
My little cousins and I knew what to do. We set up a nebulizer and gave him medicine — and he could breathe easily again in less than five minutes. Compare that to the way police officers commonly treat unarmed Black men in this country. Imagine the repercussions if we hadn't helped my brother. Then, compare that to the impunity with which officers deal out murder and abuse to Black folk.
Now that everyone has a video camera in hand, the racism of policing and our justice system is starkly obvious. But how did we get here? What made our system so biased, and what is the history behind this?
President Richard Nixon began his drug war in 1971. His effort had racist roots and was based on bogus evidence as well as willful ignorance. Thus, part of Nixon's legacy is that Black people are arrested for drug possession at a far higher rate than whites, even though white and Black people do drugs at close to equal rates.
Because several of Nixon's successors expanded this policy — Ronald Reagan supported no-knock warrants like the one that got Breonna Taylor killed — an entire industry has a profit motive to ensure people of color are arrested more often. The private prison industry, which sprang up during the Reagan administration, prefers housing Black people because they cost less than white people, who are more often older and less healthy. Besides, their contracts with the states often dictate that a high percentage of their prison beds must be filled, or else the company gets paid for the empty beds.
The "corrections corporation" CoreCivic Inc. made so much revenue from its prisons last year that a mechanical counter tabulating a dollar every second would take almost 63 years to finish: $1.98 billion. But in order to keep the gravy train going, the industry participates in campaigns and influences lawmakers by investing some of its profit in candidates. It would take about three weeks for that same machine to tabulate all the money the industry put into the 2020 election: $2.7 million, which was 40 percent more than two years before.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and members of Congress ranging from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, have all taken money from this industry at some point in their careers.
The industry has even influenced judges. This was evidenced by the 2009 kids for cash scandal in Pennsylvania, in which two judges were paid kickbacks by the owners of for-profit juvenile detention centers in return for sentencing hundreds of kids to time in those facilities. The industry does whatever it can politically to keep the inmates coming in and the cash flowing, including pushing for harsher laws and longer sentencing periods.
The undue influence of money in our election system makes it close to impossible for we the people to stop this injustice. So, how do we fix it? We fix it by getting rid of that influence. Amending the U.S. Constitution is the best way to do this. We need language in there to prevent dollars from drowning out the voices of average Americans. Personally, I'm not sure what the exact language should be. We would decide that together at a convention to propose the amendment.
This is why I volunteer with Wolf-PAC. Our plan is to propose real reform of our campaign finance system through a convention of the states. Five states out of the 34 we need have already passed legislation calling for an Article V convention, and our activism contributed to these successes.
Amending the Constitution is the only way to bypass our broken Congress and the Supreme Court. Besides, we must make this change permanent. So join us. We need all of the help we can get.
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When you join the lobbying profession, you know immediately you become Public Enemy No. 1. Frankly, you can't blame the public for feeling this way.
As a profession we let Washington define who we are and how we operate. We don't have a bully pulpit the way candidates, members of Congress and presidents do. We do not have a public forum where the people can hear us.
When attacks come, we bury our heads in the sand and don't stand up for ourselves and what we do. We simply hide and wait for the onslaught to pass. It's easy for elected officials to blame lobbyists for the dysfunction in Washington, the alternative being for them to look in the mirror and point the finger at themselves for their direct failures on behalf of those who elected them. When in doubt, create a boogeyman the public hates or distrusts more than you.
When you become a lobbyist, you know that every election year you will become the scapegoat for all the failures of both Congress and the incumbent president's administration. You know that in one breath members of Congress and the president will blame you for a policy stalemate — and then in the next breath call you and ask you for a campaign contribution. These same elected leaders will tell their constituents how they need to halt the influence that lobbyists have in Washington. But when they leave their campaign rallies, they will call us asking for help on their campaign.
The reality is that it's good politics to trash a profession the public does not know much about. It's good business to spread lies, and only then to turn to us and use us to get you elected. Frankly, shame on people in our business for allowing it.
Joe Biden campaigned on improving ethics in the capital, but now that he's been elected that seems like it was just a tagline to get votes. He is imposing restrictions on lobbyists serving in his administration and on government boards, yet his transition team is filled with big-name lobbyists. His team has said that not all lobbyists will be banned. Some will be given waivers to serve.
My questions for the president-elect are: Why some and not all? If our profession is the problem in Washington, as you claim, then why does your team include lobbyists? Why the need for waivers? Why not simply ban all of us, not just some of us?
The answer is simple. You have been in elected politics for more than 40 years and you know the true value of what we do — and the information and expertise we will offer you and your new administration. So, while it may get you a good public reception to claim you are banning lobbyists, then quietly you will enlist us. It is the Washington way.
But while Biden's policy discriminates against a class of people because of what they do, it makes exceptions for people close to you or who have been big donors to you over the years. The American people deserve better than this. Frankly, our profession deserves to be treated better than this.
The next president campaigned on the promise to create a diverse administration. Some will say he is doing just that. I take a different view. The policies he is putting in place not only discriminate against a whole class of professionals, but they also tell lobbyists of color they are not welcome to serve in the new administration. At a time when we should be celebrating public service and are asking corporate America to be more inclusive, Biden is doing the exact opposite. His bans limit lobbyists of color from creating opportunities to be selected to top positions in government and their chosen fields. That is exactly what the president-elect has criticized corporate America for doing.
As his new administration begins, I would urge Biden to reconsider his lobbyist ban for the reasons here. Barack Obama did much the same after he was elected president a dozen years ago and it turned into a black eye for his administration, which relaxed its rules six years later in the aftermath of an unfavorable federal appeals court ruling.
Since 2009 we have seen a growing trend of people taking themselves off the lists of registered federal lobbyists so they could serve in the Obama and Trump administrations. We suspect that will continue under a Biden administration unless he changes course.
Such shadow lobbying is a real problem — and one our profession is fighting against. The new president should work with us on creating policies that create more transparency, not less. But an outright ban is going to continue the rise of shadow lobbyists at a time when the American people are tired of corruption in government.
Please, Mr. President-elect: Work with us and not against us. I would urge you to be honest in your policies. If you ban lobbyists, you need to ban all lobbyists, not just some. You need to return the campaign donations you have taken during your campaign to every lobbyist or political action committee. You need to stop taking money from lobbyists or corporate America for your inauguration. And you need a universal diversity and inclusion policy that is inclusive of all, not just some.
As a profession, we want to work with you on transparency. We want to work with you on ethics reform. This is only possible if your administration is open and honest about your policies and does not create carve-outs for big donors or close friends. You cannot hold the rest of us accountable if you are not going to follow your own lead.
Leadership starts at the top with one policy for all, not just some well-connected Washington insiders.
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Joe Biden has plenty of campaign promises to keep, beyond the obvious and enormous top priorities of corralling the coronavirus and stabilizing the economy. And that's made democracy reform groups, which have never counted him as an impassioned ally, newly skeptical their priorities will get addressed in his new administration.
Their anxiety has come to the surface this week. A coalition of 170 progressive good governance and voting rights organizations asked the president-elect to elevate a collection of fix-the-system proposals into his first 100 days' agenda. Separately, one of the most influential such groups, RepresentUs, lambasted the Biden transition for "an omission of epic proportions" by giving short shrift to the issues it cares about.
Their impatience, just days after Biden's victory became clear, underscores the precarious position the cause of fixing democracy's dysfunction has in the public policy agenda.
At the same time, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she may revive the sweeping election process, government ethics and money-in politics legislation known as HR 1, and have the House pass it again in January even before Biden's inauguration.
Doing so "right off the bat," she told reporters before her Democratic majority was trimmed by about a dozen seats on Election Day, would "reduce the role of big, dark, special-interest money that prevents us from having policies that the American people need."
That could only happen, though, if the Democrats win both runoffs in Georgia in January and take the narrowest possible control of the Senate. Otherwise, HR 1 and all the other legislation on the good governance wish list — including a restoration of the Voting Rights Act and a package to curb executive power abuses — would continue to get ignored to death by GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Biden has backed taxpayer funding of congressional and presidential campaigns — a Holy Grail for many reform groups — since he was a new Delaware senator in the 1970s. And early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination he unveiled a full slate of proposals for expanding voting rights, curbing money's sway over campaigns, bolstering government ethics and recalibrating the balance of power.
But, unlike seven of his rivals in the sprawling early field, in the summer of 2019 he declined to sign a pledge to put those issues on top of his legislative agenda if elected. And, after he wrapped up the nomination, it appeared to take a concerted lobbying effort to get a robust section on democracy reform added to the party platform — just in time for a convention when almost all mentions of the topic were about the need to assure easy voting in the pandemic-upended election.
It was that group that went public Tuesday with a manifesto calling on Biden to both push hard for HR 1, whether Congress stays divided or not, but also make 30 different moves by executive order to promote voting rights and assure his administration is more honest, transparent, responsive and respectful of checks and balances than in the past.
The most important moves on the coalition's list, it said, would be requiring federal social services agencies to help the people they serve register to vote; tightening the ethics pledge for political appointees; curbing the revolving door between the executive branch and lobbyist and corporate offices; refusing to have anything to do with fundraising by so-called super PACS; posting White House visitor logs; and making public all the work of the White House office of legal counsel.
For the organizations in the group, any of these changes would represent a dramatic shift from the past four years. President Trump, who won partly on a vow to "drain the swamp," has done nothing of the kind while upending virtually avery norm of democracy he could get his hands on.
Most recently, and potentially most consequentially, has been his decision to contest his defeat last week and in the meantime refuse to cooperate in the transition. But along the way he has challenged the precepts of open and ethical government by commingling his business interests with government work, choosing secrecy over transparency at nearly every turn and thwarting all congressional efforts to oversee or investigate his activities.
But there is no time to wait, said Josh Silver, who runs the influential reform group RepresentUs. And the signals from the Biden transition team that such issues have fallen to the second tier demonstrate "an omission of epic proportions."
It "follows a pattern of Democratic presidential candidates talking big about these issues on the campaign trail and promptly ignoring them when the chips are down. That's why our nation is in the perilous position we're in now," he said in an exceptionally harsh statement Monday. "It just requires leadership that prioritizes these reforms. Based on President-elect Biden's Day 1 agenda, it's not going to happen, and he is guaranteeing more dysfunction, more authoritarianism and more instability."
Biden will likely focus first on proposals that could attract bipartisan support — starting with providing economic relief during the resurgent pandemic and then moving on to improving the nation's crumbling infrastructure and using the climate change crisis as the basis for job creation.
The political dynamic on Capitol Hill means Biden may have to pull back from some policy proposals that are mainly goals of the left and have little or no traction among conservatives. Democracy reform, in the main, falls in that bucket
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