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Still in trouble … and getting worse

Rule of law, commitment to democracy in question

For those hoping for more thoughtful, less partisan discussions in Congress about the challenges facing the country, the last six months have been a disappointment, Rothenberg writes.
For those hoping for more thoughtful, less partisan discussions in Congress about the challenges facing the country, the last six months have been a disappointment, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A little more than six months ago, on Nov. 16, I wrote a column entitled “A country in a whole lot of trouble.” That was less than two weeks after Election Day. Since then, things have deteriorated.

I suppose if you are a Democrat, a progressive or a Trump-hater, you can still comfort yourself with the idea that the country rejected Donald Trump, along with his narcissism and authoritarianism.

Yes, the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress can expose the Trump camarilla, restore long-held norms and remind both Republicans and Democrats what the rule of law looks like. Americans can start coming together, even if sharp differences on economic and social policy remain.

But don’t kid yourself.

Since that column, the Capitol was attacked and defiled by Trump-fueled rioters on Jan. 6, with members from both parties (including the sitting vice president) threatened.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both initially assigned blame to Trump. But the bipartisan outrage was short-lived when GOP congressional leaders started focusing on the 2022 midterms, which could put them back in the majority in both chambers.

Trump and his loyal followers have continued to undermine the 2020 presidential election’s outcome, insisting that Democrats “stole” it and minimizing events in and around the Capitol on Jan. 6.

In fact, it was the former president and his allies who tried to steal the election, pursuing a variety of scenarios in individual states and in Washington, D.C., in their efforts to deny Joe Biden his presidential victory.

In addition, GOP-controlled state legislatures are making every effort to disadvantage Democratic voters in future elections, and the Arizona state Senate continues to pursue a partisan “audit” to “prove” Trump won the state.

Republican senators regarded as institutionalists — including Ohio’s Rob Portman, Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey, Missouri’s Roy Blunt and North Carolina’s Richard M. Burr — are heading for the exits.

At the same time, House GOP extremists such as Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Alabama’s Mo Brooks and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde echo Trump’s untruths and try to rewrite history, much as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did.

One of the more conservative, principled Republican members of Congress, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, was booted from her party’s House leadership because she acknowledged the election was fair and Trump lost.

Most importantly, given everything that has happened, there is simply no evidence that a substantial number of Republican voters have come to understand how dangerous Trump was — or is — to the rule of law.

Republican voters continue to be more afraid of Biden than of Trump. They see everything as a false choice between “left-wing socialists” who allegedly want to eliminate police departments and open the border to drug dealers on one hand, and conservatives and defenders of the faith on the other.

Some Democrats seem to think that Trump’s legal problems will render him harmless by the time 2022 or 2024 rolls around. That’s possible, of course, but Trump’s political obituary has been written before, and the legal process tends to be slow.

Trump’s staunchest supporters continue to undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral system and other crucial institutions. Even worse, some seem to be positioning themselves to intervene in the next election if it is close.

Rep. Jody B. Hice, for example, has entered the 2022 Republican primary for Georgia secretary of state, pitting him against incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who is seeking reelection.

Raffensperger refused to buckle when pressured by Trump, but it is easy to imagine Hice, as secretary of state, using his position in 2024 to help Trump, no matter what Georgia voters want or how they vote.

The former president has already endorsed Hice, a member of the House Freedom Caucus whose views on the intersection of religion and politics are far outside the American mainstream.

So, we have one party, the GOP, that is led by a bully who relies on cheap shots and untruths to keep his critics in check — and who has no respect for norms established since the birth of the republic.

It’s a party that punishes Cheney but sees no reason to distance itself from the paranoid ramblings of Greene or Trump stalwart Michael Flynn.

Meanwhile, the Democrats head toward the midterms with one of their own in the White House and technical “control” of both chambers of Congress — even though they really have little control given the 50-50 Senate and the hesitancy of a few Democratic senators to act unilaterally.

In other words, Democrats have the responsibility to deal with a range of crucial issues but lack the ability to do much, which in the past has tended to be a prescription for political defeat.

No, the die is not cast for 2022 or 2024. But instead of laying the ground for a more thoughtful, less partisan discussion of the challenges facing this country, the past six months have raised additional questions about our country’s future and the rule of law.

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