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The United States barely survived the most acute threat to its political system since the Civil War by averting a second Trump term. But Donald Trump was always just a carrier for a political virus that predated and will outlast him. As evidenced by the finding that 8 in 10 Trump voters do not think he should relinquish power, Trumpism as a political movement very much remains.
A return of Trumpism to the White House would mirror the second wave of COVID-19, which has been worse than the first. Trump 2.0 would have seen America’s openness to strongman rule — and likely be more competent at it.
To avoid that, the political virus that gave us Trump must be addressed. It is a disease with two strains, global and national.
The global strain is a wave of authoritarianism. Over the past 15 years, democracy has been in retreat around the world, with autocrats supplanting democratic governments in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and Poland. Across the globe, citizens are growing less committed to democracy and more open to alternatives. These trends are being driven by factors that transcend borders and include globalization, migration and new information technologies.
The United States has not been immune. Openness to the idea of military rule jumped from 1 in 16 Americans 30 years ago to 1 in 6 pre-Trump. And while some of the shift is likely attributable to global factors, this political virus also carries a uniquely American strain.
The country has become more polarized politically as liberals and conservatives segregate into different geographic areas and consume different media. Previously dominant groups who feel they are losing status in an ever-more diverse nation have captured the Republican Party, turning it into an instrument for holding power at all cost. That party, in turn, has taken advantage of unique structures of American democracy such as the electoral college and the Senate to give itself governmental powers that are out of proportion with the support the party has among voters. For example, Republicans have lost the popular vote in 7 of 8 presidential elections yet dominate the Supreme Court.
As a result of the global and national strains mixing, Trump was able to go a long way toward executing the modern autocrat’s playbook, which typically involves six things.
Spreading disinformation: Trump began doing this on Day One with petty efforts to doctor images to make his inauguration crowd seem bigger and continues this behavior today through his false claims of electoral victory.
Politicizing independent institutions: Trump sought to do this with the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the U.S. Postal Service.
Delegitimizing vulnerable populations: Trump tried to do this by falsely claiming he would have won the popular vote in 2016 but for millions of “illegal votes” from communities of color, and continued this with abusive immigration policies that separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Aggrandizing executive power: Trump repeatedly did this in such forms as declaring a fake emergency to appropriate funds that Congress refused to authorize for a border wall as well as asserting “the right to do whatever I want” and that his “authority is total.”
Corrupting elections: Trump was impeached for trying to pressure Ukraine into corrupting the 2020 election. And to this day his baseless claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent are undermining public trust in our electoral system.
We came far too close to a full authoritarian takeover. Even absent Trump, anti-democratic toxins will remain in our body politic. To purge them, Trump-era abuses must be reckoned with — not as retribution, but to deter recurrence.
The U.S. government advises other countries that are emerging from authoritarian regimes to undertake a process of “transitional justice” to return to healthier footing. We should heed our own advice. That means establishing independent investigations to account for abuses that took place, prosecuting violations of law, and restoring ethical and professional norms through government and private-sector actions.
Immediate reform legislation should be passed to impose stronger guardrails against executive abuses. Congress should be re-empowered to have lead responsibility for making hard decisions on such matters as war powers, emergency powers and spending. And barriers to voting should be removed while better protecting our elections from foreign interference. There are already three bills before Congress that would accomplish this.
States need to fix some of the current system’s incentives for counterproductive political behavior. The primary system in many states rewards extreme candidates; uncontrolled gerrymandering enables minority parties to control state legislatures.
At the national level, President-elect Joe Biden should convene a diverse set of experts and citizens to make recommendations on how to address the representational deficiencies that are built into the Senate and the electoral college, including the way they have translated into an overly politicized federal judiciary.
Finally, we must reclaim our national identity as a country that derives its strength from its diversity. We’ve seen a skilled demagogue divide us and lead more Americans to see their political adversaries as worthy of violence. To reverse that trend, we need leaders across the political, cultural, religious, business and grass-roots spectrum to consistently tell a more unifying and uplifting story about America in the 21st century — a narrative about how we can become the first truly multiracial, pluralist democracy the world has seen. Then they need to take action to make that story a reality.
Voting Trump out of office was the treatment our critically ill government needed, but it’s this set of next steps that will be the vaccine.
Ian Bassin and Justin Florence are co-founders of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Protect Democracy. They previously served as associate White House counsels to President Obama.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.