Donald Trump’s presidency was an unprecedented stress test of America’s constitutional democracy. The nadir of Trump’s four years in office was on Jan. 6 when a mob of his supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol while Congress was certifying the 2020 presidential election. On that day — under the backdrop of a global pandemic and bitterly divided populace — Donald Trump’s America plunged below rock bottom.
Ultimately, America’s key institutions — battered and bruised — survived the Trump presidency. Congress certified the election results. Trump left office. And Joe Biden was inaugurated on time.
But the drama surrounding Trump continues. As a civilian, Trump no longer enjoys the legal protections of the presidency, including immunity from indictment. The Department of Justice and Congress are broadly investigating the events surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Congress released notes taken by then-Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue revealing Trump’s attempt to pressure then-Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen into saying the election was corrupt. “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me,” Trump told Rosen in late 2020.
In New York, Trump’s company and its Chief Financial Officer have been indicted. The charges allege that the Trump Organization kept two sets of books: one for lenders (showing rosy financials to attract good financing terms) and one for the tax authorities (showing lousy financials to reduce tax liability). The indictment also alleges the Trump Organization evaded millions of dollars in taxes by paying secret bonuses to employees.
In Georgia, Trump is under criminal investigation for his activities after the 2020 presidential election. He pressured local election officials to reverse the results and “find 11,780 votes.” From a legal perspective this may be more troubling than his speech on Jan. 6, when he spoke in a public forum with First Amendment protections. In Georgia, by contrast, Trump tried to intimidate officials into committing election fraud while outside of public view.
Moreover, the government is investigating Trump’s friends Tom Barrack, Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. None of them are necessarily above turning on Trump in exchange for leniency. And Trump, of course, can no longer dangle presidential pardons in exchange for loyalty.
It will be very hard for Trump to sweep the table and avoid liability across all of these various legal matters — not to mention those that may be occurring outside of public view.
Meanwhile, Trump keeps on lying about the election. “We were doing so well until the rigged election happened to come along,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in July 2021. “This was an election where the person that counts the votes was far more important than the candidate,” he continued to a raucous, adoring crowd, “They failed to call out the late night ballot stuffing that took place in Georgia.”
And Trump remains the most popular Republican politician in the country. At a July 2021 CPAC conference Trump had an approval rating of 98 percent and was the choice of 70 percent of CPAC attendees in the straw poll among potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was second at 21 percent. And by August, Trump had amassed a $102 million political war chest. He is still a dominant force in American politics.
What, then, does the future look like?
America withstood the Trump presidency. But it remains a dysfunctional and vulnerable nation. Tens of millions of Trump supporters are refusing to wear masks or take COVID-19 vaccinations. Demagogues are lining up on state tickets in droves. And partisan-driven false narratives still pound the airwaves and fill the headlines.
America has reached new heights of scientific and technical achievement. Yet it has also descended to new lows of irrationality and political toxicity. “Human rationality is very much in the news,” Harvard professor Steven Pinker noted recently, “as we struggle to understand how an era with unpreceded scientific sophistication could harbor so much fake news, conspiracy theorizing and ‘post-truth’ rhetoric.” This irrationality is no longer at the fringes of society: it has reached the highest levels of power in the world’s most influential nation. The longer this goes on the more the fabric of American democracy frays. The farther America deviates from the mean the more difficult it will be to revert back.
And, at the center of the storm, remains Donald Trump, the primary threat to American democracy and still, the most powerful Republican in the country — by a mile.
The Trump presidency may be over. But the American stress test continues.
William Cooper is an attorney who has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and USA Today, among others.