Dispatches from America, where democracy is on the ballot: The stakes for the 2024 election could not be higher

Nothing about this election makes sense, to either outside observers or those in the states.  But it is deadly serious and its implications will be felt far and wide.

Donald Trump

Mark Bergman seeks to capitalize on a series of networks he has developed while based in London for two decades and more recently in Washington, D.C.  He convenes and connects constituencies and has established himself as a thought leader on political, geopolitical and regulatory developments and trends, with a particular emphasis on the resilience of democracy; extremism/disinformation/weaponization of hate; transnational repression and kleptocracy; and climate change.  His written analyses – as part of his briefing notes series — are available on his website: 7Pillars Global Insights

Saturday night’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, often referred to as the “nerd prom,” brought together the Washington, D.C. media, political elite and celebrities for an evening of celebration of the free press, gossip and roasting.  What better way to peek into the zeitgeist. 

Comedian and longest-running Weekend Update host on Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost, amidst a steady roast of President Biden and Donald Trump, asked twice, “how is it that the [2024 presidential] race is tied?  Nothing makes sense anymore.”  The Republican candidate owes half a billion in fines and is spending his days in the courtroom, a defendant in a porn star hush money case.  “The candidate who is a famous New York City playboy took abortion rights away, and the guy who is trying to give you your abortion rights back is an 80-year-old Catholic.  How does that make sense?”  That list could have gone on for much of the night, though even Jost may have been hard-pressed to drape them all in humour.  Take your pick: January 6th insurrection!  Donald Trump was not in the room (in fact, he was the only president to break the then 36-year old tradition of attending the annual event while in office), but he was on everyone’s mind, and not just because he was the butt of so many of the jokes or that he regularly railed against the press as “the enemy of the people.”

Nothing about this election makes sense, to either outside observers or those in the states.  But it is deadly serious and its implications will be felt far and wide– voters will have a choice in November – between continuing the 247-year experiment in democracy (in words attributed to Benjamin Franklin, our “Republic, if we can keep it”) and fascism. 

President Biden, after a few jokes about his own age, his interaction with the press and Trump (not in that order), quickly shifted to warning of what is at stake. “We have to take this seriously; eight years ago we could have written it off as ‘Trump talk’ but not after January 6th.”  In a call to arms befitting the setting and, more importantly, the audience, he urged the press to “move past the horse race numbers and the gotcha moments.”  “Focus on what’s actually at stake.” “The stakes couldn’t be higher.” 

He reminded his audience that at a speech he gave at Valley Forge (site of the harsh winter encampment of the Continental Army in 1777-78), on the third anniversary of January 6th, he called out “the most urgent question of our time” as being “whether democracy is still the sacred cause of America.”  That is the question that the American people must answer this year.”  Biden closed with a toast to “a free press, to an informed citizenry, to an America where freedom and democracy endure.  God bless America.”

Truly, the stakes could not be higher.  And Biden’s remarks should be seen in the context of the fact that it is only in recent months that a growing number of news outlets have dropped the pretence of reporting on a traditional horse race between differing policies, platforms and ideologies and consequently different views of the nature and role of government.  That shift, late as it may have been, should have been (but regrettably was not) inevitable.   

Trump has made no secret of what he intends to do; he proudly boasts that he has become his “supporters’ revenge and retribution.”  And that is only the beginning: so back to my list: the constant attacks by Trump on the courts, judges and witnesses (many feeling Trump is daring a judge to jail him for contempt); his encouragement of political violence; his constant airing of the allegations of a rigged and stolen 2020 election despite zero proof of widespread voter fraud (and over sixty court cases confirming that); his support for the January 6th insurrectionists whom he calls wrongfully convicted “patriots” and “hostages” and many of whom he has promised to pardon; the threats to be a dictator on “day one”; his use of incendiary language reminiscent of Nazi rhetoric in warning against “the poisoning of the blood of our country” and pledging “to root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections” in reference to migrants; his threats to prosecute his political opponents, those who have testified against him and all others he perceives to have stood in his way (including the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); his references to “bloodbath” if he is not elected.  And the list goes on.   

Welcome to the split screen of American politics.  We have a contest, in effect, between two incumbents – one who could run on his accomplishments, and one running to exploit palpable grievance prevalent in his base.  The Biden campaign was presented with the choice of making the election a referendum on the past four years, and highlighting a litany of consequential accomplishments, or highlighting the choice facing voters in November between two very different visions of the country and the fate of democracy.  To judge by the ads that the Biden campaign rolled out beginning in September (with the benefit of $25 million allocated to television ad spend) and is now rolling out (with the benefit of a further $30 million allocated to television ad spend), the focus has shifted to crystallizing that existential choice. 

Since the March State of the Union Speech, Biden on the campaign trail and in his ads is now on the offensive and far more aggressive, starting with calling out Trump and the threats he poses by name (rather than “my predecessor” or the “former guy”).  There is no shortage of material, and perhaps none more potent than access to reproductive rights.  Incidentally, abortion lends itself to a unique American message – freedom, in this case freedom to make one’s own reproductive health care decisions and freedom from government sitting in the doctor’s waiting room.  When the story of this election is written, I expect that the role of abortion and the rage among women following the overturning of 50 years of settled legal precedent will be a, if not the, deciding factor for Biden’s victory.   

In the meantime, Donald Trump is spending more time in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan than on the campaign trail.  Mainstream media last week dissected the details of the hush money/election interference case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the first-ever criminal trial of a former president, as well as oral arguments before the Supreme Court 240 miles away on whether Trump is legally entitled to assert the defense that he has “absolute immunity” against criminal prosecution for acts committed while president.  That immunity challenge arises by reason of the indictment brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith alleging both conspiracy and obstruction to subvert the 2020 election, culminating in the January 6th insurrection. 

The January 6th case may be the most consequential because of the implications of any ruling short of a blanket denial of presidential immunity for criminal acts.  Supreme Court justices appear to be willing to reject Trump’s sweeping claims of immunity, but might nonetheless stymie efforts to get the trial underway before the election by sending the case back to the lower courts.  The more conservative justices largely focused not on Trump’s conduct but on whether failure to grant immunity would constrain future presidents.  Other justices, in the context of whether the immunity ruling should turn on distinguishing between “private acts” and “official act,” raised hypotheticals that underscore the fraught landscape we find ourselves in – should a president be immune for ordering the military to assassinate political opponents because the president believes that opponent is corrupt, selling nuclear secrets to a foreign adversary or ordering the military to stage a coup.  These hypotheticals are by no means irrational.        

But for Trump’s delaying tactics, we would have multiple cases to be tracking on a daily basis in addition to the hush money/election interference case, admittedly the weakest of the cases against Trump.  In addition to the Jack Smith case in Washington DC (which remains on hold pending the Supreme Court interlocutory decision on immunity), there is also the Mar-a-Lago documents case, which centers around Trump’s handling of classified documents after his presidency and the Georgia election interference case, where the former president is accused of illegally trying to interfere in the 2020 election in Georgia.

And if these were not sufficient to highlight how close we came to suffering a successful coup in 2021, this past week a group close to Trump (including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudi Giuliani, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, campaign operatives, three lawyers advising the Trump campaign and various senior Arizona Republican Party officials) were indicted in Arizona in connection with a “fake elector” scheme intended to overturn the results of the 2020 election.  Trump is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.  Arizona is the fourth swing state to bring a case involving activities of the Trump campaign but is only the second (Georgia being the first) to indict not just the fake electors but some of the masterminds behind the scheme.

Eight years ago, Democrats lamented the fact that Trump was getting millions of dollars of free advertising as he appeared on the news, night after night after night.  Today, the news coverage, for those who are listening, only hardens partisan views of the man – one way or the other.  That said, in some polling quarters, there is a sense that a significant portion of the undecided voters – undecided only because they have managed to insulate themselves from the news (what political consultants label the “low information voter”) – do not want to think about another Trump presidency because simply thinking about the attendant chaos ruins their day.  As the election nears, that must change. 

But will voters change their minds about Trump?

Some have questioned the value of making this next election about Trump.  Is there a danger in reminding voters about the chaos and exhaustion of thinking about Trump and four more years of Trump?  Will they tune out and stay home?  Will they continue to normalize dangerous behavior as so many have done for eight years?  Are some suffering from Trump amnesia and recalling they survived, selectively blocking out the chaos around the pandemic response (bleach?) and January 6th, and ignoring how much more destructive Trump will be with true believers replacing the gatekeepers who largely kept the ship of state afloat?  Will some conclude that they have more to gain in the form of lower taxes and less regulation than lose under Trump, incorrectly concluding that they can control him and ignoring incontrovertible evidence that anti-democratic regimes ultimately destroy the growth and innovation of the kind that has driven the American economy for years?        

Biden and his surrogates on the campaign trail are performing a valuable service, which is enhanced by wrapping the conversation around “freedom.”  While many attribute the unexpected success (counter to prevailing wisdom) of Democrats in the 2022 midterms to abortion (and 40-some special elections since then), perhaps the better way of thinking about that success is to view support for reproduction freedom and countering election-denialism as pro-democracy messages.  At Valley Forge, Biden was crystal clear: democracy means freedom “to speak your mind,” “to be who you are,” “to bring about peaceful change.” “But if democracy fails, we’ll lose that freedom.” 

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