Here we are. Two weeks out from election day. All signs point to a Biden victory and a likely Democratic control of the Senate. But of course polls can be wrong and because of the electoral college two to four points of a Democratic popular vote margin is just what secures an electoral college win. Of course, the stakes are so high that no sinew of capacity or iota of effort can be spared even if a Trump defeat seems more likely than not. What is important to maintain clearly in mind is that everything has come down to this critical moment. The country has been at this four long years. We’ve seen protests, political organizing, investigations, mid-term elections, an endless series of efforts to come to grips with and battle the scourge of a lawless, damaging presidency. But this is the moment that counts, the moment for which all of these efforts and strivings must have been preparatory.
One memory stays with me. In the very early days of the administration, during the round of public protests around the travel ban, David Kurtz said to me that he thought some of the people in our operation were still thinking that somehow the whole thing wouldn’t hold, that they weren’t quite accepting that this was going to go on for years. The early weeks were so chaotic that this wasn’t a crazy thing to think. I can’t say I was sure myself what would happen. It did seem like the whole thing was so jagged and chaotic, so much of the nascent presidency’s wrongdoing was so rapidly catching up to it that it wasn’t clear it wouldn’t all fall apart. (Remember that from day one the President’s National Security Advisor was swept up in a controversy about collusion with a foreign power that would rapidly lead to his ouster.) In parliamentary systems government can and do fall. That is not how our system works. The American presidency is in many ways a holdover of ideas and assumptions of 18th century monarchical power, not withstanding its republican revolutionary origins. If the other centers of power in the system don’t arrest his or her actions the powers of prerogative are genuinely kingly.
Some of this was being in denial about the thing itself, the election of the lawless gamer, Donald Trump. But it is also hard to quite remember the nature of that early chaos. Today Trump appears to be publicly decompensating. Yesterday he managed to attack his Attorney General as a softie who hadn’t yet arrested Joe Biden, which other appointees would have. He called Biden a “criminal”. He called one of the most buttoned-up members of the White House press corps a “criminal”. His Director of National Intelligence leapt into his role as campaign surrogate, insisting there was no Russian hacking behind the purported Hunter Biden emails. It is hard to think of a time in the last four years when Trump has appeared more unhinged, free from any restraint or driven by his consuming rages.
But there’s a difference. The sad truth is that we’ve gotten used to this – the casual law-breaking and bad acts, the aping of foreign strongman antics, the lies that come as easy as water flowing down a hill. It all seems normal now. In January 2017 it not only didn’t seem normal it seemed hard to see how it could be sustainable. Something had to give. Or at least it seemed so. And it did. We did.
In our system the President holds a bundle of executive powers that are awesome in their scope and largely unshakable without overwhelming opposition in other parts of the government. Which is to say that if his party sustains his rule he can do as he pleases, which is what has happened. Absent that counterforce it can seem unacceptable and unsustainable. But the presidency is a power unto itself and it can go on and on and in fact shape the outside world to its needs.
As soon as President Trump was elected most of the civic carnage of the last four years became inevitable. You drink poison and a series of bad outcomes become inevitable even if they take some period of time to become apparent. It’s like jumping out of a tall building. At first you’re just floating but the outcome is already inevitable.
And now the country has the chance not so much to undo the damage – the work of years or lifetimes – but to avoid making the same mistake a second time. The thing is upon us.