Trump isn’t the only person responsible for the demise of American democracy
He fired an arrow at the heart of our most cherished norms and institutions. But it took the rest of us to ensure that he hit his target. | Catherine Rampell
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]
Published Sept. 24, 2019
Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist
Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist

R.I.P. American democracy. You still had so much left to give! Whom should we blame for your untimely demise?

Understandably, many believe the coldhearted killer was President Donald Trump. He has after all solicited foreign help to aid him in taking out a political rival — twice. He continues to accept payments from other foreign leaders and well-heeled business executives, who patronize his properties in clear hopes of influencing U.S. policy. He has refused to disclose his tax returns, necessary to determine whether the executive branch is working in his interest or the country’s. He has sought to punish perceived political enemies, minorities and other groups that dare cross him.

And so on. But is Trump truly the guilty party?

In my view, he’s the wrong, or at least an incomplete, answer to this particular whodunit.

Had the perpetrator been Individual 1 — and only Individual 1 — our dearly departed victim might still be alive, if perhaps wounded. The real answer is more of a Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-type conclusion: We all did it.

Unindicted co-conspirators in this heartless murder include Republican lawmakers. They have been led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), who tolerated massacres of civil rights, of rule of law and of other democratic values and institutions, so long as the party got its federal judges or tax cuts.

They got lots of help from their colleagues. Even when those colleagues were on record as disapproving of the exact kinds of anti-democratic actions Trump acknowledges taking.

Recall that in June, Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that he’d gladly accept dirt from a foreign power on a political rival, and asserted that all politicians do so. Republican lawmakers flatly condemned Trump’s approach to such foreign-offered “oppo research” and said that they’d go straight to the FBI if anyone ever made such an offer. Senators on the record expressing some version of this view include Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John Cornyn (Tex.) and Mitt Romney (Utah).

Fast-forward to today. Now that the hypothetical appears to have come true, they’ve mostly fallen silent. Or worse: They’ve urged the Justice Department to investigate the political rival whom Trump sought a foreign power’s help in sullying, former vice president Joe Biden.

At best, you have Romney tweeting that “If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme.” Except that “if” is superfluous, given that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani acknowledged this way back in May.

Trump’s lickspittle Cabinet officials are also implicated in the Trump-coordinated assault on democracy.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave multiple interviews in which he suggested that Biden is the real party responsible for interfering in U.S. elections. (Umm, what?) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — who has elsewhere praised Trump’s “perfect genes” — likewise dismissed as “speculation” reporting that Trump directed Ukrainian leaders to investigate Biden. Even though Trump then appeared to confirm that “speculation” (and then reversed himself again on Monday).

Even former defense secretary Jim Mattis, out with a new book on leadership, ducked a question about whether it would be wrong for a president, any president, to ask foreign leaders to investigate political opponents.

Meanwhile, the media has also dropped the ball.

I don’t just mean Trump’s preferred propaganda outlet, Fox News. The rest of us have allowed the president to serve as our assignment editor. We spread his smears for him, and too often shy from coverage of any threat to democracy more technical than a tweet. At best, we ask Democrats what would, at last, count as an impeachable offense — but rarely direct such inquiries at Republicans, who, you know, actually stand in the way of a fair impeachment trial.

Democrats share some blame, too, feckless as they’ve been. They dragged their feet in demanding critical documents, including Trump’s tax returns. They failed to competently question petulant and obstructive witnesses such as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. And they frequently seem more interested in attacking one another than holding Trump to account.

Given all this, can you really blame voters, disillusioned and disappointed as they are, for tuning out the onslaught on American democracy — and thereby contributing to its demise? Add them to the list anyway.

Yes, Trump has repeatedly, egregiously abused his power. He fired an arrow at the heart of our most cherished norms and institutions. But it took the rest of us to ensure that he hit his target.

© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group