Sunday’s newspapers brought more bad news for American democracy. If what they reported is true, it is hard to see how we can avoid a looming electoral catastrophe.
That catastrophe would result if the American people decided to return to the White House a person who has shown himself to be an autocrat-in-waiting. It would result if someone who tried to foment a coup against the U.S. Constitution is elected president a year from now.
America faces a choice not unlike those other societies have made when they have used democratic processes to empower people hostile to democracy itself. It seemed for a time that the elections of 2020 and 2022 had delivered a decisive defeat for election deniers and democracy’s enemies. But, as Sunday’s newspapers suggest, in the run-up to the 2024 election those people seem to be in remarkably good shape.
Part of the problem is that the American people are deeply divided over who would be a better custodian of democratic values.
Let’s start with the results of a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll. The Times summarizes that poll’s findings as follows: “Mr. Trump leads President Biden in five key battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania…..He has eaten significantly into Mr. Biden’s advantages among younger, Black and Hispanic voters, many of whom retain positive views of the policies Mr. Trump enacted as president.”
The Times notes that “Mr. Trump appears to have room to grow, as more voters say they are open to supporting the former president than they are to backing Mr. Biden, with large shares of voters saying they trust Mr. Trump on the economy and national security.”
It suggests that “The former president’s showing in these head-to-head polls appears to stem in equal measure from Mr. Biden’s vulnerabilities, Mr. Trump’s strength and the sour mood of the electorate and its pessimism about the economy…. As voters perceive the country heading down the wrong track, Mr. Trump appears to be benefiting from being out of the White House, out of the spotlight and out of responsibility when things go bad.”
Moreover, 71% of the respondents in the Times/Sienna College poll believe that Biden is “too old to be president.” 62% say that he “does not have the mental sharpness to be president.” And 51% think that he does not have the temperament needed to hold that office—only 4% less than those who say the same thing about Trump.
But the most distressing news from the poll was contained in answers to a question asking respondents who they would trust to do a better job on issues relating to democracy in the United States.
In five of the six battleground states, Biden led Trump on this issue by a scant 1 or 2%. Only in Wisconsin did the President outperform Trump by double digits on the democracy question.
How can this be when, as Gabe Fisher rightly observed, “Donald Trump was the most anti-democratic president in American history”?
Even as he fights criminal indictments charging him with various crimes arising from his effort to overturn the 2020 election results, Trump seems to be winning the messaging wars. He is succeeding in muddying the waters about his dedication to the maintenance of American democracy.
Like many would-be-autocrats, Trump presents himself as a defender of democracy and an advocate of free and fair elections. While his critics can call him a threat to democracy, those accusations seem to resonate mostly with the never-Trump part of the electorate.
We saw Trump use this playbook in his defense to his two impeachments. As the political scientist Charles R. Kesler notes, Trump survived them by portraying himself as “the tribune who refused to let the people’s champion be driven from office; the defender of the constitutional presidency against a passionate, factious majority in the House; and the restorer of moderation and equilibrium to a political system badly deranged by a half century of partisan excess and bureaucratic engorgement.”
Trump succeeded, Kesler says, in presenting himself as a “defender of American democracy” and in branding the Democrats as the real threat to democracy.
Evidence of his success was found in a September 2022 Quinnipiac University poll. In that poll, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans said that democracy is “in danger of collapse.” But, as the New York Times explained at the time, “one side blames former President Donald J. Trump and his ‘MAGA Republicans’ while the other fingers President Biden and the ‘socialist Democrats.’”
As the Times notes, “When Mr. Trump’s supporters express fear for democracy with pollsters, it is … about what Mr. Trump has told them about election integrity, even if what he says is wrong. They also see Mr. Biden’s administration as far too liberal, expanding government to the point that it will invariably restrain their own freedoms.”
Moreover, another poll, this one conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center For Politics, found that “voters remain deeply divided over the 2020 presidential election…. Only 25 percent of Trump supporters believe the 2020 election was secure, free of fraud and that Biden was the fair winner.”
Many respondents said that “they were worried about the future of democracy in America; 31 percent of voters who would choose Trump think democracy is no longer a viable system for governance, while 24 percent of respondents who choose Biden think alternative forms of government should be explored, according to the survey.”
If Biden is to prevail in 2024, he will have to convince large numbers of Americans, including many of his own voters, that democracy is worth fighting for. He cannot win if he cannot get most of those concerned about the future of American democracy to support him and the Democrats, just as he seemed to have done in 2022.
As President Biden put it in September 2022, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” A year later, in September 2023, Biden used a speech at Arizona State University’s McCain Institute to reiterate this theme.
There he said, “There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy: the MAGA movement…. There is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”
And he again went after Trump by name. “Trump says the Constitution gave him ‘the right to do whatever he wants as president,’” Biden warned. “I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest – not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency towards our fellow Americans but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”
If he is to succeed in winning on the democracy issue, Biden will have to hammer home this theme. He will have to help Americans see that in Trump’s world democracy is only worth defending, as the former president put it in a recent interview with NBC News, when it is “fair.” And it is fair only when he and his allies win elections and get their way in redressing their particular grievances.
Because he lost in 2020, Trump says, “I don’t consider us to have much of a democracy right now.”
The results of the New York Times/Sienna College poll should be a wake-up call for President Biden. They offer a warning that he does not have a minute to waste if he is to prevail in helping voters see through Trump’s smokescreen and choose him, not the former president, as the true champion of American democracy.