Nihilism Is Destroying Our Democracy

Enthusiastic enablers of Trump have unmoored themselves from the values that make possible a government by and for the people.

by Quinta Jurecic

Members of Congress will gather tomorrow to count electoral votes and establish Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. Usually, this is a pro forma process without much excitement. But a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate are planning to feed President Donald Trump’s delusions of voter fraud by formally contesting the election—an action that has no chance of succeeding and that will not change the ultimate certification of the vote and Biden’s inauguration on January 20. These members of Congress, led by Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, appear to be calculating that the political boost from catering to the president is worth the cost to American democracy. Or, rather, they don’t care about democracy at all.

“Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard,” Hawley wrote in announcing his challenge the week before the certification vote. Days later, Cruz, along with 10 other senators and senators-elect, backed Hawley’s suggestion and demanded an “emergency 10-day audit” of allegations of voter fraud, for which the Trump campaign has failed to provide any credible evidence. “Tragically,” Cruz wrote, “39% of Americans believe ‘the election was rigged’”—but this more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone ignores the fact that Americans believe election fraud occurred largely because Republican politicians keep yelling about it. If there were any doubts about how far some Republicans are willing to take this effort, on Sunday The Washington Post published an hour-long recording of the president attempting to threaten and wheedle an unmoved Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into overturning Biden’s victory in the state. The response from Republicans seeking to contest the election was muted at best: Trump’s conversation with Raffensperger was “not a helpful call,” ventured Senator Marsha Blackburn.

It’s hard to listen to Trump’s conversation with Raffensperger without concluding that the president sincerely believes he triumphed over Biden in November. Maybe some of his backers in the House and Senate really think this to be true as well. But Hawley and Cruz, both of whom enjoyed legal educations at some of the nation’s most elite institutions and went on to clerk at the Supreme Court, are taking this path not as a matter of conviction but as a matter of political expediency—perhaps calculating that backing Trump one final time could boost their presidential prospects in 2024. Hawley is suggesting that the election was stolen even though he “surely knows this isn’t true,” an acquaintance of the senator’s told The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner. Cruz, meanwhile, seemed irritated by the outrage over his proposal, complaining about “angry language” from those worried about his gambit’s long-term effects on the health of democracy.

In Cruz’s telling, he is behaving reasonably, and Democrats are responding with unmerited hysteria. This framing is a political calculation, of course, but it’s also revealing. For Trump’s Republican enablers, cynically contesting the electoral vote is now a normal part of the push-and-pull of politics—so the uproar from Democrats and others concerned about the integrity of the election is out of proportion. Democracy, in this view, is a bargaining chip like any other. Enthusiastic enablers of Trump such as Cruz and Hawley have unmoored themselves from the values that make possible a government by and for the people—what might be called civic virtue.

The recording of Trump’s call with Raffensperger is striking for how precisely it re-creates his most egregious previous efforts to use the power of the presidency for his personal advantage. His vague threats to Raffensperger—warnings that a failure to investigate supposed fraud would be “a big risk” for the secretary of state, hints that “because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote” in the Georgia runoff—recall his request to the president of Ukraine (“I’d like you to do us a favor, though”), which ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. The similarity is so great that the release of the Raffensperger tape has led to calls for Congress to impeach Trump a second time.

The Trump administration is a case study in what happens when someone devoid of morals or any sense of civic responsibility assumes the presidency. For that reason, it’s also a demonstration of how foundational that sense of responsibility is to the functioning of the republic. James Madison famously wrote that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary”—but he also argued that people are capable of virtues justifying “esteem and confidence,” and that “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” This presupposition is reflected in the presidential oath of office, through which the president pledges to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”  

Writing in 1833, Justice Joseph Story argued that the presidential oath “creates upon [the president’s] conscience a deep sense of duty.” In other words, the oath imposes and reflects some level of presumption that the president will act in good faith. The standard set by the oath isn’t necessarily high—plenty of unsavory men have held the presidency—but it does impose some minimum expectation of fidelity to the public interest.

Trump has failed to meet even this minimal expectation. The articles of impeachment against him prominently noted that he had breached his oath in abusing his power. His inability to live up to the presumption of civic virtue has confounded the courts, which again and again have struggled with whether to defer to the arguments of a president who, not to put too fine a point on it, just lies all the time. The difficulty faced by the judiciary in untangling Trump’s bad faith underlines how foundational the notion of presidential good faith is, and how disorienting that foundation’s collapse can be.

But the damage Trump has done is also the responsibility of the Republican Party, which has both enabled Trump’s abuses and, perversely, been inspired by his example. His selfishness demonstrated how much politicians could get away with if they cast aside concerns for anything other than their own ambition. Hawley and Cruz have taken that lesson the furthest. Their approach is not the only possible result of unrestrained ambition—Senator Tom Cotton, another right-wing Republican who seems likely to run for president in 2024, declined to join in the effort to contest the vote—but it traces back to that lifting of restraints. Even democracy, a principle that previously seemed beyond question, is on the table. To quote Dostoevsky, “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.”

Members of Congress also swear an oath, which has developed over the years into a promise to “support and defend the Constitution” and to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office”—reflecting the idea that senators and representatives must commit themselves to some measure of civic responsibility, just like the president. Hawley and Cruz’s gambit is made possible by ignoring those promises to the public.

Notably, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski cited her vow in rejecting her colleagues’ plan to contest the counting of electoral votes, announcing, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and that is what I will do January 6 … I will vote to affirm the 2020 presidential election.” Or as Murkowski’s Senate colleague Mitt Romney asked of Hawley and Cruz, “Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”

Trump’s call with Raffensperger echoes his threats to the president of Ukraine, but it also recalls another Washington Post story: the Access Hollywood tape. As Trump said then, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”

There is an obvious irony in someone like Hawley, who has built his career on decrying the cultural corruption and moral emptiness of his Democratic opponents, embracing this sort of nihilism. Hawley has previously argued that the country needs to return to the virtuous roots of the early republic. His evident disdain for the basic principles of democracy means that nobody should have to take his arguments on that score seriously. But his hypocrisy is useful, because it’s a reminder that paeans to the wisdom of the American founding tend to leave a lot out. The civic virtue of the Framers was, after all, the virtue of white men.

The United States has existed as a multiracial democracy for only slightly more than 50 years, and the commitment of some Americans to maintaining that new democracy turns out to have been very shallow indeed.

Quinta Jurecic is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the managing editor of Lawfare.

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