Power vs. Duty in American Politics
To anyone paying attention the last four years, Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the 2020 presidential election fair and square could not truly come as a surprise. That he would never concede was practically a given. What we could not know (and still do not know) with any certainty is just how far Trump will go to maintain his grip on power.
He has been willing to shower the courts with specious lawsuits – a cynical, dishonest and shameless act, but not in itself unlawful. Trump and his minions tirelessly spewed a steaming mess of debunked conspiracy theories and bogus claims about voter fraud, rigged voting machines, dead voters, underage voters and so on. This was mendacious, divisive and damaging to the public’s trust in our democratic institutions and electoral processes – it showed a lack of respect for the most basic moral principles, but it too was not technically unlawful.
Trump, who demands absolute loyalty from those around him, has demonstrated since the election that he will viciously turn on his most loyal followers if they are not prepared to renounce every last vestige of decency and integrity for his sake; if they are not willing, so as to maintain his presidency, to disown the very oath they took to uphold the Constitution. On top of that, Trump by all accounts has raised staggering amounts of money by perpetuating the myth of vast voter fraud – money that he is free to spend in any manner whatsoever. Which is just to say that Trump has proven himself to be a man who believes in nothing, who abides by no principles, except the principle of self-interest.
But setting aside his obvious moral bankruptcy, his readiness to disenfranchise millions of voters, and his cynical and self-serving attack on our democracy, until recently Trump had still not clearly acted unlawfully. Although he clearly has no regard for the rule of law as such, Trump had sidestepped flagrantly breaking the law in his bid to overthrow the legitimate results of a fair election – one deemed “the most secure in American history” by Christopher Krebs, the administration’s most senior cybersecurity official. Of course, Trump fired him not long after he made that statement. And why? For being unwilling to forsake the law, his oath, and his duty in order to protect the president.
But as Trump’s desperation has grown, and the loss of his power becomes imminent, his last psychological impediments to breaking the law are crumbling. The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to “find the 11,780 votes” that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (“it’s going to be very costly…”) if Raffensperger failed to comply. If Trump did not break the law outright, if he did not criminally solicit an official to commit election fraud, he certainly came closer to doing so than at any other time since the election. There are, in particular, the provisions of two federal election fraud statutes and one Georgia law that Trump may have violated during the call.
Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle. It may seem odd to suggest that we owe a debt of gratitude to a man for merely doing his job with honesty and to the best of his ability – but these are the dark times in which we live, when simply doing one’s job demands more courage and decency than many of Raffensperger’s Republican colleagues are apparently capable of mustering. But his remarkable example should remind us of something important – that we may profoundly disagree about what is best for the country, but there must be a baseline commitment to truth and integrity for genuine disagreement to even be possible. If I lack that basic commitment, then I am not arguing in good faith – for my real motives are not what I profess them to be; just as Trump’s motives are obviously not what he claims. Trump could not care less about the truth of voter fraud. He has only ever been interested in what will enable him to continue to be president.
In his efforts to compel Raffensperger to break the law, Trump was in effect demanding ‘Choose me, the president, over your country. Choose me over the rule of law and the will of the people. Choose me over the Constitution and this experiment in popular government. Choose me over the most fundamental principles that you live by. Choose me over your self-respect, over your honor and over your own good name. Choose me over the future of this Republic.’
As many as thirteen senators have indicated that they will oppose certifying the votes of the Electoral College, in light of the many “allegations” of voter fraud – never mind that to date not a single meaningful piece of evidence has been offered in support of these allegations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that his January 6 vote certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election will be “the most consequential I have ever cast.” McConnell has finally said something with which I could not agree more – as he is acknowledging that Trump is demanding that the GOP overturn the results of an election that he lost, in the electoral college and in the popular vote by as many seven million votes. Republicans are being told to directly and radically undermine our democracy in a manner representing the very antithesis of genuine conservatism.
Dozens of lawmakers have shown themselves willing to acquiesce to Trump, to stand with him and against the Constitution, to stand with him and with the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans – they have chosen Trump over honor, integrity and duty. And history will judge them harshly for it. But history will save its greatest opprobrium for the president, for it is he who was invested with real power and abused it, believing in nothing but the conviction of his own vanity.
Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.