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Democrats Have Reached A Crossroads

Bookmark the summer of 2019 in the oppressive calendar of the Trump era as a reference point for understanding the future.

This was when the president waged multiple, days-long, racist and antisemitic tirades against black lawmakers, Muslim lawmakers, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews. It was when the damage Trump has inflicted on the economy started to materialize in government data, and Trump responded by blaming the Chinese government, the media, and his hand-picked Federal Reserve chairman. It was when, his political vulnerabilities exposed, he intensified his most sadistic anti-immigrant policies. It was when multiple Trump-inspired white nationalists slaughtered innocent people in terrorist gun massacres, and several others were arrested before they could visit similar hell on other disfavored communities. It was when Trump pressured Israel to punish two American citizens (both members of Congress) and tried to coerce Ukraine to use its state powers against Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it was when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler quietly acknowledged he had initiated impeachment proceedings against the president, with the support of more than a majority of House Democrats.

But it was also when the parties seemed poised to lay their bets and send all of us hurtling into the unknown. It was when the former FBI director testified to Congress that the president had obstructed his investigation of an attack on the United States, and Democrats responded by recessing for a six week vacation. While they were gone, the president stepped up his abuses of office and Democratic and Republican leaders shrugged it off.

The Republican bet, as expected, is all-in on Trump. But Democrats have been divided for years now between those who want to defeat Trump by confronting all of this madness directly, and those who hope to beat him by ignoring it as much as possible, so the country can write it off as an anomaly driven by Trump’s unique deviance. As of the unofficial end of summer, the conflict-averse faction is in command, but not firmly so. Most Democrats want to impeach Trump but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to leading an impeachment effort, and emboldened Republicans have noticed the absence of surefooted opposition. The premise of Biden’s presidential campaign is that Trump is an “aberration,” and he continues to lead his rivals in primary polls.

If that’s the bet Democrats ultimately make, it does not mean that they will lose the 2020 election, but it does mean they will be unprepared for it, and what will come afterward. The past few weeks, as much as any period since Trump became president, confirmed the GOP’s complicity in every reprehensible aspect of Trump’s presidency, and those who propose to lay it all on Trump and sweep him down the memory hole are proposing political amnesty for people who sold out the country.

The Democratic Party’s decision to turn the page on the George W. Bush era after the 2008 election was a grave error, which on its own militates for today’s Democrats to seek accountability for the GOP’s more recent bad deeds. But at a practical level, Bush made it relatively easy for Democrats to move on. He left the country mired in two wars and a once-a-century economic crisis; he presided over a corrupt administration, but many scandals came to light and harmed the Republican Party. The 2006 and 2008 elections swept scores of corrupt Republican members of Congress out of office, and a couple of them went to prison. A corrupt attorney general resigned in disgrace for politicizing the enforcement of federal law. A crony with no emergency management experience allowed a major American city to drown. Dick Cheney’s chief of staff refused to cooperate with a special counsel investigating the White House outing of a CIA officer—an an act of political revenge—and served time for obstructing justice.

Between the crises at hand in 2009 and the political demolition of the GOP, there was at least some logic to the idea that Democrats should fix the economy and ignore the past; the Republicans who had survived successive Democratic wave elections weren’t the worst apples anyhow, and at least pretended to understand that their former leaders were corrupt. Trump has done members of his party no such favors. To the contrary, he’s conscripted the whole lot of them into a wide-ranging coverup of known and unknown crimes. They have intervened only to discourage Trump’s occasional deviations from conservative donor-class orthodoxy, but have signed off on his incitement of race hatred, his lies and propaganda, his attacks on the free press, and his abusive wielding of government power against his political enemies. They have curried favor with him by spending money at his properties, helping him conceal his tax returns, and encouraging his efforts to subvert U.S. elections.

Trump’s corruption is bottomless, but he hasn’t acted alone. It wasn’t Trump who just funneled taxpayer money into his own pocket by making an unnecessary stopover at a Trump resort in western Ireland, it was Vice President Mike Pence. Trump will probably grift his way through the holiday season, but it was Attorney General William Barr (a Republican legal eminence) who slipped $30,000 to the Trump Organization to host a Christmas party at Trump’s Washington, DC, hotel. Trump and his subordinates bear responsibility for welcoming adversaries to commit crimes on his behalf in our elections, but it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has shot down all administrative and legislative efforts to stop foreign interference.

Defeating Trump under any circumstances will come as a huge relief, but to let bygones be bygones with the Republicans who remain in office, after what they’ve participated in, would be about as tenable catching a housemate in flagrante with a zoo animal, and agreeing to pretend nothing weird had happened.

There are other reasons for Democrats to adopt a more combative footing while they still can.

Trump has recently told his aides he’ll pardon them for any crimes they commit in the course of plundering federal dollars to build border wall on private land. If he will encourage aides to break laws so he can campaign on having built a border wall, he will encourage them to break election laws, too—if he has not already. Rudy Giuliani (another Republican icon) has lead the effort to coerce the government of Ukraine to investigate Biden in order to help Trump, knowing it is illegal for campaigns to solicit things of value (like costly investigations) from foreign entities.

We recently learned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent yet more medical treatment for cancer this summer. Days later, McConnell reiterated that he will fill any Supreme Court vacancies that arise between now and the election. In the conflict-averse school, this is unthinkable, because it’s checkmate—the completion of a theft of the courts that began with the blockade of Merrick Garland, and only succeeded with the help of a variety of campaign crimes, all of which McConnell has blessed.

After both of this century’s Republican presidents came to power in corrupt fashion, and as popular vote losers, then set about stacking the judiciary, the case for reversing the GOP theft of the courts couldn’t be stronger. But that work won’t start by warning McConnell he’ll “tear this country apart”—a consequence he couldn’t care less about, and may actually excite him. It will only start by resolving to use power in turn to set things right.

We will know by the end of the year which Democratic faction prevailed, but we’ll look back on the bygone season as the moment the party reached a crossroads and chose a path.