Democrats empower Trump by ignoring the collapse of trust

If polls are to be believed, the U.S. is seriously thinking about putting Donald Trump back in the White House. To those not steeped in politics, that prospect might seem astounding. Naïve observers will ask, first, how Republicans can possibly believe that he’s the right man to lead the country. Next, they will ask why Democrats can’t summon the wit to wreck his chances.

The country should be terrified by this looming absurdity, as well as deeply perplexed. Trump’s critics are surely right that his second term would be more dangerous than the first — though they’re right for the wrong reasons. Support for Trump is not just a vote of confidence in a leader with nakedly authoritarian appetites. Second time around, it’s also a conscious and deliberate vote of no confidence in the country’s most vital institutions.

President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn before boarding the Marine One presidential helicopter and departing the White House on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

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To be sure, Trump was elected in 2016 as an outsider who would dare to bend a few norms and break a few things. But in 2024 he’d be elected with what amounts to a mandate to tear it all down and purge the “vermin” who would otherwise obstruct his project. Next time, he’ll be better prepared and more motivated. He’ll be out for revenge — far from disguising it, he’ll organize his campaign around that very promise.

What’s worse is that his supporters appear to agree with him on the need for revenge and that checks and balances are for losers — or, as they would see it, instruments not of democratic accountability but of rule by a corrupt and contemptuous elite. Consider: His numerous indictments and criminal-justice entanglements haven’t held him back. He wants his trial on charges of election interference to be televised because he believes it will help his cause, and he might actually be right.

The failure of the criminal-justice system to command the confidence of roughly half the country is, or ought to be, disturbing in its own right. Whatever becomes of this particular Trump, a collapse in the trust accorded to basic governing institutions will open a path for would-be successors.

In 2016, I thought that Democrats were exaggerating the dangers Trump posed. This time around, I think they’re right, and I’m starting to be scared. But I depart from them in explaining what’s happened. My view is that Trump could never have become so dangerous without their help, an approach on which they appear to be doubling down. This is not just a matter of choosing flawed candidates to run against him — as they did in 2016 and as they seem intent on doing again next year. It’s also their refusal to recognize collapsing trust as a sickness that needs to be remedied, as opposed to an affront to decency or a declaration of ignorance and bigotry.

Trump is lying when he says the election of 2020 was stolen. He either knows or ought to know that it wasn’t — and even if it had been, his maneuvers to put matters right were outrageous.

Trust is broken: Yet popular concerns about election integrity aren’t groundless. Partisan politics intrudes on U.S. election administration (as on every other kind of American public service); both parties seek advantage wherever possible; money is spent on turning out the vote and choices are made about where to spend it; in 2020 voting procedures were revised because of the pandemic; and so on. Democrats dismiss any such questions about election integrity as bad-faith “voter suppression.” In many cases, I don’t doubt they’re right. Yet the fact remains, trust in the system is broken — and you won’t restore it by refusing to pay attention.

Unfortunately, doubts about election integrity and other institutional failings are no longer assuaged by the assurances of media watchdogs that seem dedicated to stopping Trump and are struggling (as I recently noted) to understand the concept of objectivity. Valid as their complaints might be, many of Trump’s critics in politics and the media have taken sides in a way that calls their credibility into question — another compounding factor in the collapse of trust.

The same goes for public confidence in the U.S. criminal justice system. The idea that the law is being applied evenhandedly to Trump on one side and President Joe Biden and his family on the other is not, let’s say, self-evident. U.S. prosecutors are often political actors with political ambitions. For justice to be done and seen to be done, this demands scrupulous attention to fairness, consistency and restraint.

Trump’s conduct has been deplorable, and he’s plausibly charged with serious crimes. Still, the casual observer might pause at the recent news that Biden is unlikely to face criminal charges arising from his retention of classified documents at his home and former office — charges that have landed Trump in federal court. Two veteran IRS agents who’d worked on an investigation into Hunter Biden’s tax affairs complained of “a two-track justice system based on who you are and who you’re connected to.” In one way, the books being thrown at Trump from every direction, with novel legal theories adduced for the purpose, serve to camouflage his wrongdoing: If any of the charges seems like a politically motivated stretch, that casts doubt on all the rest.

Listen: The latest polls are telling Democrats one thing: “Listen.” But the party seems stone deaf. People are complaining about inflation in particular and the economy in general. Biden and his officials respond by hailing Bidenomics and the preposterously named Inflation Reduction Act as triumphs (“one of the most significant laws I think has ever been enacted,” according to the president). Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has conveyed concern for those struggling with higher prices more effectively than the president, a professional politician of many years standing.

Speaking of which, trust is implicated there too. A president seen by much of his own party as fading and incapable is championing an agenda, as he boasts, of radical economic transformation. Such overweening ambition is bound to arouse suspicion, even if a leader who projects competence is in charge. Biden is not that leader. The disjunction between goals and capacity is jarring. It shouldn’t be surprising that people ask, how can he be trusted to manage this project?

If Democrats could surface a better candidate, I’m betting they could more easily and persuasively beat Trump, assuming he does in fact run despite his legal perils. If the president put the country first, he’d see the danger and be leading the effort to find this successor. But if he refuses to step down, and the party is unwilling or unable to make him, Biden should at the very least attune himself more closely to the many voters who don’t like Trump and could be supporting Democrats but aren’t.

The template for that exists, difficult as it now would be to deploy credibly. The persuadable center of the electorate would prefer the moderate, attentive, unifying president that Biden promised to be in 2020 — one who hears and respects their concerns and understands you can’t bring people together without trust. What a pity he broke his word.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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