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“An Indelible Stain” (1)

There are so many reasons to be disquieted about American governance as we near the end of 2020 that it is difficult to know where to begin to discuss them. Here is a partial list of concerns:

  • The country is experiencing record numbers daily of cases of, and deaths resulting from, COVID-19. Rather than encourage Americans to address this deadly scourge, Trump and his party dallied for many months, actively attacked public health measures aimed at assisting health workers and controlling the spread, and knowingly lied to supporters and the nation about the contours and character of the pandemic. The result is more American deaths from this virus than died in combat in World War II, and that toll is still rising quickly, as is the number of new cases. On December 18 alone, the United States reported 246,914 fresh cases.[2]
  • Citizens learned recently that a foreign nation—Russia appears to be the culprit—has successfully hacked into many of the nation’s information and security systems and has done so for many months. At this point, this incursion into state secrets is likely both immense and incalculable. As has been true throughout his presidency whenever Russia has undermined U.S. interests, Trump has refused to acknowledge its involvement in this action, publicly contradicting his Secretary of State who had announced that nation’s culpability.3
  • As I write, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, for apparently purely partisan reasons, once again derailed the possibility of providing the country’s state and local governments much needed assistance due to the crippling effects of the pandemic in an apparent effort to hobble the Biden administration’s capacity to address an economic downturn and possible recession.
  • President Trump has ordered the cessation of Department of Defense briefings with incoming Biden administration officials in a fit of pique about a Washington Post story suggesting that the President-elect may well order an end to use of that department’s funds to build a wall along the nation’s border with Mexico.[3]
  • In fact, Trump has done little except Tweet outrageous nonsense about the election daily and play golf on the weekends since November 3, apparently incapable of accepting the fact that he lost. Those lies, however, have gained him millions of dollars from supporters, who are unaware that a major share of their gifts will be used for his personal purposes. In fact, the entire fundraising/legal effort looks increasingly like a scam to raise money to address his personal preferences and ambitions. The costs for the United States as a result of his party’s leaders decision to support these delusions and lies, have nevertheless been immense.[4]

This list could be extended, but it suggests three major conclusions. First, neither Trump nor his party are making any genuine effort to serve the public good. Their only interest appears to be securing personal aggrandizement (Trump) or positioning themselves or their party electorally (McConnell and GOP leaders), even when doing so actively harms millions and the nation’s interests, not least by undermining Republican Party supporters’ belief in the country’s laws and institutions. This constitutes a travesty of the highest order and indicates that a major political party has completely lost its way.

Second, and more particularly, to the extent that Trump and administration officials have refused to acknowledge the COVID-19 and security crises for political reasons, and thereby worked at direct cross purposes to the interests of the citizens they are sworn to serve, they are guilty of, at minimum, a deep dereliction of duty. Finally, what underpins all of these actions is a cynical disregard for those who support them, except perhaps as pliable political pawns, and an active and shameful disdain for the rule of law and for our Constitution. I take up this last point briefly next.

While I mentioned Trump’s fundraising concerning his claims of an illegitimate election, I did not include in the list above the long-term assault on the rule of law and on peaceful transfer of power that Trump and many GOP officials undertook, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, when asking the United States Supreme Court to overturn millions of votes and hand the election to Trump. Here is how the New York Times reported that story:

The Supreme Court repudiation of President Trump’s desperate bid for a second term not only shredded his effort to overturn the will of voters: It also was a blunt rebuke to Republican leaders in Congress and the states who were willing to damage American democracy by embracing a partisan power grab over a free and fair election. … With direct buy-in from senior officials like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and the Republican leader in the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the president’s effort required the party to promote false theory upon unsubstantiated claim upon outright lie about unproved, widespread fraud—in an election that Republican and Democratic election officials agreed was notably smooth given the challenges of the pandemic. And it meant that Republican leaders now stand for a new notion: that the final decisions of voters can be challenged without a basis in fact if the results are not to the liking of the losing side, running counter to decades of work by the United States to convince developing nations that peaceful transfers of power are key to any freely elected government’s credibility.[5]

Two points merit emphasis here. There was and is no evidence of widespread inconsistencies and fraud in the recent election. Trump and his allies have sought to sow doubt about the contest via lies, when there was absolutely no reason to question electoral outcomes. All 50 states have certified their results, including many with Republican party officials doing so, as did the Electoral College. This has been and remains a baseless effort on the part of Trump and the Republican Party to delegitimate a valid outcome to serve an individual’s fragile ego and raise funds in a misleading way for other purposes. It has nonetheless persuaded millions of GOP faithful that the election was illegitimate. Indeed, only 23 percent of registered GOP voters in a recent Quinnipiac University poll indicated they believed the election results.[6] This tragic farce has also had correspondingly ugly consequences for some citizens’ trust in government at all levels. This is an enormous price to pay to assuage the bruised ego of an individual who separates the world into “Losers” and himself, and who cannot accept that he has been rejected. And yet, GOP leaders, with too few exceptions, have lined up to bear the price and to pay obeisance to the huckster and inveterate liar who has propounded it. They have done so in good measure, as I have noted repeatedly, because millions of people have purported to believe Trump’s lies.

That fact leads to two conclusions in turn. First, the deep divide in the electorate wrought by many years of anti-governance and anti-pluralism scapegoating, posturing and initiatives on the part of the Republican Party to justify redistribution of wealth upward, coupled with the devastating social and economic consequences of those efforts for millions, has created a profound political crisis whose apotheosis may be Trump, but which he alone did not create. It has been decades in the making. Second, to the extent that cynical propaganda on the part of a large share of Republican Party officials, social media platforms and some major media broadcasters is sustaining the present crisis, addressing these while respecting those individuals who have fallen prey to their claims represents the central governance challenge of our time. Put simply, millions of citizens now live in an alternate epistemology that finds them too willing to sacrifice their own and others’ rights.

This turn must be addressed successfully in the long pull if our polity is to survive. It is consoling that our institutions have thus far hewed to the rule of law and our Constitution, while one of our nation’s major political parties and a share of its followers have elected noisily and ignorantly not to do so. That said, it is already clear that many GOP officials are more than content to mislead and to do all they can in the name of power to stymie the efforts of the new administration, even at high cost to the nation.

As this extraordinary unethical and immoral political situation continues to unfold and millions are systematically misled into supporting it, I have found myself pondering Hannah Arendt’s cautions concerning the fragility of human judgment as a means to overcome evil. She wrote reflecting on the pall that Hitler had unleashed, while I write as our nation confronts its own version of a mass perversion of reality justifying widespread hatred and deprivation of rights of “Others,” including other Americans with different views.

There remains, however, one fundamental problem, which was implicitly present in all these postwar trials and which must be mentioned because it touches upon one of the central moral questions of all time, namely upon the nature and function of human judgment. What we have demanded in these trials, where the defendants had committed ‘legal’ crimes, is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them. … Since the whole of respectable society had in one way or another succumbed to Hitler, the moral maxims … which guide conscience had virtually vanished.[7]

The hard question confronting this nation today is an abiding question for self-governance more generally: how to maintain a political frame that depends on deliberation when humans have been known so often willingly to jettison that possibility, and conscience itself, when promised power, security, riches or aggrandizement by the purveyors of propaganda. While I am hopeful, the outcome of our current crisis is by no means clear as I write. What I can say is that our institutions have thus far withstood this assault and that a record-setting number of Americans also voted for that possibility in November and pushed back against the lies and propaganda. All U.S. citizens can look forward with hope to continuing efforts to preserve their collective choice, but they must remain vigilant, involved and informed to ensure its success.


[1] This redolent phrase is Michael Steele’s, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, as quoted in  Rutenberg, Jim and Nick Corasaniti, “‘An Indelible Stain:’ How the G.O.P. Tried to Topple a Pillar of Democracy,” The New York Times, December 12, 2020,, Accessed December 12, 2020. 

[2] Griffin, Kyle (@kylegriffin1). “NBC News confirms: The U.S. has hit a new single-day record of coronavirus cases on Friday: 246,914.” Twitter, December 18, 2020,, Accessed December 20, 2020. 

3 Sanger, David, Nicole Perlroth and Eric Schmitt. “Scope of Russian Hack Becomes Clear: Multiple U.S. Agencies Were Hit,” The New York Times, December 16, 2020,, Accessed December 16, 2020; Sanger, David and Nicole Perlroth. “Trump Contradicts Pompeo Over Russia’s Role in Hack,” The New York Times, December 19, 2020,, Accessed December 19, 2020.   

[3] Dawsey, Josh and Nick Miroff. “Biden order to halt border wall project would save U.S. $2.6 billion, Pentagon estimates show,” The Washington Post, December 16, 2020,, Accessed December 19, 2020;  Goldmacher, Shane and Maggie Halderman “Trump’s Future: Tons of Cash and Plenty of Options for Spending It,” The New York Times, December 18, 2020,, Accessed December 18, 2020. 

[4] Richardson, Heather Cox. “Letters from an American,” December 18, 2020,, Accessed December 18, 2020; “ Baker, Peter. “Trump’s Final Days of Rage and Denial,” The New York Times, December 7, 2020,, Accessed December 18, 2020. 

[5] Rutenberg and Corasaniti. “An Indelible Stain.”

[6] Quinnipiac University National Poll, December 10, 2020,, Accessed December 20, 2020. 

[7] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York: Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 294, 295.