If I were still a believing Christian, I might be tempted to think that Donald Trump is Satan himself.
No, I don't mean that literally, but I do mean it seriously.
The idea of Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, a fallen angel, or demonic force who rises up in defiance of God, tempts human beings toward sin, inspiring evil, sowing chaos and disorder, tearing down good things, desecrating the beautiful, telling lies for the sheer thrill of spreading confusion and muddling minds — the pious believe such a being actually exists, wandering the world, intervening in lives, possessing bodies, polluting souls. But it's also possible to make use of the character as a metaphor, an idea, treating it as the fanciful creation of culture as it tries to make sense of something real in human experience.
What is this something? It's more precisely a someone — the kind of person who delights in wreaking havoc, who acts entirely from his own interests, and whose interests are incompatible with received norms, standards, restraints, and laws. Someone who actively seeks to inspire anger and animus, who likes nothing more than provoking conflict all around him, both to create advantages for himself and because pulling everyone around him down to his own ignoble level soothes his nagging worry that someone, somewhere might be more widely admired. This is a person who lives for adulation without regard for whether the glory is earned. The louder the cheers, the better. That's all that counts. And so the only thing that's a threat is the prospect of the cheers going silent — of someone else rightfully winning the contest for public approval.
Donald Trump is the demon in American democracy.
A week ago, immediately following Election Day, I felt anxious. I'm a liberal-leaning centrist. I've written hundreds of columns lambasting Trump. I voted for Biden without a moment's hesitation. So I was disappointed to see that the outcome of the election was much closer in the Electoral College than I hoped it would be. The rest of the week was tense. But by midday Saturday, the outcome was clear. Biden had pulled into the lead in Pennsylvania (my home state) the day before, and by late morning his lead in the vote count had grown to more that 0.5 percent. With that milestone reached, major news organizations called the race.
Members of my family traveled from the suburbs into Philadelphia to celebrate on the streets. That evening we gathered in front of the TV to watch the speeches from Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. We all felt grateful. Relieved. In my own case, the feeling flowed less from partisanship than patriotism — love of my country and hope that the civic turbulence of the past four years might recede for a time. We had held a national election during the worst pandemic in a century and peacefully voted the president out of office. That realization, combined with Biden's calls to healing and unity and his gestures of reconciliation toward the other side, felt like a return to normal politics after years of crisis.
A Democrat holding the White House isn't how I define "normal." I define "normal" as the country managing an orderly transfer of power from one administration to the next. The fact that many Americans consider this normal, and that it is achieved (for the most part) democratically, is an enormous achievement — and a testament to the great good fortune of everyone lucky enough to call the U.S. home.
But that sensation of normalcy has already vanished — thanks to one man.
What makes Trump demonic? One thing above all: His willingness, even eagerness, to do serious, potentially fatal, damage to something beautiful, noble, fragile, and rare, purely to satisfy his own emotional needs. That something is American self-government. Trump can't accept losing, can't accept rejection, and savors provoking division. He wants to be a maestro conducting a cacophony of animosities at the center of our national stage because it feeds his insatiable craving for attention and power — and because, I suspect, he delights in pulling everybody else down to his own level.
That is a satanic impulse.
Think of all the ways that Trump could have responded to the election results.
He could have acted and spoken like a normal president. Whatever his personal feelings of disappointment, he might have said, "We fought a good fight, but Joe Biden prevailed. I will now do whatever I can to ensure an orderly and productive transition."
Or he could have been more feisty and combative: "Yes, Joe Biden won. I'm not happy about it. I think it was a mistake. But a loss is a loss, and we'll be working with the incoming administration over the coming couple of months to help out where we can."
Or he could have pushed even further into nastiness: "You know, this was a big mistake. At least Republicans made gains in the House and prevented the Democrats from taking over the Senate. That's important because the Biden administration is going to be a disaster. You'll see, and then I'll be back to boot him out of the Oval Office. I'm declaring right now, I'm running for president again in four years. You'll be begging for me to return to the White House."
That would have been an unprecedented thing to say and do. But it wouldn't have crossed the line into an attack on the system itself. The president is allowed to express negative thoughts about his successor. Having served only one term, he's allowed to run for office again in four years. Indeed, all three of these imagined scenarios would have done the essential political work of reconciling his supporters to the reality of life in a functioning democracy, which involves ruling and being ruled in turn, winning some and losing some, and consoling oneself with the thought of getting another chance to try again down the road and in the meantime accepting the legitimacy of one's opponent taking power.
But Trump didn't do that. Instead, what he's done is deny that he lost at all — even though he did. He's asserted that the Democrats stole the election without providing a shred of proof in even a single state to back up the incendiary accusation. The result? Seventy percent of Republicans are already prepared to say that the election wasn't free and fair. Which means they are inclined to believe that the Biden administration is illegitimate even before it starts — because, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put it on Monday night on Fox News, the Democrats are only able to win power by cheating.
It would be one thing if Trump said these civically poisonous things and elected members of his party broke with him over it to congratulate the president-elect on his win. But of course, with a few key exceptions, they haven't. On the contrary, they've rushed to denounce the imaginary scourge of voter fraud, with many committing themselves to, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, "a smooth transition to a second Trump administration." Pompeo's line may have been a joke, but it wasn't funny.
A few of these GOP office holders might actually believe the president's nonsense. But I suspect most stand with the "senior Republican official" quoted in The Washington Post:
What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change…. He went golfing this weekend. It's not like he's plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He's tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he'll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he'll leave. [The Washington Post]
Sure, haha, no problem. We can let the just-defeated president assert without evidence that in fact he won the vote, that the incoming president and his party stole the election, and that the most elemental processes of American democracy are untrustworthy. No biggie. Just a little good-natured fun and games from the commander-in-chief about how the upcoming transition of power is actually a coup. No harm, no foul!
Except that the harm to come from allowing this dangerous game with American democracy to proceed could be enormous. The "downside" of continuing to play the game is the further cultivation of a segment of the electorate that lacks any trust in or attachment to democratic elections — or rather, that only accepts an election's legitimacy when its own side prevails. "If we win, it's fair; if they win, it's fraud" is not a motto that is compatible with liberal democratic government. It's a formula for democratic breakdown. And Trump is doing everything he can to encourage his supporters to embrace it, with the active complicity of his party.
I still believe that the most likely outcome of this mess is that Trump eventually relents, allowing the process of presidential transition to move forward. But that doesn't mean it's anything close to guaranteed. And even if he does back down, it seems certain to be combined with the deliberate nurturing of a stabbed-in-the-back narrative that keeps alive the pernicious fiction that Trump didn't really lose, that the Democrats' win in 2020 is tainted, and that the Biden administration has been illegitimate from the start, founded in an act of treachery for which no one has yet paid a price.
That it is all a lie won't matter one bit. The demon infecting our democracy doesn't care, and neither will those whose enmity he has worked so tirelessly to inflame over the past four years.