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As the Electoral College votes, let’s make sure Trump pays a real price for trying to break democracy

The president’s crusades are often based on lies, and he’s never faced real consequences. America can’t afford him ducking the bill this time.

As the Electoral College votes, let’s make sure Trump pays a real price for trying to break democracy
[Photo: Shealah Craighead/The White House/Flickr]
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At some point during the last few hazy weeks, we reached the Groundhog Day portion of the 2020 election.

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Every day became the same, stuck in a perpetual loop of Donald Trump screaming that the election was stolen, right-wing media cheering him on, Republican politicians offering either complicit silence or full-throated support, and rank-and-file MAGA hats making life hell for local officials who refuse to help overturn the election—all based solely on conspiracy theories and lies.

It’s been like this for weeks, with no significant change except for the rising number of lawsuit losses and the likelihood of Trump supporters resorting to violence. Meanwhile, the flagrant disregard for democracy by one of the country’s two major political parties remains dramatically underplayed by most media outlets.

Unlike actual purgatory, this moment has a clear end: January 20, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as America’s next president. And the tenor of Trump’s more professional defenders may even change after the Monday, December 14, elector college vote, when Biden’s victory becomes even less disputable.

What remains unclear for now, however, is whether Trump will face any consequences for dragging America through such morally and legally murky depths—during a pandemic surge, no less—all under pretenses that have proven false again and again.

Obviously, Trump—who was famous for stiffing his contractors—has become accustomed to paying no political price for being proven wrong in matters of vital importance. He’s mostly managed to avoid paying a price for anything. But America can’t afford him ducking the bill this time. Instead, the country needs to consecrate into history that Trump was dead wrong about the election being stolen from him, and impose a cost for undermining democracy over a lie.

Trump’s entire political career has been fueled by brazen assertions and paranoid predictions, along with the ossified strategy of never, under any circumstances, admitting he’s wrong or apologizing for anything. By successfully changing the subject each time he’s been proven wrong, often by spinning out a fresh conspiracy theory, Trump has somehow evaded any consequences. And the inability of his political adversaries to hold his feet to the fire over any of these lie-based campaigns is how we arrived at the moment in which we now find ourselves.

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Well before he became president, Trump entered politics with the false birther conspiracy theory, his years-long effort to portray Barack Obama as an illegitimate president. As damaging as it was for such a high-profile public figure to push this lie for five years, to an audience of untold millions, when Trump finally admitted in 2016 that Obama was, indeed, born in America, his presidential campaign survived unscathed. He didn’t attempt to atone for having pushed incendiary fake news for years. I don’t even remember a broad push for him to do so. Obama himself was so careful to not be seen putting his thumb on the scale in support for Hillary Clinton in 2016 that even he didn’t offer his opinion on the matter until years later. The entire episode should have torched Trump’s credibility; instead, it only offered a preview of the kinds of dangerous lies he could get away with pushing.

After winning the presidency, he quickly ramped up the false-pretense crusades. First, he alleged mass fraud in the 2016 election by between three and five million votes, coincidentally the approximate margin of Clinton’s popular vote victory. Trump’s subsequent quest to save face involved forming a commission to investigate fraud and invalidate his popular vote loss. The commission, of course, found absolutely no wrongdoing and disbanded very quietly in January 2018. The group dissolved so quietly, in fact, that there was, once again, no major push for accountability around Trump’s debunked assertion that Democrats had cheated. Trump’s ugly accusation was firmly shut down, but he never had to answer for it in any meaningful way.

Later that year, in the lead up to the midterm election, Trump spent several weeks fear-mongering around a migrant caravan headed for the U.S. As often as he could manage, he painted the refugees embedded within it as “invaders” coming to conquer America. This manufactured crisis is reportedly what inspired the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, after conspiracy theorists started blaming the migrant caravan on the Jews.

Eventually, the caravan fizzled out, without ever even slightly resembling the promised “invasion,” but Trump never took any heat for hawking yet another false narrative that ultimately came to nothing.

And then came Trump’s constant attempts in 2020 to paint the pandemic as perpetually rounding the turn into utter harmlessness, even as it got indisputably worse and worse. With the backdrop of a tanking economy, Trump’s real-time botching of the COVID-19 response helped earn him the first and only real consequence of his presidency: losing an election. Yet even that consequence somehow isn’t quite sticking. Because Trump’s final false crusade as president is to prove that his loss is just another dark conspiracy from the “they” who is always out to get him.

The most charitable possible way to interpret all of Trump’s various campaigns based on lies is that he earnestly believes them. (The fact that, once proven wrong, he inevitably disputes the proof should dissuade anyone from accepting this interpretation.) But even through this most generous lens, a debt is still owed when someone so influential is so wrong about something so important. Trump still has a responsibility to admit his “error” to all, and suffer the consequences.

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Since he won’t do so willingly, the rest of the world has a responsibility to do it for him, and set the record straight for history.

If a man publicly accused a neighbor of robbing his house, but the man was unable prove he’d even been robbed at all, at the very least that man would owe his neighbor a public apology. Depending on how loud he’d been screaming about the theft, however, and the size of his megaphone, he might be subject to some litigation as well.

It really is that simple. And even though Trump has never had to pay a political price for pushing a lie as far as it could go, what happens if he gets away with pushing lies about the one political price he ever did have to pay?

Let it be known forever that when democracy served Trump his only major loss, Republicans rose en masse and demanded to invalidate democracy. The GOP has spent the six weeks since the election either actively assisting their leader, or merely stating that he’s within his rights to pursue legal recourse. Once the options for that recourse run out, though; once the electoral college votes for Joe Biden; once every last lawsuit has been tossed, and all the so-called evidence deemed insufficient; once the last lingering shadow of a doubt dissipates in the popular imagination; Trump’s last presidential crusade of lies needs to be met with a restorative campaign of truth.

When Biden takes over in January,  he would do well to go Scorched Earth on Trump and Trumpism. Before the next administration turns the page, it needs to get everyone on the same page about what the previous president and his cohort were willing to do to retain power. Investigate everything, expose everything, enforce consequences.

A conclusive accounting of Trump’s unconstitutional post-election conduct might strip some of the varnish off of Trump’s enshrined image as a Lost Cause godhead in the minds of millions who voted for him. Without one, Trump will have that much more credibility and sway for whatever campaign of lies he mounts next.

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Unfortunately, the incoming administration already appears poised to let Trump and his cronies off the hook yet again, in a doomed bid for bipartisan cooperation.

Talk about Groundhog Day.