It’s taken for granted in many sections of the American punditocracy that Donald Trump’s presence in the White House is the principal cause of the mass unrest and violence in the streets — remove him, and the disruption will just go away, like magic.
That’s a deeply contestable assumption, even though the president has often inflamed public debates. A passage from the end of the Transition Integrity Project report is instructive here. Over the summer, TIP convened a number of experts and political luminaries to “war game” out a variety of election scenarios. Even though the project focuses on the way that President Trump might disrupt the election process, the only result it considers in which Trump clearly wins the Electoral College is one that has Joe Biden supporting a secessionist movement. (And TIP is organized by critics of the president, so this scenario is not coming from the swamps of right-wing conspiracy theory.)
Even if Joe Biden wins, more disruption could follow, under TIP simulations. Many of the simulations focus on Trump’s allies criticizing the integrity of the election process, but the potential for disruption goes further. According to the report’s authors, a number of TIP participants urged Democrats to adopt a “new playbook” if Biden enters the White House:
These participants cautioned that Democrats should not rely on litigation, moral suasion, or merely hoping that Republicans in Congress or state elected office will “come to their senses.” Instead, they should focus on building more authentic relationships with the left’s base, including by publicly supporting the peaceful protest movement that has emerged since late May, rather than continuing to seek conciliation and compromise with the GOP.
This suggests that at least some of the participants in TIP (many of whom are pedigreed members of the political establishment) hope that victorious Democrats will double down on political disruption. Exploring this scenario is admittedly outside the Transition Integrity Project’s purview, but the participants in this project, if they are sincerely concerned about political “authoritarianism,” will need to look beyond Trump and think about the broader contours of American life and possible threats to democratic stability. While it is true that many demonstrations over the past few months have been purely peaceful, a number of them have also been accompanied by mob violence, looting, and arson (in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, New York, Kenosha, and other places). Mass demonstrations that engage in indiscriminate violence and destruction are themselves a profound threat to civil order; proponents of “peaceful protests” would be wise to ensure that they are actually, well . . . peaceful.
As I’ve written before, a partisanship of personality — in which political questions can be simply reduced to who holds office — is an understandable and perhaps somewhat unavoidable tendency in a political town like D.C. But the task of republican statesmanship involves seeing beyond the personality feuds of the moment to look at the bigger structural questions of political life. To reduce all questions of democratic norms to Donald Trump (or any president) is to forget one of the deeper truths of the American system of government: that the president is but part of a bigger picture. And there’s a risk that embracing a no-holds-barred approach in opposition to a president or a party can itself corrode the infrastructure of democratic life.