In October 2010, liberal comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gathered over two hundred thousand fans in Washington DC for their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Its premise was to restore “sanity” and respectful discourse to American politics to break through the noise of the extremes, especially in the face of the rising Tea Party.
Though few expected a satirical rally hosted by two comedians to course-correct our country’s slide toward extremism, thirteen years later, it’s clear any such attempts were a failure. In 2016, Donald Trump beat all predictions to become president of the United States. He injected a new type of viciousness into American politics, expressing explicit xenophobia and a disregard for democratic norms, with a bombastic style that whipped up his base while provoking outrage on the part of the traditional political class and punditry.
Many have since reiterated Stewart and Colbert’s 2010 plea for the country to return to normalcy and to repudiate Trump and his style of politics. Those pleas have largely landed on deaf ears. Over the past few years, Trump’s movement has successfully monopolized control of the Republican Party while taking an increasingly authoritarian bent.
Earlier this month, a coalition of thirteen of the fourteen US presidential libraries and foundations published yet another Stewartian plea, titled “Strengthening Our Democracy.” The letter, first proposed by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, implores all Americans to “engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.”
The foundations and libraries of every president since Herbert Hoover, except for the Eisenhower Foundation, signed onto the letter. It rebukes a long list of Trump’s obstructions of political norms (though without calling Trump out by name): inspiring and encouraging violence among supporters, serially violating the law, and challenging the 2024 election results, including with a failed coup attempt.
But Trump’s criminal behavior and general disregard for democracy are not as much aberrations from the norm for US presidents as the establishment would like to believe. In fact, many of those same presidents whose centers and libraries are calling to “protect democracy” have engaged in their own share of attacks on civil liberties and majority rule.
Democracy for Thee But Not for Me
Though they lacked the militant and violent supporters that Trump boasts, past presidents also demonstrated frequent disregard for democracy, helping pave the way for Trumpian authoritarianism.
That the Bush Foundation in particular came up with the idea for the letter is a juicy bit of Orwellian irony. Though he’s been increasingly rehabilitated in the public eye, with no small help from the Democratic Party, Bush’s eight years in the White House were a gross affront to democracy.
Unlike Trump — who tried and failed to steal a presidential election — Bush actually succeeded. Despite Al Gore winning both the popular and, most likely, the Electoral College votes, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority voted to end the hotly contested Florida vote recount, delivering the presidency to Bush. That SCOTUS majority included two justices appointed by Bush’s father, and the effort to stop the recount included violent riots by right-wing operatives who physically assaulted those tasked with the recount. Bush’s 2004 reelection also remains suspect: the election introduced digital voting machines that exhibited extreme irregularities in the president’s favor.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent congressional anthrax scare, Bush took advantage of and stoked Americans’ collective fear to expand the powers of the presidency and violate constitutional rights. The Bush administration promptly passed the Patriot Act, closely based on a bill from the 1990s written by Joe Biden that had earlier been rejected by both parties for its illegal expansion of government surveillance. Muslim Americans were harassed by the police and federal government and illegally detained and questioned in black sites.
Most notoriously, Bush launched two wars that, adding up direct and indirect casualties, killed millions; one of those wars, supported by leaders of both major parties, was based on explicit lies to the American people. In the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the Bush administration illegally tortured prisoners of war and indefinitely detained suspected terrorists without due process.
Barack Obama similarly built out illegal domestic and foreign surveillance efforts, including prosecuting and torturing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale, and Edward Snowden. The Obama administration also expanded the unilateral executive use of drone warfare without congressional approval, which included claiming the authority to assassinate American citizens without a trial or due process.
Like his predecessors, Obama carried out or supported disastrous regime change efforts, launching military intervention in Libya, intervening in Haiti’s elections, and legitimizing Honduras’s right-wing coup government. His administration also detained undocumented immigrants en masse — building and making use of the same facilities liberals correctly described as concentration camps during the Trump presidency.
The presidents represented by the other signatories to the letter also serially violated civil liberties and attacked democratic norms. No one needs to be reminded that, in one of the great scandals of American presidential history, Richard Nixon spied on political opponents and attempted to cover it up. Internationally, Nixon engaged in illegal bombing campaigns of Cambodia, and his broader domestic program included going to war with Black Power organizers and infiltrating and destroying left-wing groups.
Gerald Ford infamously pardoned Nixon, while under Lyndon B. Johnson’s watch, the FBI stalked and harassed civil rights movement activists, including urging Martin Luther King Jr to commit suicide; federal agencies were possibly even involved in his assassination. George H. W. Bush, as Nixon’s head of the CIA, covered up the car bombing of a former minister from Salvador Allende’s administration and his American secretary by the Augusto Pinochet government in the middle of Washington, DC.
During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan secretly cut deals with the Iranian government to not let out American hostages so he could capitalize on the hostage crisis to defeat incumbent Jimmy Carter. As president, Reagan covertly and illegally sold weapons to the Iranian government to raise money to (again, also illegally) fund the right-wing Nicaraguan Contra death squads. The Reagan government similarly worked to cover up massacres in El Salvador by US-backed forces.
A Constitution for the Rich and Powerful
America’s antidemocratic history goes deeper than the crimes of individual politicians. Our political institutions themselves were designed to limit popular democracy, as argued for by the United States’ founders in the Federalist Papers. They feared letting the poor rule would lead to the expropriation of the rich.
The Electoral College and US Senate and filibuster help enshrine minority rule, while a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court with the power of judicial review provides another elite check on democratic governance. And our system of first-past-the-post, single-member seats, along with restrictive ballot-access laws, has solidified a two-party system that comes close to letting the rich monopolize politics. Along with allowing the wealthy to spend near unlimited amounts of money to influence politics, many if not most public offices are effectively sold to the highest bidder.
To the extent that Trump’s attacks on democracy differ from his predecessors’, it’s because of his disregard for the norms of decorum that put a veneer of civility on elite rule and his open embrace of political violence.
Trump’s attacks on liberal democratic institutions are of course not an answer to our country’s democracy deficit. But neither is the shallow, hypocritical “defense” of American democracy presented by former presidents and their ultrarich allies, who are greatly invested in our existing institutions but who display little concern for real democracy — people having a meaningful say over their own lives.
Building a Real Democracy
Winning a political and economic system that serves the working-class majority does require defeating the Trumpian attacks on the limited democracy we do have. In Tennessee, two progressive legislators were removed from their offices by their Republican colleagues for participating in a protest against gun violence at the state capitol. Florida’s far-right governor Ron Desantis has removed multiple progressive elected district attorneys from their offices for alleged leniency in prosecuting crimes and his restrictive abortion policies.
Throughout the country, the Right is imposing abortion bans or near-bans and targeting teachers and school curricula with draconian censorship measures. Sixty-one activists in Georgia now face state RICO charges from the Republican attorney general for exercising their democratic rights to organize against a proposed new multimillion-dollar police training center. Republican senators have submitted requests to the Justice Department to target and prosecute organizations that advocate against a new Cold War with China.
Donald Trump — the front-runner in the Republican primary, despite his numerous indictments — has campaigned on ridding the country of its socialist elements, which, along with his party’s crackdown on democratic rights and his base’s history of militia violence, echoes our country’s dark history with Red Scares and McCarthyism, as well as foreign fascist governments’ efforts to extinguish socialism and working-class organization.
But we can’t stave off authoritarianism by promising a return to the “good old days” of Bush and Obama’s more respectable assaults on democracy and the rule of law, or by defending indefensible institutions. This strategy for “defending democracy” rests its success on convincing millions that a system they know is failing them is in fact serving them as it should.
Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, however, showed an alternative to circling the wagons around the status quo. Instead of defending the Democratic Party’s “achievements,” he spoke to the feelings of millions that something is fundamentally broken and that our political and economic systems serve the ultrawealthy at the expense of the working-class majority.
The movement behind the Bernie campaigns put forward a vision of true democracy: one where big money would be removed from politics; where workers would be supported in asserting their rights to unionize and in building more democratic workplaces; where extraordinary wealth and power would not shield elites from legal accountability; where democracy actually would mean something beyond casting a ballot every few years.
As the reborn US left attempts to transform that Bernie moment into a durable, effective movement, we can’t lose sight of that vision of a truly democratic society built by and for working people. A central feature of this vision must be overhaul of our electoral and political systems to open up the space for challenges to our two-party duopoly and assert real majority rule. The fate of US democracy may depend on our ability to realize that goal.