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Renewing Democracy After the Trump Conflagration

Just as nature spawns new growth after a wildfire, we will need to revitalize democracy after Trump.

August 29, 2018

The first time I went to Yellowstone National Park it was July 1993, and the grand old place still had raw wounds from the great wildfires that had ravaged it five years earlier. Vast portions were still charred, like a moonscape; the dark stalks of burnt trees sticking out of the ground like spent matchsticks over acre and acre of public land. I returned to the park earlier this month, and in the intervening quarter of a century new life had sprung in the burn areas. The cycle of life, nature’s way, eternal renewal; young evergreens had emerged from the ash.

It dawned on me, seeing this rebirth, the green amid the grey, that what had happened in Yellowstone between 1988 and today, and what happens generally all over Western states ravaged this season by forest fires, is an apt metaphor for the great national tragedy unfolding today in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump is doing to American democracy what the great wildfires of 1988 did to Yellowstone National Park and what all great fires do in nature. His presidency aims to burn our institutions, our norms, our rules of law, and our democracy itself.

Millions of words already have been written about the long-term damage the Trump administration is inflicting on the apparatus of our government and its relationship to the people it purports to serve, and on the ways in which he has mastered, cynically, the politics of division. Just this past weekend two more pieces along these lines were added to the canon. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Postargued that white nationalism and white supremacy would be this White House’s primary legacy. He wrote: “the wound that may longest outlive President Trump and his enablers will be the racial and ethnic fear and hatred they so cynically stoked and exploited.”

To Peter Wehner, a longtime Republican official, Trump also has gutted the Republican brand. In The New York Times this weekend he wrote: “A party that once spoke with urgency and apparent conviction about the importance of ethical leadership — fidelity, honesty, honor, decency, good manners, setting a good example — has hitched its wagon to the most thoroughly and comprehensively corrupt individual who has ever been elected president.” Meanwhile, the vital question “Can the rule of law survive Trump?” will become more pronounced the closer we get to the end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

If we are to survive as a republic of laws, and not as some racist authoritarian regime, maybe the old forests really do have to burn to the ground to make room for a renewal not just of democratic rhetoric but of democratic practices. Maybe in some twisted way the depth and width of Trump’s degradation of government, the way in which he exploits the hollowness of our laws and institutions, the manner in which he encourages the worst impulses among us, precludes us from pretending any longer that we live in a vibrant democracy. We don’t. We never have. And now in the age of Trump the arc of justice clearly is bending the wrong way. 

The general rule for forest fires, at least before climate change ushered in our current age of “megafires,” is that they rejuvenate old-growth forests by removing decaying debris and helping new seedlings take root. The rot in American democracy was evident long before Donald Trump decided he would run for president. We all know it. It was evident before the Clinton impeachment saga, before Bush v. Gore, before we were lied to about the reasons for a war against Iraq. Do you remember what we were obsessed about in the summer of 2001, while the hijackers were learning how to fly (but not to take off or land) airplanes? Chandra Levy.

It’s trite to say our democracy is “broken.” Only when you get into the details of what is broken, and how those breaks undermine the foundation of democracy itself, does the scope of the problem come into view. We teach our children that the right to vote is precious, and today we live in an age of voter suppression, with Republican officials actively working to take away the franchise from millions of citizens. We teach our children that our lawmakers work for us, and today we live in a world where most elections are preordained by gerrymandering, which guarantees our elected officials are beholden to special interests and not popular will. 

Beholden, that is, to creepy billionaires and powerful corporations and lobbyists, who demand loyalty from the lawmakers they’ve bought and paid for. This is all basic stuff and it all means a government adrift from a people and a Constitution used as a weapon by a few against the many. All of this was bad and getting worse before Trump darkened the nation’s door. He’s just been the symptom that has accelerated the disease. And so here we are, Labor Day 2018, our election infrastructure under cyberattack, our Congress supine, the Russia question unsettled, and the most incurious, scandal-plagued man ever to sit in the Oval Office.

What would this renewal look like? What comes after the fire? What sorts of trees do we want to plant to provide strength and shelter generations from now? Here, too, the answers are as obvious and numerous and in an ironic way we ought to thank Trump, after he’s gone, for scorching the earth and showing us all the ground from which the new growth must come. For starters, we need to codify many of the norms on which past administrations honorably relied. We need to go beyond, far beyond, the structural reforms put into place in the wake of the Watergate scandal. By grift and graft Trump simply has blown by those. 

On the merits, at a minimum, we need to codify a constitutional right to vote and with it a restored Voting Rights Act that makes it harder for state and local officials to suppress votes. We need a new path forward on redistricting to end the partisan gerrymandering used today to insulate members of Congress from meaningful accountability. We need to find a way to reform campaign finance even within the dubious limits imposed by the most conservative Supreme Court in 80 years. We need to adequately protect our elections from the future attacks we know are on their way

Let the roots of these nonpartisan reforms take hold, let them rise strong and true from the ashes of this disastrous era, if for no other reason than to better shade and insulate our children and grandchildren from the fire next time. Trump will leave office, sooner rather than later, but the blueprint he’s left surely will be used by other demagogues America produces with great consistency. In the same way we ought to fight to ensure our legacy includes national parks and clean air and water, we ought to care about bestowing to future generations a healthier democracy than the one that was bestowed onto us.

One of the lessons of Yellowstone, one of the lessons of all our glorious national parks, is that nature inexorably imposes its will on the land. The fire comes, the seeds unleash, and new growth eventually emerges. There are no such guarantees in politics. The renewal that American democracy necessarily needs is not guaranteed to us. It won’t just come with a few years of sunshine and a little bit of rain. It may never come at all if we continue as a nation to make disastrous choices and then pretend we haven’t. Seeing Yellowstone again, that magnificent place, restored my faith in nature. My faith in human nature in the age of Trump, my faith that we can right what’s wrong, is not so clear.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.