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Sacrifice Biden to save American democracy

There is a real danger of a Trump victory pushing the United States toward a dictatorship, and polls indicate that the president does not have enough support to stop it. Democrats still have time to look for a more compelling candidate

Joe Biden, after a press conference at the White House on February 13.
Joe Biden, after a press conference at the White House on February 13.KEVIN LAMARQUE (REUTERS)

Following his victories in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, Donald Trump is virtually certain to be the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States in the November elections, and polls give him a slight advantage over Joe Biden. His return to the White House could spell the death knell for American democracy.

In power between 2017 and 2021, Trump certainly tested the limits. If he was initially a symptom of the crisis afflicting our democracy, Trump became its driving force. He deepened existing divisions among Americans, accelerating the country’s dangerous polarization; he lowered the level of public debate through his lies and insults. He ignored the fundamental rules of democracy, starting with respect for the checks and balances of power. Above all, after losing the last presidential election, he used every means at his disposal to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, culminating in the insurrection by his supporters on the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.

If American democracy withstood Trump’s first term despite everything, it was partly because he arrived at the White House unprepared and surprised — like the rest of us — by his own election. He appointed men and women from the conservative establishment to key positions, who acted as gatekeepers, managing for years to temper his most radical instincts. It was only at the very end of his term, after his election defeat, that he surrounded himself with sycophants prepared to destroy everything to keep him in power. And if we survived that last onslaught, it was thanks to robust institutions and a deep-rooted democratic tradition, but above all to Republican leaders who proved strong enough to stand up to him, like those who refused to “find 12,000 votes” for him in Georgia, or his hitherto loyal vice president Mike Pence, who refused to invalidate the results.

This time, if Trump is elected, things will be very different. He has spent three years brooding over his resentment and preparing his “revenge.” Within a network of well-funded groups, such as the powerful Heritage Foundation, his supporters have honed their agenda and drawn up lists of thousands of potential recruits to replace as many career civil servants. From day one, Trump will be able to start implementing his extremist policies and an all-out assault on the democratic institutions that he believes constrained his power.

Trump has made no secret of his intention to wield the power of the state against his “enemies,” as he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2023: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” This will begin with bringing to heel the Department of Justice, which oversees the 93 federal prosecutors, reversing an ethical standard established in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon used the DOJ to persecute his political opponents.

But Trump, who describes his four current criminal cases (two for attempts to subvert democracy, another for endangering national security secrets and another for falsifying business documents in hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels) as evidence of a political vendetta, will not hesitate to use the DOJ to open investigations into his opponents. “This is Third World country stuff, ‘arrest your opponent,’” Trump said. “And that means I can do it, too.”

Specifically, he said he would appoint “a real special prosecutor to go after” President Biden and “the entire Biden crime family.” Conversely, he would almost certainly grant amnesty to all the Jan. 6 rioters, and he would no doubt abuse his office to block federal criminal prosecutions against himself.

Although it is generally illegal to use the military for law enforcement on American soil, Trump reportedly plans to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1792 to turn the military into a personal police force, subdue possible protesters, and take charge of the fight against crime in cities and states governed by Democrats. He announced his intention to create large-scale detention camps for undocumented immigrants. Because, he said, immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

This has pushed many Americans to sound the alarm bells. The United States is “sleepwalking into a dictatorship,” says Liz Cheney, a leader among moderate Republicans. Joe Biden also increasingly focuses his speeches on the threat that Trump poses to democracy.

The danger of a Trump victory is, indeed, very real. The four criminal cases against Trump have already damaged his approval ratings among independent and undecided voters, but it is possible that only the Stormy Daniels case, the least relevant to democracy, will go to trial before the November election. In any case, it is worth remembering that a conviction would not disqualify him from standing for office. In theory, Trump could be disqualified under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, adopted after the Civil War, which prohibits former officials involved in “insurrections” (such as the January 6 riots) from ever holding public office again. But the conservative-majority Supreme Court will surely be reluctant to step in and replace the U.S. electorate.

And if the electorate doesn’t want Trump, it doesn’t want Biden either, despite his strong economic performance. In a deeply divided country, where voter turnout hovers between only 55%-60%, mobilization will be key on election day, but Biden does not arouse nearly the same enthusiasm among his potential voters as Trump. His support for Israel’s war in Gaza will cost him votes among Black and young voters, as well as in the Arab and Muslim communities, who were decisive in his 2020 victory in several key states. Above all, Americans, including most Democrats, think Biden is too physically and mentally old to govern for five more years. The devastating February 8 report by a special counsel who portrayed Biden as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” and the gaffes he made in his public responses to the report have finally opened a debate about his possible replacement as the Democrat presidential candidate.

Because he faces no serious opposition in the primaries, Biden will have won almost all the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August that will name the party’s candidate. This means, he could only be replaced if he agrees to step aside, which — for the moment — he does not seem willing to do. And no major Democrat has wanted to break ranks for fear of weakening him even further. But the problem of his mental acuity will not go away. The strategy of limiting his campaign appearances to avoid further mistakes cannot be successful in the long term and only prevents him from mobilizing support. Influential outside voices are now urging party leaders like Barack Obama to call on Biden to step aside for the good of the country. This would lead to an open convention for the first time in decades, which could be complicated to organize but would give Democrats the opportunity to present a more compelling candidate with a better chance of winning in November.

The future of American democracy is at stake.

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