January 20, 2024
Last night at a rally in New Hampshire, former president Trump repeatedly confused former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is running against him for the Republican presidential nomination, with Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the former speaker of the House.
“By the way, they never report the crowd on January 6th,” Trump told the audience. “You know, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, you know they, do you know they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything, deleted and destroyed all of it. All of it because of lots of things, like Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people. Soldiers, National Guards, whatever they want. They turned it down.”
Observers have been saying for a while now that once Trump had to start appearing in public, his apparent cognitive decline would surprise those who haven’t been paying attention.
That certainly seemed to be true on Wednesday, January 17, when he told a New Hampshire audience: “We’re…going to place strong protections to stop banks and regulators from trying to debank you from your—you know, your political beliefs, what they do. They want to debank you, and we’re going to debank—think of this. They want to take away your rights. They want to take away your country. The things they’re doing. All electric cars.”
His statement looks like word salad if you’re not steeped in MAGA world, but there are two stories behind Trump’s torrent of words. The first is that Trump always blurts out whatever is uppermost in his mind, suggesting he is worried by the fact that large banks will no longer lend to him. The Trump Organization’s auditor said during a fraud trial in 2022 that the past 10 years of the company’s financial statements could not be relied on, and Trump was forced to turn to smaller banks, likely on much worse terms. Now the legal case currently underway in Manhattan will likely make that financial problem larger. The judge has already decided that the Trump Organization, Trump, his two older sons, and two employees committed fraud, for which the judge is currently deciding appropriate penalties.
The second story behind his statement, though, is much larger than Trump.
Since 2023, right-wing organizations, backed by Republican state attorneys general, have argued that banks are discriminating against them on religious and political grounds. In March 2023, JPMorgan Chase closed an account opened by the National Committee for Religious Freedom after the organization did not provide information the bank needed to comply with regulatory requirements. Immediately, Republican officials claimed religious discrimination and demanded the bank explain its position on issues important to the right wing. JPMorgan Chase denied discrimination, noting that it serves 50,000 accounts with religious affiliations and saying, “We have never and would never exit a client relationship due to their political or religious affiliation.”
But the attack on banks stuck among MAGA Republicans, especially as other financial platforms like PayPal, Venmo, and GoFundMe have declined to accept business from right-wing figures who spout hate speech, thus cutting off their ability to raise money from their followers.
The attempt to create distrust of large financial institutions is part of a larger attempt to destabilize the institutions of democracy. Trump is the figurehead for that attempt, but it is larger than him, and it will outlast him.
The news media is often called the fourth branch of government because it provides the transparency and oversight that hold leaders accountable. But as soon as he began to campaign for office in 2015, Trump responded to the negative press about him by attacking the press, calling it the “fake news” media. In 2016, 70% of Republicans said they trusted national news media; by 2021 that number was 35%.
Once elected, Trump and MAGA Republicans started to undermine faith in the rule of law that underpins our democracy. Less than four months after he took office, Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, for investigating the connections between his 2016 campaign and Russian operatives, and his attacks on the FBI and the Department of Justice under which the FBI operates have been relentless ever since.
Those attacks now involve the entire judicial system, which Trump and his loyalists attack whenever judges or juries oppose him, while judges like Aileen Cannon, who appears to be protecting Trump from the federal criminal case against him for mishandling classified documents, have escaped his wrath.
Trump and his supporters have also challenged the U.S. military, insisting that it is weak because it is “woke.” He has called its leaders “some of the dumbest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
But it is not just the banking, justice, and military systems MAGA Republicans are undermining. They are sowing distrust of our educational system, claiming that it is not educating students but, rather, indoctrinating them to embrace left-wing ideology. Public education is central to democracy because, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, it enables a voter to “understand his duties to his neighbours, & country,…[t]o know his rights…[a]nd, in general, to observe with intelligence & faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.”
Extremists in Congress are undermining even that body, the centerpiece of our democratic system. They have ground business there to a halt, weakening the idea of Congress as a deliberative body that can pass legislation to represent the wishes of the American people.
In addition, they are now trying, quite deliberately, to end the country’s traditional system of foreign policy that protects the nation’s national security. Instead, they are trying to politicize foreign policy, standing against further aid to Ukraine although it has strong bipartisan support, thus tipping the scales in favor of Russia’s authoritarian leader in opposition to U.S. national security.
Over all, of course, is the Big Lie that undermines the nation’s electoral system by insisting that the 2020 presidential vote was “rigged” against Trump. Although there has never been any evidence of such a thing, 30% of Americans think Biden won the presidency only through “voter fraud.”
This weakening of our institutions threatens the survival of democracy.
Tearing apart the fabric of democracy invites an authoritarian to convince his followers that democracy is weak and that only a strongman can govern.
Three years ago today, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office, vowing to restore faith in our democratic institutions.
“This is a time of testing,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.
“Now we must step up. All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children?”
“Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our nation,” Biden said. “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us: They gave their best. They did their duty. They healed a broken land.”