Why the fate of the American republic—and the world—could depend on what happens Nov. 3.
Pick your historical precedent. In each case, the direction and very survival of the American republic were at stake. There was the close election of 1800 between Aaron Burr—an unprincipled fellow with dictatorial impulses who was in some ways the Donald Trump of his day—and Thomas Jefferson. The 1860 contest in which Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, with the Civil War looming. Or the 1932 election during the Great Depression, the stakes of which were so consequential that when Franklin D. Roosevelt was warned he’d be known as the worst president in U.S. history if his recovery program failed, FDR reportedly replied, “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”
An extraordinary consensus exists among historians, political scientists, diplomats, national security officials, and other experts that the stakes of the U.S. presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden this November rise to these portentous historical standards. Indeed the stakes may go well beyond that, considering the central place the United States today holds in the global system—in a way it did not as a much younger nation in 1800, 1860, or even 1932.
Some suggest that Trump and the malign forces he has summoned up have already done so much damage to the institutions of U.S. democracy—especially his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his open encouragement of racial violence and national division—that his reelection in November could damage forever the 244-year-old American experiment of a republic of laws. After a first term in which Trump has openly defied Congress and the courts, twisted foreign policy to serve his political interests, dismissed electoral norms, and turned a terrified Republican Party into his plaything, his return to power would, in effect, legitimize the gutting of the institutions of law and what remains of the founders’ checks and balances. Reelection would vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump said, “do whatever I want.” It would all but destroy, in other words, the American conceit that the United States is a different kind of democracy than has existed in the past, leaving the country as just another abject discard on the ash heap of failed republics going back to ancient Rome and Greece.