Last week, Trump nearly knocked out democracy: Can it still be saved?

Authoritarians land telling blows: From the Pelosi video to Barr's new secret powers and Trump's list of traitors

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 29, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump speaks to Air Force personnel during an event September 15, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. (Getty/Alex Wong)
President Donald Trump speaks to Air Force personnel during an event September 15, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. (Getty/Alex Wong)

Future historians will mark last Thursday, May 23, as an especially important day in the decline of American democracy in the age of Donald Trump. The date will not be noted by an asterisk but rather with an exclamation mark.

Another round in the political boxing match between Donald Trump and American democracy was fought that day.

During a press conference, Trump was asked by NBC reporter Peter Alexander to name the people he believes are guilty of "treason." Trump responded by mentioning former FBI director James Comey, former acting director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former Justice Department official Lisa Page. Treason is a high crime punishable by execution. In essence, President Trump publicly threatened to have those four former public servants executed.

What did the four do to warrant a potential death penalty? Comey, McCabe, Strzok and Page followed through on their professional responsibilities to hold a president and his inner circle accountable for their behavior in accordance with the nation's laws. Their other "crime" in the eyes of Trump and his regime? Protecting the United States from a hostile foreign power that successfully subverted American democracy in 2016 (and continues to do so). It would seem that Donald Trump's foreign patrons are not to be interfered with.

Also on May 23, Trump gave Attorney General William Barr, his handpicked insurance policy, the power to unilaterally declassify secret intelligence information in his search for evidence that the Mueller investigation was an attempted "coup" and an effort to overthrow his presidency. Of course, Barr will selectively reveal information that fits somehow into Trump's narrative of a nonexistent conspiracy. Evidence that shows that Donald Trump obstructed justice, engaged in collusion with Russia and committed other crimes against the Constitution and the United States will of course be suppressed and ignored.

On Thursday evening, both the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, circulated a heavily edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, purporting to show that she was "drunk" or "not of her right mind". This video has been shared millions of times on social media and elsewhere. Trump and his allies concocted this faux-revelation about Pelosi in an effort to sabotage her efforts to hold him accountable as dictated by the Constitution, which holds that the U.S. Congress is a coequal branch of government that should check and restrain the power of the presidency.

Because the truth and the facts are unfavorable to him, Trump, like other members of today's right-wing movement, simply chooses to create his own deranged version of reality.

In total, Thursday's events were a grand tour of the authoritarian's playbook: The Leader is the State; the Leader is above the rule of law; the Leader is the law; reality is to be twisted and bent to serve the Leader; there is no accountability or transparency in government; fealty and loyalty to the Leader and his Party are all that matters; violence, threats and intimidation replace democratic norms, principles, consensus and accountability.

What transpired last Thursday was also just another addition to the authoritarian pile-on of America in the age of Trump.

Trump has repeatedly threatened not to respect the outcome of elections if he loses, which by implication means he may not leave the White House if defeated in 2020 or otherwise removed. Trump inspires and commands political violence against individuals and groups that he and his movement view as the enemy.

Trump and his supporters both encourage and participate in racial and ethnic violence.

Trump and his Republican allies — especially white Christian Nationalists — want to rob women of their bodily autonomy and freedom. Trump and his Republican party are systematically taking away the civil and human rights of entire groups of people who are not white, male, Christian, rich and heterosexual.

Trump and his movement possess no respect for democratic norms and institutions. Trump is enamored of foreign despots, dictators and other authoritarians. Trump has allowed such leaders a disproportionate amount of control over America's foreign policy.

In this political boxing match, American democracy has waited for the referee to do something to stop Donald Trump from outright cheating. If the referee in this metaphor is Robert Mueller, he is paralyzed by indecision and a deep fear of the judges.

According to a Tuesday story in the Guardian, Michael Wolff's new book will claim that Robert Mueller intended to indict Donald Trump, and argue against the Justice Department policy that by tradition prevented such an outcome. Instead, Mueller has decided to let Trump and American democracy fight it out and allow the judges to make the final call. But the judges are William Barr, Rod Rosenstein and Mitch McConnell — bought and paid for by Donald Trump and his allies.

Where is Nancy Pelosi? She is praying.

The whole scene is the stuff of Norman Mailer. Trump's mauling of American democracy calls to mind Mailer's accounting of the tragic death of boxer Benny Paret, who suffered a fatal beating during a match against Emile Griffith at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1962.

In his essay "The Death of Benny Paret," Mailer describes witnessing this first-hand:

This fight had its turns. Griffith won most of the early rounds, but Paret knocked Griffith down in the sixth. Griffith had trouble getting up, but made it, came alive and was dominating Paret again before the round was over. ... In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.

Mailer finished his recounting of that night's horrible events by writing that "Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, 'I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,' and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him."

American Democracy is close to suffering the same fate.

At first the American people watched this fight between Donald Trump and American democracy with curiosity. As the fight continued there was silence and shock as Donald Trump won almost every round. There were boos when Trump cheated. There were cheers when it looked like he would be knocked out. Now the American people watch in silence, stunned at what is happening, sitting on their hands in a futile effort to quell their anxiety and fear. Despite the horror and brutality — indeed, for Trump's supporters, because of it — they are transfixed by the spectacle. Donald Trump's bloodletting of democracy continues without mercy.

The fight is entering its final rounds. To save American democracy, the audience must rush the barriers, leap through the ropes and jump into the ring. American democracy cannot save itself through a lazy return to the status quo ante, those much discussed "institutional norms" of democracy, what are now the broken rules of the game in the time before Trumpism. The wounds that American democracy has suffered at the hands of Donald Trump and his allies are too great.

The choice is now clear: Will the American people choose to remain spectators, or will they become participants?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega