What Trump Has Taken From Us

Gabriel Sterling appears before Congress on June 21, 2022. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty)

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

I am appalled, as so many Americans are, that Donald Trump and his team assaulted our elections, but today I’m thinking about how the assault on election officials across the nation is an even deeper wound that will take years to heal.

I hadn’t planned on writing about the January 6 investigation today. But that was before I watched the testimony of Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger, Gabriel Sterling, Shaye Moss, and Ruby Freeman.

Their stories of being targeted with threats, harassment, and vile accusations are a reminder of how much Trump and his team of malignant election fabulists have taken from the civic life of the United States. I’ve spent most of my career studying authoritarian governments, and I’ve spent a lot of time in some repressive places, from Greece under a military junta as a boy to the Soviet Union as an adult. I always felt, on returning to the United States, that I had returned to a fortress of democratic stability and civic cooperation.

I no longer feel that way.

American elections have never been perfect. Any member of a visible minority knows this; anyone who’s seen a political machine in action knows it too. (I worked in politics in Massachusetts. Gerrymandering is literally named for one of our governors.) But American elections are fair and free, even if it is fashionable among cynics at home and observers abroad to dismiss such sentiments.

Our elections work because they are run by ordinary citizens at the state and local level who either were elected or volunteered to help administer the vote as a matter of civic duty. This is a wondrous thing: community volunteers overseeing the vote and counting the results. I love voting in person for just this reason; having seen people in other nations too terrified even to talk about politics, it always filled me with quiet joy to have my fellow townspeople hand me a ballot and protect my privacy while I voted.

Trump and his people, however, have made it clear that democracy is a meaningless word. They want what they want and they will hurt anyone who gets in their way. Their goal is to make public service a hazardous undertaking, to create an environment in which people working on elections—their fellow American citizens—fear for their lives if they don’t cough up the results they want.

These unhinged bullies are telling other Americans that it is not safe to defy them at the ballot box, whether you’re a top elected official or a rank-and-file volunteer—or even if you’re the vice president of the United States, as Mike Pence learned while hiding from the mob on January 6.

This is obscene. Americans, I think, have always understood that running for a high-profile or national office like the presidency entails some danger from unstable people; that’s why we think so highly of the men and women of the Secret Service who will put themselves in harm’s way even for candidates. But it is a long-standing tradition in American politics that serving as an election worker or a school-committee member or a local alderman is not a life-threatening proposition.

Trump and people like him want to destroy that sense of safety, and their efforts are having an effect: I was talking with a close friend recently who admitted to me that she might vote by mail for the next few elections because it could be risky to visit actual polling places. This is the future that Trump and his supporters want, in which only the loyalists show up either to work the polls or to cast a vote, while the rest of us put a stamp on an envelope, avoid public engagement, and retreat to the safety of our homes.

The fight for democracy in America might soon look yet again like the fight for racial and political equality in the 1950s and 1960s, when racist state and local governments denied the franchise to Black Americans. Those battles were won not only in legislatures and courts but in public by people showing up together and demanding to exercise their rights as citizens. In the coming elections, Trump and a claque of liars and opportunists will continue their efforts to hollow out American democracy.

Will the voters stop them?

By Tom Nichols