Heather Cox Richardson
Today, at the initiative of the George W. Bush Institute, U.S. presidential foundations and centers for thirteen presidents since Herbert Hoover released a statement expressing concern about the health of American democracy. The statement notes that while the diverse population of the United States means we have a range of backgrounds and beliefs, “democracy holds us together. We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount.”
“Americans have a strong interest in supporting democratic movements and respect for human rights around the world because free societies elsewhere contribute to our own security and prosperity here at home,” the statement reads. “But that interest is undermined when others see our own house in disarray.” Without mentioning names, it called on elected officials to restore trust in public service by governing effectively “in ways that deliver for the American people.” “The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue,” it said, “respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.”
Traditionally, ex-presidents do not comment on politics, and this extraordinary effort is the first time presidential centers have commented on them. Because this step is unprecedented the Eisenhower Foundation chose not to sign, although it commended the defense of democracy. But the centers for Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all did.
That the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute felt obliged to take a step that is a veiled critique of today’s Republican Party—Bush’s party—is a sign of how deep concern over our democracy runs. David Kramer, the Bush Institute’s executive director, said the statement was intended to remind Americans that democracy cannot be taken for granted and to send “a positive message reminding us of who we are and also reminding us that when we are in disarray, when we’re at loggerheads, people overseas are also looking at us and wondering what’s going on.”
While concerns about the weakening of American democracy have been growing since the beginning of the century, the 2024 election presents new challenges. The campaign season is heating up just as state and federal prosecutors are beginning to hold senior figures accountable for their attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
This timing means that on top of the usual partisanship of this era is layered a political fight over holding leaders accountable for crimes. On the one hand, we are seeing the release of increasing amounts of damaging information about right-wing figures. On the other hand, we are faced with the determination of right-wing leaders to stop the prosecutions. Since the best way to do that is to make sure a MAGA Republican wins the White House, we are in the midst of a storm of disinformation designed to undermine the key institutions of our democracy, particularly the rule of law.
In disbarment proceedings yesterday in California, Trump lawyer John Eastman refused to answer a question about whether he and others seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election discussed getting Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the most senior member of the Senate, to preside over the counting of electoral votes on January 6 in place of Vice President Mike Pence, who had made it clear he would not go along with the president’s scheme to refuse to count votes for Biden in states Trump falsely maintained that he won. Eastman declined on the grounds of attorney-client privilege. When asked, he said his client was Trump.
Los Angeles Times legal analyst Harry Litman said: “That’s going to have to come out, and it’s a whole new nugget” about what was going on in Trump’s orbit to overturn the election results.
Today a Washington, D.C., jury found Trump’s former trade advisor Peter Navarro guilty on two counts of contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. A jury found another Trump ally, Steve Bannon, guilty of contempt of Congress in July 2022, but he is appealing the conviction. Navarro took to social media to say that he was “doing my duty to God, country, the Constitution, and my commander-in-chief.” He, too, is appealing his conviction.
Navarro’s attempt to cast himself as a patriotic victim—although it was a jury of his peers who convicted him—is part of a larger attempt to portray the rule of law as persecuting patriots. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who yesterday was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his part in the conspiracy, abandoned the humble pleading he engaged in before the sentencing and turned to positioning himself as a political prisoner who is imprisoned for “speaking the truth.” (He also asked for donations to help his family.)
As they try to portray the rule of law as political persecution, Republicans are attacking the Department of Justice. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), chair of the Judiciary Committee, today made more accusations about the department’s handling of the case against Trump for stealing national security documents.
Also today, Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney Fani Willis responded to Jordan’s earlier demand to see communications between her office and Department of Justice officials investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Jordan has suggested that normal communication was improper.
Willis told Jordan that his attempt to interfere with and obstruct her office’s prosecution of state criminal cases is illegal and unconstitutional, and urged him to deal with the reality that two separate grand juries made up of ordinary citizens reviewed the evidence and decided that Trump had committed crimes. She called out his attempt to spin the case for political gain and suggested that instead he address “the racist threats that have come to my staff and me because of this investigation,” attaching ten examples of those threats.
Other countries are pushing the disinformation that splits Americans. A report published last week by the European Commission, the body that governs the European Union, says that when X, the company formerly known as Twitter, got rid of its safety standards, Russian disinformation on the site took off. Lies about Russia’s war against Ukraine spread to at least 165 million people in the E.U. and allied countries like the U.S., and garnered at least 16 billion views. The study found that Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook, all owned by Meta, also spread pro-Kremlin propaganda that uses hate speech and boosts extremists.
The report concluded that “the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign not only forms an integral part of Russia’s military agenda, but also causes risks to public security, fundamental rights and electoral processes” in the E.U. The report’s conclusions also apply to the U.S., where the far right is working to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine by claiming—falsely—that U.S. aid to Ukraine means the Biden administration is neglecting emergencies at home, like the fires last month in Maui.
Russian operatives famously flooded social media with disinformation to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and by 2022 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that China had gotten into the act. Today, analyst Clint Watts of Microsoft reported that in the last year, China has honed its ability to generate artificial images that appear to be U.S. voters, using them to stoke “controversy along racial, economic, and ideological lines.” It uses social media accounts to post divisive, AI-created images that attack political figures and iconic U.S. symbols.
Today, President Joe Biden extended the national emergency former president Trump declared on September 18, 2018, before that year’s midterm elections, “to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the threat of foreign interference in or undermining public confidence in United States elections.” Biden noted that the internet has “created significant vulnerabilities and magnified the scope and intensity of the threat of foreign interference,” and thus the national emergency must be extended for another year. The original executive order provided for sanctions against foreign people or companies who try to influence U.S. elections.
In the impeachment trial of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, we are getting a ringside view of a justice system in which equality before the law is replaced by MAGA Republican ideology. On Tuesday, Vianna Davila and Jessica Priest of the Texas Tribuneand ProPublica reported that while Paxton’s office engaged in nearly 50 lawsuits against the Biden administration, it has refused to represent state agencies in court at least 75 times, forcing those agencies to turn to private lawyers and then to bill their expenses to Texas taxpayers.
Paxton appears to have used the powers of his office not to help the people who elected him, but to advance an ideological agenda along with his own interests.