Get a Backbone, Democrats! | Opinion

Former President Donald Trump is a singular force in American and world affairs—a malevolent, seat-of-the-pants political savant whose real-world influence has waned surprisingly little since he was dragged, scratching and biting, from the Oval Office. If anything, the recent FBI raid on his Florida home adds to his populist street cred.

The fact that Trump is now both a known insurrectionist and a leading undeclared candidate to contend for the White House in 2024—even after Jan. 6, 2021, the mayhem, the deaths, the hundreds of arrests and convictions, the hearings—is shocking and terrifying. Should he claw his way past the Justice Department's tightening probe to the primaries, it would be unwise to bet against him. Neither Florida governor Ron DeSantis, nor former Vice President Mike Pence, his principal rivals, has what Trump has; that compelling elixir of madness, authenticity and rage. Even at 76, he's a campaigner made for Reddit and Tik Tok. His opponents are not.

There's an argument that President Biden should avoid, almost at any cost, the prospect of his rival in handcuffs, should he be charged and criminally convicted for incitement to insurrection or other crimes. The reasoning goes as follows: In prison, Trump becomes a martyr. What better way to activate his millions of supporters, or confirm QAnon's fever dreams of a globalist coup? Trump is a performer. He relishes melodrama and wallows in the myth of his own victimhood. He can be jailed but not silenced. He's a freakishly gifted communicator to his base. His imprisonment, if you follow this line of thinking, could light the fire that puts the White House and both houses of Congress back in Republican hands, albeit not Trump's. In the worst case it ignites a broader authoritarian insurrection.

The Showman-in-Chief
Donald Trump, Donald Trumpr Jr and Ivanka Trump during the Celebrity Apprentice live season finale on May 16, 2010, in New York City. Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

From the perspective of this Canadian observer, here's where that logic fails: It assumes (as one might expect of Democrats keen to retain power) that a President DeSantis or a President Pence would be as dangerous to American democracy as Trump 2.0. It also assumes that 79-year-old Biden, having defeated Trump in 2020, could do so again in 2024. Neither assumption bears scrutiny.

It's true that, like Trump, neither Pence or DeSantis is a conventional Republican, or indeed conventionally conservative, in any sense that President Ronald Reagan or either George Bush would recognize. Both are hard-right Christian culture warriors. Either, as president would deepen the already sharp polarization between Democrat and Republican, North and South, urban and rural America.

But there the similarities end. Pence has been tested in extremis. Though relentlessly pressured to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election—a move that would have been illegal and crazed but might have succeeded—Pence declined. In doing so, he may have saved American democracy (or given it a stay of execution.) De Santis, for his part, has been a mean-spirited but disciplined governor of Florida. His populism seems calculated. He does not appear insane.

In other words, both these men, despite their views, are conventional career politicians in a democratic system, doing what politicians typically do. They consult advisors, curry favor with stakeholder groups, make decisions when it can no longer be avoided, and work to keep ahead of public opinion in an effort to maintain power, through majority rule.

Trump, by contrast, is non-conventional to the point of being ahistorical, in an American context. He has what rock gods and demagogues share: the ability to settle back within himself, onstage or at a podium, and speak whatever words come into his head, no matter how inane or obviously false, with infallible, persuasive conviction. He scowls at his audience of the aggrieved white working class, or smirks, and rails against the globalist fiends he says are holding them back. He understands his people. He loves them. Though Trump is a proven and prolific liar, they believe him. They love him back. Facts do not matter.

None of this is new. Hannah Arendt wrote, in 1951: "Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist."

The consequences of pardoning Trump, should he be charged and found guilty of incitement to insurrection or sedition, are plain. Authoritarian, far-right, antisemitic, racist, neo-fascist movements worldwide have been inspired and uplifted by his example. The moral and political red lines he effortlessly crossed while in office—whether it be the Muslim travel ban, caging refugee children, coddling North Korea's Kim Jong Il, currying favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, sabotaging the rules-based international order, or stiff-arming traditional American allies—pale in comparison to what he might do in a second term. That's because his obtaining a second term would mean he got away with it; got away with all of it. What, then, would be the point of holding back?

The January 6 hearings have made it clear that Donald Trump sought to overturn a fair election that he and his team knew he had lost. If the institutions of American democracy do not now have the capacity to make an example—one as blunt and unforgettable as the man himself—it will be a turning point. The 20th century showed what happens when demagogues are confronted with timidity. What a tragedy it would be if our capacity to remember extended only a single lifetime.

Michael Den Tandt is a Canadian journalist and former advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.