01:44 - Source: CNN
Trump keeps praising authoritarian leaders

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and created the podcast “A12.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

If after four years, the American system re-elects a president who openly scoffs at democracy, who encourages political violence and election interference, who revels in corruption and ignorance, then something is deeply wrong with either our system or ourselves.

Nicole Hemmer

Following a week of racist statements by the President and racist chants from his supporters, it has become increasingly obvious that the 2020 presidential election will have higher stakes than most. While every presidential election matters — from setting the policy agenda to shaping the Supreme Court — some have consequences that determine whether the nation will be fundamentally altered, and whether its commitments to democratic government will survive.

In less than 18 months, we’ll be facing one such election. The stakes are, in a way, even higher than they were in 2016. If Donald Trump loses, then 2016 can be written off as a fluke (even if it shouldn’t be). If he wins, with or without the popular vote, any excuses for 2016 fall by the wayside.

There will still be policy debates. There were debates about tariffs and funding the transcontinental railroad during the 1860 election, but that’s not what anyone remembers about that race. Nor will 2020 be a verdict on policy. It will be a verdict on the resilience of American democracy.

The stakes are so high in part because of Trump himself. The bill of particulars against the President, from racist policies like the travel ban and vicious Twitter attacks on citizens to calls for violence and suggestions of retaining office after his term expires, is at least as long and varied as that in the Declaration of Independence against King George III.

And the indictments go well beyond racism and rhetoric to the institutional bones of his presidency. The efforts to obstruct justice, the refusal to disentangle his businesses from his administration, the repeated lies to law enforcement officials and the media and, in the case of the travel ban and the recent efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, to Supreme Court justices: these actions put particular strain on the system because they have, so far at least, gone unchecked.

None of this should be a surprise, given Trump’s campaign. He made clear who he was and how he would govern in his year-plus on the trail. But for voters who may have clung to the belief that a mythical system of checks and balances would spring to life and constrain him, they now have the evidence they need to see that is not the case. “Checks and balances,” as David Frum wrote a few months after Trump’s inauguration, “is a metaphor, not a mechanism.”

Frum was grappling with a particular challenge of this presidency: in ignoring the constraints on the presidency, Trump has shown how weak they are. But Trump has also revealed a weakness that goes beyond the institutional problems of the presidency: In ignoring the norms and traditions of American democracy, he has shown how weak Americans’ attachment to them really is.

And that is why the stakes of 2020 are so high: because they are not solely about Trump. They are, rather, a measure of how much voters respect, and are willing to protect, American democracy, and whether the system will reflect their desires.

Those two things must be taken separately because the electoral system itself has been under sustained assault in recent years. The attack on voting rights has accelerated as Republicans, with the support of a conservative Supreme Court, purge voter rolls, shutter polling places and institute ever-stricter voter ID laws, all of which target people of color and Democratic voters. At the same time, Republican lawmakers have resisted efforts to bolster election security after foreign attacks on the 2016 election (no doubt because those attacks sought to bolster the GOP candidate).

Not only have electoral mechanisms been under attack — so has the very philosophy of democratic elections, which run on the notion that well-informed citizens vote based on their ideals and interests. That philosophy has always been more an ideal than a reality, but the last election revealed just how vulnerable the electorate is to disinformation campaigns, amplified by new media forms. Nearly three years later, we still don’t have a very good answer for how to eliminate or even clearly identify actual disinformation, and neither the President nor his party is interested in fixing a problem that has vested them with so much power.

These are not problems that one election can solve. But the election can help us measure how bad the problems are, and how resistant they are to change at the ballot box.

The US has faced this kind of crisis-election in the past, when more than just a party’s power was at stake. In 1800, it passed the test: President John Adams, faced with the prospect of giving up not just his own power but that of his entire faction when Thomas Jefferson won the election, willingly transferred power to his political enemy. That legacy has stabilized American democracy for over two centuries.

In 1860, the US failed, as the election of Abraham Lincoln triggered a revolt in southern states, who denied the legitimacy of the election in order to cling to slavery. War followed, as did emancipation and an incomplete reconstruction of American democracy.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    As the history of enslavement and the denial of rights to black Americans shows, American democracy has always been a tenuous and unfinished project, a failure to live up to its ideals and often, a failure to even try to do so. The 2020 election is in that sense part of an ongoing series of tests, a gauge of how committed Americans are to democratic ideals and how effective the electoral system is at delivering them. As such, it cannot fix American democracy, no matter what the outcome — it can only show us how much work lies ahead.