Doyle McManus: America faces a long road back
After almost four years of Donald Trump in the White House, it has become all too easy to forget how abnormal his presidency has been – how many norms he has trampled, how many rules he has broken.
The final stage of Trump's re-election campaign is bringing all the strands of Trumpism to an unhinged crescendo. In the last three weeks, the president has:
• Publicly urged Attorney General William Barr to prosecute his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, and former President Barack Obama for purportedly spying on Trump's 2016 campaign, although no evidence suggests they committed a crime.
"These people should be indicted," Trump said. "That includes Obama, and it includes Biden."
• Renewed his false claim that Democrats have rigged the presidential election.
"This will be one of the most fraudulent elections ever," he said.
• Warned his followers that if Biden wins, Republicans might never win another election.
"They want to turn America into communist Cuba," Trump told a rally in Florida.
• Refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
"We'll have to see," he told reporters.
This is, to put it mildly, not normal.
Previous presidents often warned of dire consequences if their opponents were elected, but they didn't accuse their political foes of treason. No U.S. president has previously suggested that he might not accept the results of an election.
Trump's style and strategy are still doing serious damage to American politics.
He's deliberately feeding partisan polarization, the animosity that drives Americans in both parties to view those on the other side as enemies instead of merely neighbors with mistaken ideas. In the worst case, it could inspire violence.
Trump doesn't merely criticize Democrats for their policies. He has falsely charged that a Biden presidency would "destroy the American way of life." He has falsely claimed that Biden, a practicing Catholic, is "against God."
"We got to vote these people into oblivion," he urged supporters at the White House. "Got to get rid of them."
Political scholars normally see that kind of demonizing rhetoric in other countries.
"We're seeing attitudes here that are familiar from places like Venezuela, Turkey or Hungary," Jennifer McCoy, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied those countries, told me.
"When more people are saying they see the other party as a threat to the nation, or that they are afraid of the other party, polarization has gotten pretty serious," she said. "When one group views the other as a threat, they're much more willing to accept undemocratic moves by their side – because they want their guy to stay in power."
Is there a way back? Yes, but it won't be easy.
"A leader can choose depolarization as a strategy," she said. "Don't engage in retribution or vilification of the other side ... . Guarantee that you'll govern for all."
Sounds more like Biden than Trump. But first, he needs to get elected.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org