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The Real Threat to Democracy



Robert DeNiro wears rainbow ribbon

Robert De Niro is such a great actor, he made me laugh and cry at the same time on Tuesday when he warned that Donald Trump “will never leave” office if he is elected this November.

DeNiro descends into self-parody

Channeling his unhinged malcontent from “Taxi Driver,” De Niro went full Travis Bickle outside Trump’s New York City trial, asserting that the former president would rule as dictator even as the former president’s political opponents work to jail him on politically motivated charges.

De Niro’s fearmongering was so cartoonish that it seemed like a brilliant send-up of Trump Derangement Syndrome. He’s joking, right? Only he wasn’t, of course. His performance echoed President Biden’s dystopian commencement speech at Morehouse College, where he described the nation he leads in terms more applicable to the Jim Crow South:

“What is democracy,” Biden declared, “if Black men are being killed in the street? What is democracy if a trail of broken promises still leave Black – Black communities behind? What is democracy if you have to be 10 times better than anyone else to get a fair shot?”

Biden’s demagoguery was so over the top – 10 times better! – that it read like a parody of woke race-baiting. For all their cynical political calculations, I think the president and De Niro are sincere. They believe their false and ugly visions.


You want to laugh because these are not serious people. You want to cry because they are also deadly serious.

Biden, De Niro, and their Democratic brethren are right about one thing: No matter the outcome, the November election will turbo-charge the dark forces that are already testing the mettle of American democracy.

The left is the real threat to democracy

They are wrong about the source of that grave challenge: It is not the right that will unleash a whirlwind next year, but themselves. This prediction is not based on the feverish conjecture favored by the left, but on the only guide we have to the future: the record of the past. First a few questions. Which candidate is more likely to:

  • Deploy the criminal justice system to punish his enemies?
  • Censor speech he does not like?
  • Selectively decide which laws he wants to enforce?
  • Use the powers of government to transform the everyday lives of Americans – whether or not they support his programs?
  • Finally, whose supporters are more likely to engage in sustained and perhaps violent dissent if their man loses – not just for a day or a week, but for four years?

The answers are obvious. If they win, Democrats will continue to do everything they can to expand their power. If they lose, they will not bide their time until 2028.

To see how, let’s spin out the scenarios.

If Trump wins

If Trump wins, he will almost certainly govern as he did during his first term – as a moderate conservative. Whatever you think of his tweets, his policies were a study in normalcy. He lashed out at his tormentors, but he did not undermine our institutions or the rule of law. He challenged norms with his blustery words, not his presidential actions. When judges slapped down his policies, he revised them to pass judicial muster. He made no effort to “lock up” Hillary Clinton. Recall, his presidency was such a success that he was heavily favored to win reelection before COVID-19 radically changed the contours of the 2020 race.


Democrat claims that Trump plans to become a dictator who will empower white supremacists and Christian nationalists is a fever dream based on nothing more than their made-up skill at decoding his alleged dog whistles. Even if Trump harbored dictatorial dreams, he couldn’t realize them. Our system is far too robust, our federal system disperses power far too widely – and the vast majority of our people are far too patriotic and sensible – to allow anyone to become an American Stalin.

Smearing in the name of democracy

If Trump wins, however, the Democrats and their allies in the media, business, and government will once again spend four years betraying all standards of decency and fair play to smear his name and undermine his authority. The left-wing violence that surrounded his 2017 inauguration – and the BLM riots that spread across the country in the summer of 2020 – will seem tame in comparison. You don’t cast your opponent as Hitler and then sit back. It’s hard to imagine how they will top the lie that Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election, the lawfare that tied up Trump’s policies, and the impeachments – but doesn’t anybody doubt they will?

If Biden wins

If Biden wins, the emboldened left will redouble its ongoing efforts to transform the country outside of normal democratic channels. Despite strong resistance from the American people, the administration will continue to expand its regulatory power to re-engineer cars and stoves, water heaters, dishwashers and other appliances. It will further impose its divisive push for diversity, equity, and inclusion and transgender equality, which Biden has defined as the “civil rights issue of our time.” It will keep embracing open borders, and will likely work to allow non-citizens to vote. It will ramp up its engagement with social media companies to censor protected speech and will see its victory as an endorsement of its efforts to prosecute political enemies beyond Trump.

The administration’s determination to work around explicit court orders – as it has in forgiving hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans despite the Supreme Court’s ruling last year – will only harden. It will further undermine the rule of law by stepping up attacks on the court’s conservative majority, while once-again floating schemes to pack the court. The Biden administration will also press its vicious attacks on the half of the country that opposes its plans.

Unlike the left’s warnings about actions Trump has never taken, these predictions about Biden assume his second term would be an amped-up version of his version.


January 6 will not repeat

If Biden wins, Trump’s supporters will be angry, but a repeat of Jan. 6 is highly unlikely. That was a dark day, but it was a one-off. Unlike the left, conservatives do not have a well-funded infrastructure to organize and sustain protests. In addition, the country’s law enforcement arms will be on high alert. The left will issue endless warnings about right-wing militias and domestic terrorists – and lone-wolf attacks are always a threat. But the idea of a true violent uprising, from the right or the left, is propaganda.

As others have noted, the modern Democratic Party is a massive exercise in projection. It’s rhetoric and actions embody the anti-democratic impulses it falsely accuses Trump of harboring. If Biden and De Niro are truly afraid for our future they should look at themselves and think, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Still, all is not lost. The past teaches us one other crucial lesson of hope about our future: Never bet against America. Never lose faith in the strength of our institutions, and the goodness of our people. Whoever wins, 2025 promises to be a terrible year. Despite the bumps and bruises. our democracy will get by.

We will survive.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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J. Peder Zane is a columnist for RealClearPolitics and an editor at RealClearInvestigations. He was the book review editor and books columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh for 13 years, where his writing won several national honors, including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He has also worked at the New York Times and taught writing at Duke University and Saint Augustine’s University. He has written two books, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture,” and “Design in Nature” (with Adrian Bejan). He edited two other books, “Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading” and “The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.”

Note: the profile image by Ellen Whyte is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-alike 4.0 International License.


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