EVANSVILLE – Democracy requires the consent of losers. For over 220 years American democracy prided itself on peaceful transfers of power; and in all of that time, no president who lost an election sought to subvert the will of voters and reject Electoral College results – until Donald Trump. 

Despite a massive pandemic and faltering economy, Trump’s post-election focus remained firmly on overturning election results and undermining the democratic system he swore to defend. For weeks Trump spawned and repeated lies and unfounded conspiracy theories about faulty voting machines and destroyed or fabricated ballots; allegations without evidence and allegations universally rejected in over 60 court cases, many presided over by Trump-appointed judges. But with repetition and time, many of Trump’s supporters believed the lies; in their eyes his victory became a landslide and those who denied it were either naive or part of a vast conspiracy.

Trump used these false election-fraud allegations to justify his lawlessness. “When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules,” he argued. “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” 

Trump’s attempt to undermine and overturn the national election not only shattered norms and traditions, but also sowed seeds for insurrection, violence, and civil unrest by his supporters, saying it comes from a love of country. On the very day Congress planned to certify the 2020 presidential election results, Trump told supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and then told the crowd to head to the Capitol to deliver that message. Immediately mobs descended on the Capitol, the world’s greatest symbol of self-government, in a violent crescendo of Trump’s coup attempt. 

Insurrectionists broke into the Capitol and murdered police, smashed windows, smeared feces on walls, and destroyed property, even in the House and the Senate chambers and congressional offices. Fortunately staffers rescued Electoral College ballots from the Senate floor before the mob could burn them. Yet for all of the tyranny perpetrated by Trump and his supporters, the coup attempt revealed pathetic emptiness. As at many Trump rallies and online forums, the Capitol insurrection featured dazed men wandering around carrying Confederate flags, repeating outlandish conspiracies, and wearing furs, Viking horns, and face paint. 

Rather than leading a mighty revolt – like Julius Caesar or Napoleon – Trump led a vicious pack of performance artists unable to achieve any significant success. As a result, many viewed Trump’s coup attempt not as a constitutional crisis, but rather mere ego doomed by incompetence and institutional opposition. Rather than condemn the Capitol attack, Trump embraced it. As his supporters stormed the Capitol, Trump initially rebuffed requests to mobilize the National Guard, requiring intervention from White House officials to summon them. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy implored Trump to denounce the mob, he refused. 

Later, after lawyers warned Trump of prosecution for incitement, he asked his followers to go home. Even then Trump insisted that his enemies provoked supporters, enemies who “viciously stripped away” his “landslide election victory.” In a recorded message after the attacks, Trump condemned Vice President Mike Pence for certifying legitimate election results, encouraged the coup by once again calling the election fraudulent, and told his insurrectionists, “We love you. You’re very special.” 

Thus, the alleged leader of the free world encouraged and condoned the first breach of the U.S. Capitol since the British stormed it in 1814 during the War of 1812. Well before the Capitol revolt, however, Trump signaled his embrace of tyranny and violent mobs. Repeatedly he instructed his followers to wage war, disregard legal constraints, and overturn Trump’s electoral loss by any means necessary. He welcomed violent supporters to silence protesters at rallies and signaled that any election defeat would be illegitimate. He refused to agree to a peaceful transition of power and told the Proud Boys, a far-right street militia, to “stand back and stand by.”

Trump fumed and lied, day after day, that his legitimate election loss was fraudulent and unjust. At a rally in Georgia before the Capitol attack, Trump said of Democrats, “They’re not taking this White House. We’re going to fight like hell.” The storming of the Capitol, then, proved merely the crescendo of a long-running song of sedition – of treason – against the United States government.

Donald Trump’s style and philosophy, if we can call them such, lack comparison in United States history. When we blithely mock our own systems with tribal glee, when we destroy institutions, when we take political pleasure in zero-sum fights, when we desecrate rule of law, we must remember that brutality and wilderness may ensue.

Donald Trump’s failings as both the head of state and head of government created an unprecedented assault on American liberty, equality, democracy, and respect for law. As he departs from office, Trump holds one distinction only: America’s worst president. 

Claybourn is a Republican practicing law in Evansville.