Donald Trump was not seen publicly for more than a week after Election Day until he appeared, briefly, to acknowledge Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery. He looked neither to the right nor the left of him, and turned away after a moment from the wreath propped before him. A camera caught him full face then. What it revealed was a mask of fury, and it was clear at that moment that there was no reckoning what the remaining weeks of his presidency might bring. No one in his life had ever refused him anything he would not simply demand again and again. The presidency would be no exception.
The weeks after brought dozens of unfounded state and federal lawsuits challenging Trump’s electoral defeat, at last reaching the Supreme Court. These suits notionally sought relief, and perhaps Trump thought that somewhere, among the many judges he had put on the federal bench, there might be one as indifferent to the law as he was. The underlying purpose of the suits, however, was not to claim a victory Trump had not won, but to defame an election he had lost. In this, Trump had considerable success, at least among those conditioned to believe that government per se is a conspiracy with only one man, heaven-sent, remaining to tell the truth.
With no success in the courts, Trump turned to state election officials and legislators to reject the ballots of minority urban populations in battleground states. When this selective disenfranchisement failed he turned to attorneys general in Texas and other states to invalidate in their entirety the ballots cast in four states, thereby nullifying some twenty million votes in all.
That this ploy failed as well does not lessen its significance. The right to vote is the life of democracy itself. To deny that right, absent specific illegality or fraud, is to deny the civil life of the nation. The chief law enforcement officers of more than a third of America’s states, with the support of nearly two-thirds of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, wished to do just that. Their goal was to inflict civil death on an electorally decisive number of their fellow citizens. It would take even now only the initiative of two members of Congress to initiate proceedings that could void all other ballots in the nation save those of partisan state legislatures. Donald Trump has often expressed the desire to dispense with democratic elections, as least as far as his own office is concerned. His last throw, which he appears willing to take, would be the attempt to do so.
Civil death, for a nation, is as real as corporeal death for an individual. But the Trump administration has decreed the latter as well in the execution of more than a fifth of its condemned prisoners. Since July it has carried out ten such executions, with three more scheduled before January 20. To appreciate the exceptionalism of this, no federal execution had been carried out since 2003, and only three in the past half century. At the same time, executions have almost completely paused during the pandemic in the 28 other capital jurisdictions in the nation, so that the federal total in 2020 will eclipse the combined number of those in all states that retain the death penalty.
When Attorney-General William Barr announced the resumption of federal executions, he offered no reason for it other than that when prosecutors seek and juries impose a capital penalty, the infliction of death necessarily follows. He did not explain the conveyor belt he promptly instituted, nor why some prisoners were executed while their appeals were still pending. His successor, Jeffrey A. Rosen, has brought no further clarity. Perhaps the best explanation is the reaction of the Trump administration to the nationwide political protest against police brutality that followed the slaying of George Floyd in May and had continued unabated into the summer. Pivoting on this, President Trump redefined himself as the law and order candidate, dispatching federal troops to several cities and stigmatizing others as anarchic. Whether or not deliberately connected to this new campaign theme, Barr’s execution spree clearly dovetailed with it.
At this time however, with the election concluded, legal challenges exhausted, Electoral College votes tabulated, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the result in Congress likely scotched by Senate Majority Leader McConnell, further executions serve no practical political purpose; indeed, they are only likelier to ramp up pressure on President-Elect Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to end them. Why, then, do they continue? Justice, certainly, is mocked by them, nor could the most cold-blooded expediency justify them in the last days of an administration. There is only one reason that remains now, the lethal determination stamped on Donald Trump’s face as he turned from the wreath in Arlington. No one can take from him the ultimate prize of power without a heavy price being paid for it, even the final one of all.
The idea of a holocaust that involves just thirteen victims may seem to stretch the term beyond responsible use. But when they are chosen from a population of only 62, culled from the thousands dying around us every day, they evoke a horror all their own. In the saga of Donald Trump’s presidency, this last chapter may be remembered as the most grotesque of all.