A protester holds a Trump flag inside the US Capitol Building near the Senate Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, after protesters stormed the Capitol to protest a joint session of Congress to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Photo by Win McNamee | Getty Images
I was about four or five when I witnessed corruption for the first time.
I was standing on the back seat of our car — not safe, but common back then — when my great uncle got pulled over by a traffic cop in Tampico, Mexico.
At some point, the cop let my mom and uncle know we could skip having to follow him to the station if we coughed up a “mordida,” which literally translates to “a bite.” In other words, he wanted a bribe.
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Knowing the game, my mom pulled a $5 bill from her purse and handed it to Uncle Cesar, who deftly slipped it to the officer, and we were soon on our way.
Too young at the time to grasp notions like graft and corruption, I didn’t fully appreciate what had happened until much later in life, though the weirdness of the incident has stuck with me to this day. I may not have known why money changed hands, but I somehow knew it was wrong.
I offer this story not to malign my ancestral homeland or suggest the U.S. is free of corruption (we’re not), but to lament the growing danger that endemic and ultimately debilitating corruption could soon become pervasive here if we don’t take action to protect our democracy.
As I’ve watched the evidence roll out this month during the special congressional hearings investigating the attempted overthrow of our government by former President Donald Trump and his supporters on January 6, it’s hard not to see how the actions of the former president and many in his administration so closely resembled business-as-usual in corrupt regimes around the world.
Dictators and those who profit from corruption and authoritarianism are the sort of people who’ve become convinced that the rules designed to keep the rest of us on the straight and narrow simply don’t apply to them.
Trump, for instance, had signaled in the months leading up to his election in 2016 that he planned to use every trick in the book — including intimidation, outright lies and propaganda — to convince the American people that our nation’s voting system was rigged against him. And because he had offered himself up as a 21st-Century capitalist savior — “I am the chosen one” and “I alone can fix the system” — that meant the system was rigged not just against him, but the average American voter as well.
Underlying the mountain of evidence being presented by the January 6 committee, one question must be answered: Is anyone above the law? If the answer is yes, the dissolution of our democracy is inevitable.
His plan was simple: Make enough voters believe our entire election system is corrupt, even though it isn’t, and voters won’t trust the results. That way you don’t actually have to win an election, all you have to do is get enough people to believe it was stolen from you and you win, even if you actually lost.
Trump’s strategy was sick, evil and brilliant, all at once.
In some ways, the former president’s plan has worked. Even though he lost by nearly 8 million votes to President Biden in 2020 and no evidence of mass voter fraud exists, tens of millions of Americans today are convinced the former president was cheated out of reelection, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of Trump acolytes nationwide are seeking office today based on his playbook.
The biggest challenge for the January 6 committee is to lay out not only why the president’s claims of rigged election is a total fabrication, but they also have to show how failing to reject those lies stands to corrupt our entire democracy.
For our democracy to work, we need to believe that our votes count, that our voices count. Every freedom, every right, and any semblance of trust we have in our system of government is rooted in that principle.
That doesn’t mean the system is perfect. It never has been and never will be. But in order to keep faith in our democracy it has to work the vast and overwhelmingly majority of the time.
Endemic corruption, which is what Trump and company are trying to institutionalize, cannot become the norm. It must remain the exception.
That’s why, if the evidence gathered by the special committee or state and federal prosecutors shows that Trump or his subordinates committed crimes, including, and especially, the crime of trying to overthrow our government, then they must face justice in a court of law.
Underlying the mountain of evidence being presented by the January 6 committee, one question must be answered: Is anyone above the law?
If the answer is yes, the dissolution of our democracy is inevitable.
If the answer is no, our system of government, flaws and all, gets to live another day.
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