Opinion: Uh-oh, the ex-president is getting smarter at subverting democracy

Then-President Trump speaks Jan. 6 near the White House.
Then-President Trump speaks at a rally near the White House on Jan. 6. His supporters would go on to attack the U.S. Capitol.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Normally I am loath (and you should be too) to mention anything having to do with an election so many months or even years before the vote. The reporting on horse-race analytics and theoretical matchups frames important policy discussions as consequential only in the sense that the position a politician takes confers advantages with discrete voting blocs like, I dunno, white suburban great-grandmothers or rural dads with associate degrees. It’s news only because the writers say it is.

But the 2024 election is different. We should all be laser focused on it, and a column by The Times’ Jackie Calmes explains in terrifying detail why: The former president is, to use his terminology, trying to rig the election. Funny how with President Biden’s predecessor, his insults and obsessions tend to betray his own shady dealings.


As Calmes explains, the 2020 runner-up isn’t being his usual blustery self — or I should say, his usual, exclusively blustery self. Sure, he’s still putting out odd public pronouncements that look appropriately hilarious on quasi-presidential letterhead instead of on Twitter, but he’s evidently learned something from his four years atop the executive branch: Without governing expertise, TV-friendly operatics get ratings but not much else. And cheating at a national election requires a familiarity with the kind of hyper-local public service that often fails to excite even the most civic-minded journalist.

Calmes writes:

“As Trump learned in 2020, all elections — whether for town manager or president — are run by local and state officials, each guided by separate laws and regulations and their own discretion...

“So he is now paying close attention to local and state races for offices that affect elections — and regularly issuing endorsements for candidates for local election administrator, state representative, secretary of state and state attorney general. He seems to have one criterion — that the Republican endorsee echo his Big Lie — and he’s especially intent on revenge against those who defied him in 2020, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.”

In other words, the former president has transformed from a know-nothing autocrat into a semi-competent, half-shrewd autocrat. He and his operatives know what levers to pull to steal an election, and they’re already reaching for them. The rap on Biden’s predecessor was that his inattention to detail and laziness mitigated his anti-democratic impulses, but he appears to be fixing that mistake (the inattention part, not the authoritarian impulsiveness). We generally praise politicians for developing competence, but this is extremely unsettling. It would be as if Hitler suddenly decided to trust his battle-hardened generals and put his fate in the experts’ hands instead of abiding in his self-evident genius until the end.

This has to become the primary national issue, one that creates new political alliances that serve almost no other purpose than to make sure the basic task of faithfully counting and accepting the vote in 2024 is carried out. These alliances will almost certainly be uncomfortable, so when right-wing Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw calls out the “grifters” and liars in his own party, maybe it isn’t productive for progressives to take the easy Twitter dunk instead of nudging him further to the pro-democracy coalition. (And it certainly isn’t good for Crenshaw to “clarify” his remarks when the troll armies counter-attack — I guess they all can’t be Liz Cheney.)

I concede this is alarmist, but having read Calmes’ column (and a fair amount of history on democracies that imploded), I find it impossible to do anything else but sound the alarm.


This is more palace intrigue than democracy-toppling, so take it as you will: Vice President Kamala Harris probably isn’t very good at her job. Columnist Jonah Goldberg expresses no surprise over the staff departures or off-the-record comments about discord between Biden and Harris, and he dismisses the complaints over racism and sexism by the vice president’s supporters (complaints that have been echoed by some of The Times’ letter writers). But even if a supposedly incompetent Harris is the Anointed One for 2024, or if Biden is as senile as some right-wingers insist and still runs against his predecessor, I’m still for pro-democracy incompetence or senility over GOP authoritarianism. L.A. Times

The Torrance racist text scandal spotlights the rot in police culture. A cop in the city’s police department joked about racial profiling in a text message that was uncovered during an investigation into the alleged spray-painting of a swastika inside a car by police. Other messages that made virulently racist, antisemitic and homophobic statements were so bad that the Los Angeles County district attorney and the Torrance city attorney dropped a combined 85 felony cases. “It’s likely not the only city whose police warrant scrutiny,” says The Times’ Editorial Board. “[Dist. Atty. George] Gascón, [California Atty. Gen. Rob] Bonta, and indeed all of us should keep the pressure on.” L.A. Times

Youth mental health went from concerning to a full-on crisis during the pandemic. The editorial board warns against dismissing skyrocketing rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety among the nation’s children and teens: “Mental health isn’t something to be easily dismissed. It’s very real and serious. Telling kids to suck it up isn’t going to lessen the depression and anxiety that many of them feel. Ignored, this will be an issue that haunts the nation for decades with higher rates of addiction, fractured family lives and other health and social ills.” L.A. Times

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

The Senate filibuster is one reason we don’t have a federal abortion law. In a normal world where elected representatives acted in accordance with the voters’ wishes, we wouldn’t need judges to glean individual rights from the arcane wording of the Constitution. We might even have a national abortion law, because most Americans agree that women should have the right to choose. But thanks to the filibuster and a generally dysfunctional Congress, the nation lacks an effective counterweight to an activist Supreme Court poised to gut Roe vs. Wade, writes Nicholas Goldberg. L.A. Times

I can get behind this: Keep the “temporary” cap on Yosemite crowds. Yeah, it’s elitist and even a tad misanthropic, but Yosemite is better with fewer people in it. Before the pandemic, the sprawling national park was being loved to death; with the reservation system in place to facilitate social distancing, annual attendance is down by about 1 million people, and those who have visited since 2020 said the park was the best they had ever seen it. “My own trips back to Yosemite using the reservation system reminded me of the park decades earlier,” writes Mark Butler, a National Park Service veteran who served at Yosemite for 34 years. “With reduced traffic, getting into the park was simple. The trails were not congested, so you could more easily see and appreciate the park’s natural beauty.” L.A. Times

Stay in touch.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re the kind of reader who’d benefit from subscribing to our other newsletters and to the Times.

As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at