Policy wins are great. But Election 2020 is an existential fight for the nation’s soul. This is why

March 5, 2020 1:41 pm

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 26: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a new conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump updated the American people about what his administration’s ‘whole of government’ response to the global coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

You’ve probably never heard of Erica Newland. And if she had her druthers, it’s a safe bet that she would have preferred it stayed that way.

But Newland, a former attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, found herself a front-line warrior in the battle to protect the Constitution from the excesses of President Donald Trump.

Newland, who is both Jewish and a civil libertarian, found herself growing increasingly uncomfortable with the administration’s attacks on non-citizens. And one exchange, included in George Packer’s extraordinary cover story for The Atlantic, “The President is winning his war on American institutions,” is everything you need to know about that fight.

As the executive orders “and other requests for the office’s approval piled up, many of them of dubious legality, one of Newland’s supervisors took to saying, ‘We’re just following orders,’” Packer wrote. “He said it without irony, as a way of reminding everyone, ‘We work for the president.’ He said it once to Newland, and when she gave him a look he added, ‘I know that’s what the Nazis said, but we’re not Nazis.’”

When Newland pointed out that Trump had called white supremacists “very fine people,” her supervisor shot back that neither then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, nor any one in the DOJ hierarchy, had used such language. Months later, in October 2018, when a gunman spewing anti-foreigner and anti-Semitic rhetoric opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshippers, Newland saw herself in them, and concluded that “her office’s work was sanctioning rhetoric that had inspired a mass killer,” Packer wrote.

She resigned within days.

I’m taking the time and space to share that anecdote because Newland’s story, so ably captured by Packer, to emphasize that the choice between halting Trump’s attacks on our institutions, or allowing him to continue to inflict damage that becomes more irreparable by the day, is the only choice that ultimately matters.

If you’re a Democratic primary voter, I’m not going to tell you how to vote. And at this writing, your choices have become dramatically constrained. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, announced she was suspending her campaign, further cementing what was already a two-man contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Voters make up their minds about candidates for a lot of reasons. Often, it’s where they stand on such as access to healthcare, the guarantee of equal justice, and the promise of a good education. Or it’s such bread-and-butter pocketbook questions as a good job and a livable wage.

Just as often, voters make up their minds based on gut feelings: If they can picture a candidate standing on the world stage as a spokesman for American values; if they’re someone who makes them feel safe and secure during times of deep crisis; as someone who fits into the pantheon of flawed, but occasionally men (and, sadly, with Warren’s exit, just men) who have guided the nation since its founding.

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If you’re one of those voters — and more critically, if you’re one of those voters who cast a ballot for Trump for those very reasons, then take a minute, and hear me out.

As I write this, on a Thursday morning, a little before noon, 11 people nationwide have died as a result of the coronavirus.

Trump, meanwhile, has offered a constant stream of misinformation on matters ranging from the severity and duration of the pandemic, to when a vaccine might become widely available. He’s persisted in this behavior even, as Politico reports, he’s “gotten a real-time fact check from a health expert sitting nearby.”

At times of grave public crisis, Americans deserve a leader who can relay facts clearly and accurately. Trump, whose falsehoods and misstatements now number in the tens of thousands, has proven absolutely incapable of that basic task.

On Twitter, as news of Warren’s exit from the 2020 field spread, Trump again used a racist epithet to describe the Bay State lawmaker. And he once again deployed playground nicknames to identify Sanders and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also suspended his campaign this week.

There are some who rejoice in what they see as Trump’s etiquette-free plainspokenness. But four years into his administration, it’s clear his online bullying has not only normalized such behavior in our workspaces and classrooms, it’s also inspired unspeakable acts of violence.

Trump’s assaults on our values, on our institutions, have been well-documented. And they are too lengthy to fully catalogue here. And for every official who has enabled him, there is an Erica Newland, who has tried their level best, to stand up for those very fragile things that knit the nation together — the Republic we have, if we can keep it.

That’s what’s at stake this year, nothing less than our soul as a country. There’s only one right choice. Make it carefully.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.