If Democrats do hold their House majority and retake the Senate and the White House, pressure will be intense to avoid looking backward and focus solely on solving the problems in front of them. This is understandable: the wreckage the Trump administration would leave behind after just four short years is immense, the policy challenges dire. If successful in November (and if Trump doesn’t create irredeemable chaos in the transition), Biden and Congressional Democrats will have to deal with a raging pandemic, a collapsing small business and renter economy, a climate crisis and continuing unrest over racist police violence—as well as the myriad ongoing policy challenges related to healthcare, tuition, inequality, tech giant accountability and so much more. It’s easy to foresee a scenario where, coupled with pressure from Republicans and centrists, Democrats decide that the public is sick of even thinking about Trump and bygones are allowed to be bygones.
But that would be a huge mistake. If Trump and his enablers are allowed to get away with the misdeeds of the last four years unscathed, it may mean the end of the American experiment.
The American system of government has proven to be far more fragile and norms-dependent than most public policy professionals and politics nerds had thought possible. It may only take one more president of limited moral constraints to topple it entirely. And given that impeachment and removal have proven to be an empty threat, the only deterrent to a future Trumplike president and their enablers will be the fear of being held legally and financially accountable for wrongdoing after leaving office.
The degree to which Trump and his cronies in under four years have already warped the structures of power and obliterated ethical lines long considered sacred has frankly been shocking. Democrats will almost certainly try to codify into law some of the violated norms–for instance, requiring that presidential candidates release tax returns, strengthening the Hatch Act, placing increased walls between the President and the Attorney General, etc–but these efforts will be like plugging holes in a sieve. If a Chief Executive wants to abuse their power, and they have enough allied Senators to stave off removal after an impeachment, then the opportunities for mischief are endless.
Investigations of past malfeasance, therefore, are not merely a political weapon to do damage to the standing of the leaders of the other party. They are an essential tool for the preservation of democracy. It is unlikely that the Republican Party of Trump will reform itself into a responsible governing body within a generation, and it is unrealistic to assume that Democrats will hold the presidency for as long as it takes until the day that democracy itself is not under direct threat. All that is left is fear of accountability.
What else is to prevent a future Michael Caputo from rigging scientific findings in a pandemic to make his boss look good while endangering millions? What else is to prevent a future Louis DeJoy from sabotaging the Postal Service again? What else would stop a future Bill Barr from using the Justice Department as the president’s private legal firm? What else would stop a future Donald Trump from…well, everything?
Certainly not shame or normative pressure. Not the balance of powers in the Senate envisioned by the framers. Only the fear of subpoenas, jail and penury stands in the way.
So as much as Democrats will have their work cut out for them next year, and as much as Republicans will howl about it, they cannot avoid the necessity of full investigations and inquiries into this administration’s abuses. People have to go to jail for what has happened, or there probably won’t be a democracy worth saving for long.