Opinion | Trump Doesn’t Know What Democracy Is. John Lewis Embodied It.

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The reason to connect Lewis to Dewey is to highlight and emphasize this idea of democracy as a social and ethical commitment, something that cannot be limited to the ballot box, something that must be lived and practiced in all spheres of life. Marching, speaking, deliberating, educating, persuading — these are just some of the actions that help make democracy real. They’re also the tools we’ll need to defend democracy against the looming threat of autocracy.

Just a few hours before Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta, President Trump denounced mail-in voting, in one of his now regular attempts to delegitimize the upcoming election. He also raised the idea of pushing the election back, to another date. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he wrote on Twitter. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote??”

There’s no legal way the president can delay or postpone the election. Its date is set by state and federal law and moving it would require a herculean political effort. Trump lacks the patience or capacity to coordinate. But that doesn’t mean his language isn’t dangerous. Trump is sowing chaos. He’s undermining public faith in the election process and building a constituency of supporters who will treat any result short of his re-election as evidence of fraud and misconduct. And he’s been backed thus far by an attorney general who repeats his false claims and gives ominously conditional answers to questions about honoring the democratic process. Asked during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday what he would do if Trump loses the election but refuses to concede, Bill Barr answered “If the results are clear I would leave office,” a response that leaves open the possibility of unclear results and a contested outcome.

It’s fair to say that over the last three-and-a-half years our democratic “norms” have done little to restrain Trump’s most corrupt and authoritarian instincts. Our “checks and balances” have proven inadequate in the face of a president who sees the Constitution as merely a few pieces of paper. As we’ve seen with child separation on the border or secretive federal police in Portland, Ore., Trump has tried to extend and expand his authority as much as he can, daring the political system to stop him each time.

But while many of our institutions have not been up to the task of confronting Trump, our democracy, meaning individuals and communities and civil society, has. Protest put Trump on the defensive in the days after he took office; protest drew attention to his abuses at the border; and protest over the last three months has helped galvanized many millions more against him. If Trump is defeated, and if he does leave office, it will be because Americans understood, and took seriously, the idea that democracy is a way of living as much as it is a form of government, that it is, as Lewis told us, an act and not a state.

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