I recently went to the doctor for a sharp pain in my knee. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered, but it was bad enough that I wasn’t able to run, the one exercise I enjoy. As I feared, the doctor had bad news: My running, specifically my continued running despite the pain, had “insulted” my knee to the point of failure. To prevent my knee from completely losing its function, I had to stop running altogether.
Since that exam, I have been fixated on the doctor’s description of running as an “insult” to my knee. Like most people, I thought of an insult as something you said, not something you did. But, with the help of Google, I found this definition: “an event or occurrence that causes damage to a tissue or organ.” I had a newfound appreciation for the phrase “adding insult to injury.”
As headlines filled the news about former President Donald Trump’s indictment on charges related to his payment of hush money to a porn star, I kept coming back to my doctor’s diagnosis. While the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC described Trump’s indictment as a “test” for our democracy, I came to realize that it is the culmination of repeated “insults” to our democracy.
The problem with the word “test” is that it suggests a singular event — the first indictment and trial of a former U.S. president. However, the behavior that led our country to this moment was not one event. It was the constant, day-in and day-out insults to our democracy. The other problem with the word “test” is it suggests that it is something we can pass or fail. The insults from Trump and his allies have subjected democracy to accumulated damage that is not nearly so binary.
Hurling attacks on convenient and safe ways to vote amidst a pandemic was an insult. Falsely claiming fraud and urging people to distrust election results was an insult. Inciting an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol was perhaps the biggest insult of all. But, it wasn’t just Trump adding insult to injury. His rhetoric inspired an entire party to chip away at our most sacred right.
Between the time Trump falsely claimed his arrest was imminent and his actual indictment, Republicans delivered insult after insult. While headlines and pundits focused on Trump’s criminal charges, GOP state lawmakers continued their regular cadence of insults aimed at our voting systems.
On Monday, March 21, North Carolina Republicans introduced a new law to remove the state from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit organization that allows states to share information to help maintain accurate voter rolls. As I have written before, ERIC has become the subject of bizarre right-wing lies and conspiracy theories involving George Soros (of course). As more Republican states leave this information exchange, our voter registration systems become more brittle and less resilient.
The rest of the week saw further insults to our democracy. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed two anti-voting bills into law targeting now-familiar GOP targets — drop boxes and private grants for election administration. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) signed 12 separate voter and election bills into law. These insults included a new strict residency requirement to vote and a ban on drop boxes. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) insulted democracy when he signed a law making it a crime to collect and submit mail-in ballots on behalf of others.
The biggest insult to democracy that week was delivered by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). Breaking a decades-long, bipartisan practice in the commonwealth, Youngkin halted a program that granted automatic voting rights restoration for people with past felony convictions. The cruelty of the insult was the point.
The insults did not stop during the week of Trump’s indictment. In Georgia, the Legislature passed a bill that would tighten and criminalize the state’s pre-existing ban on private funding in election administration. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) will no doubt sign the insult into law. Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill that would make it harder for students to register to vote. Earlier this week — the day before Trump appeared in court — Florida’s legislative leaders proposed a new omnibus voter suppression bill. Insult, insult and insult.
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Just as each step I took while running insulted my knee, each of these small acts of voter suppression, election subversion and political theater aimed at placating a disgraced one-term president is insulting our democracy over and over.
I may never know which run was the final insult to my knee. But now that I’m no longer able to run, I wish I hadn’t written off that initial pain. By ignoring it and continuing to run, the repeated insults have left my knee beyond repair.
If our democracy dies, however, we will know what killed it. The constant Republican insults will have been too much for it to survive. The never-ending stress and strain of the “Big Lie” will take its toll. Constant Republican insults will leave it too exhausted and brittle to recover.
Please stop calling Donald Trump’s indictment in New York a test of our democracy. It is just the latest insult he and his supporters have hurled at it.