The old saying is that some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. I propose a fourth category: people upon whom history tries to thrust greatness, who muff their chance. I fear we may be watching a cohort of the un-great muff the chance to save our democracy.

I guess it’s sort of embarrassing if you’re, say, Attorney General Merrick Garland. There isn’t the slightest question about the fact that numerous elected officials including the then-sitting president made a concerted effort to nullify the election of 2020; that is, to overthrow the government. If you’re Merrick Garland you understand that to be a possible state of play in some “banana republic” somewhere; the idea that this has come to pass here is just too awful.

However, here we are. Does Garland get that?

Historically, we have always found ways to avoid prosecuting ex-presidents for their crimes. I think it’s too bad Ford pardoned Nixon; the man was pretty plainly guilty, and events since suggest that Nixon in prison might have given some of his successors something to think about. But pardoning Nixon did not, in itself, directly threaten the republic. He held no political party in his thrall; he was washed up and everybody knew it.

Trump & Co. are, of course, very much on the scene. None of their strategies quite worked out this time, so they are openly preparing for a re-match. Elections officials who didn’t go along with the Big Lie are being hounded from office. Red-state legislatures are passing laws that allow them to bypass the popular vote and choose their states’ electors themselves. These are the next-generation measures: gerrymandering and voter-suppression are still in full swing, but the smart Republican of today acknowledges that it would be a good idea to be able to throw the election after the votes are counted, since these traditional tactics often fall short.

The idea of a republic presumes a certain level of good faith among participants. Notably, it presumes good losers: people who react to losing elections by re-tooling their message next time around, or perhaps by leaving the field to pursue other work, rather than by routinely claiming to have won. The Republican party has, at this point, adopted We Don’t Accept Election Results as its credo and its fallback strategy. It’s only the fallback because you never know when you might actually win an election, in which case that election will have been very clean and fair after all.

This casts a shadow on all elections; if one side is being told the election is rigged, why would they come out to vote? Next thing you know, the election actually is rigged, sort of. It’s set up so that it is unlikely to achieve what the political scientists call legitimacy. It will become a dispute rather than resolving one.

Most of what GOP operatives are doing in order to undermine our democracy is legal. Since the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Roberts court, voter suppression is de facto legal. As for the idea of state legislatures simply bypassing the popular vote and choosing their own (presidential) electors, unfortunately that might pass constitutional muster. The founding fathers left that matter to the states, period. And, of course, it’s perfectly legal to express an opinion, or to enunciate a bald lie, by claiming that Trump won by a landslide in 2020.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Merrick Garland is, so far, treating Trump and his still-serving colleagues as somehow untouchable, even though it is entirely plain that they did, no question about it, break a bunch of laws in their organized and sustained attempt to end the republic. Merrick Garland, that un-great man, is treating this as if it were just another case of an ex-president who could theoretically be charged with something. He doesn’t want to go there, any more than Obama and Eric Holder wanted to go after Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld for war crimes. It would be so unpleasant! Just think what the Republicans would say!

They would, of course, say it’s a witch-hunt, and all of the other things they already say about, for instance, the House investigation into Jan. 6, ’21. If they haven’t yet said that Garland is a commie, they’ll say that. So what? That’s why Trump and his crew have to be allowed to get away with it to try again? Because we know what they’ll say and it’s too scary?

These are people who have sworn fealty to the Big Lie and the Very Big Liar. We do not save the republic by worrying about what they’ll say. I fear that the awfulness of the situation is beyond Merrick Garland’s comprehension, and that he is letting the past be his guide. The past wasn’t like this.

Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.