The main danger posed by the Trump administration is that it might manage to transform the U.S. from a constitutional democracy into an authoritarian regime modeled more or less on Putin’s Russia. The ultimate danger is that this could lead not only to the suppression of dissent, but to disappearances, torture, general oppression of disfavored groups, and ultimately war with the direst of consequences. Or falling short of that, it could still be a disastrous affair if dissent is suppressed, democracy undermined, and the environment, the economy, education, and health care are substantially degraded. My question here is not what is likely, but what is possible, and what we might do to forestall it.
As I see it, there are two plausible views of what Trump is up to. One is normal autocracy-cum-kleptocracy. As David Frum wrote: Trump will “use the presidency to enrich himself. But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk. Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics. Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to.”
This is the milder form of the danger. On this view, what drives Trump and his administration is mostly greed and vanity–Trump’s desire to “win” in the polls. The dangers are mostly subtle: a steady attack on the fact-based press and fact-based science, an undermining of Congress and the courts as a check on his corruption, crony capitalism on steroids, and the general corruption of civil society. But there need not be a moment when most people say: that’s going too far; this must stop. Rather, our civil society will simply slowly boil (like the proverbial frog). We will be less resilient when a real crisis comes, but that will be some time down the line.
This first account is the dominant one among Trump’s critics, and I accept that it’s the most likely. But there’s a darker possibility that I want to raise as well: that the Trump administration is angling to turn us into something much closer to Putin’s Russia, a place where the value of truth has, for the many and for the powerful, been replaced by faith in the glorious leader; where a strong man rules and the opposition is not merely marginalized, it is often killed; where the notion of individual rights has no role, and all that matters is the glory of the nation.
Clearly Trump is enamored of at least some parts of this second model. His admiration for Putin is unwavering. His adoption of Putin’s method of simply asserting falsehoods and calling others liars is undeniable. He has made the fact-based press his enemy. Indeed, anyone who stands in his way, is his enemy. As Brian Beutler puts it, “Trump … dispute[s] the legitimacy, accuracy, [and] integrity of countervailing institutions (like the media and the judiciary) or cumbersome obstacles (like the federal bureaucracy and civil society organizations) … to weaken their perceived authority and effectiveness so that he can exercise political power in a more unfettered way.”
But the question is: how deep does this enmity towards the authority of others and facts go? If it goes only to the point where he feels they threaten his authority and his vanity, then perhaps we are looking at normal autocracy. The darker possibility is that he, or more likely he under the sway of Bannon, are actually aiming to transform the U.S. into the kind of white, “Christian” authoritarian regime they associate with Putin.
There is much to say about Bannon, and much I do not know, but here is a telling quote: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too… I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This, combined with Bannon’s love of war and of Putin, suggest that he may have more than the glory of Trump in mind as he seeks to be, as Jeet Heer writes, his “Joseph Goebbels, the ideologist and propagandist tasked with the essential work of giving ideological coherence to his leader’s rants and blabber.”
How would Bannon/Trump go down this darker road? By triggering chaos and reaction. In that vein, one might wonder, for example: was Bannon’s writing of Trump’s legally dubious and offensive executive order banning people from seven countries coming to the U.S. a sign of incompetence, or a strategic move? Maybe Bannon is not an amateur who did not know to consult the various agencies he snubbed. Maybe he wanted to create chaos and protest at home and abroad.
Here’s how he might have gamed it out: If we ban people from these seven countries, we will piss off, among others, the Iraqis and the Iranians (2 of the seven countries). The Iraqis might kill some American special ops, or not come to their aid, further inflaming the tensions, allow Trump to go into high-bully mode. The Iranians might resist in a way that would escalate tension with them. Domestically, the order can be defended well enough that he will keep his Republican base, but it is offensive enough to lose all the Democrats, further inflaming the partisan divide. Hopefully some partisans on the left will then start to do violent things in protest, like the black bloc protesters at U.C. Berkeley. This will give Trump a chance to threaten to use force in response (as he also did in response to crime in Chicago). And that can be expected to lead to violent resistance in return.
The big move he could hope for is the kind of civil unrest that will make his followers really scared. “Who the hell are those wackos protesting like that? Why can’t those liberals accept Trump’s authority? Someone had better teach them a lesson. It’s time for some real law and order.” And Trump will be happy to oblige.
The convenient thing, for Bannon/Trump, is that the executive has the fundamental power to declare a state of emergency. And if they do, then even the Courts would have no power to resist him. If Trump declares that the country is fighting an insurrection, he can suspend the right to habeas corpus, and then the only thing stopping him is the military refusing to go along. By that point, even Congress might not dare to seek to limit his power–and from what we have seen, the Republicans in Congress will rather enable him every step of the way (their frog has already boiled). And as Trump boasted during the campaign, the generals will do what he tells them to do.
I’m not suggesting this is likely or likely to come soon. It would take a while to get us there. But a while could be a few years: 2, not 8. And for all I can tell, this is exactly how Bannon could try to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” We would end up just like Putin’s Russia. The dissent would be marginalized and scared. And those who yearn for a strong leader would have found their man in emperor Trump.
If there is any prospect that this is Bannon’s long-term hope and plan, then the next and last question is: what can we do to prevent it? Pretending he could not possible go there does not seem like a helpful strategy. How could he possibly get where he’s gotten? Yet he has.
Better, I say, to spread the idea. It won’t plant an idea he hasn’t already had. All it can do is force Trump and the Republicans to scoff at the idea. Let them call it paranoid. Let them say that it has no basis in reality. Let them say that it’s as ludicrous as the conspiratorial fears so many on the far right had that Obama was going to come for their guns and Bibles, and then send them off to concentration camps. The more they ridicule the idea, the more they poison it. The closer it then comes to a reality, the more they have to disclaim it. That, I think, is the best way to box them an and to make it clear, even to his base, when a really bad line is being crossed.
This, at any rate, has been my fear and my hope for the past week or so. I will come back to it from time to time, perhaps to say that I no longer have such fear, and to admit that it was just the product of my fevered brain early in the Trump era. Or perhaps to flesh it out more and call the alarm. Hopefully I will feel sheepish, not vindicated.