Soon, a corrupt, emotionally unstable demagogue and white nationalist fellow-traveler will be inaugurated as President of the United States. He will be supported by a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and, soon, the return of a Republican majority on the Supreme Court. He will also have the passionate, unwavering loyalty of a mass following that believes even his most outlandish lies.
Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency poses the greatest threat to our country of any event in my lifetime. In a future post, I hope to collect in one place what seem to me the best proposals for protecting the United States by opposing and resisting the Trump presidency on every front.
In this post, I would like to consider the stakes of the coming months and years.
The dangers of this presidency have no precedent in modern American history. Since the United States became a global military power, not to mention a nuclear power, no President has been remotely as emotionally unstable, unqualified, hostile to democracy, or allied with enemies of the United States as Donald Trump.
I will offer only one example, focusing on the last point. Our incoming President has openly taken the side, against citizens of the United States, of a hostile foreign power that attacked them. Donald Trump has openly and unapologetically sided with an enemy of the United States against the American victims of the enemy’s attack.
Nothing like this has ever happened before, to my knowledge, in American history.
It is now known that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed attacks on American computer servers and released emails stolen from Americans in an attempt to increase Trump’s chances of being elected. The incoming President has long been pro-Putin—most likely a result of his longstanding, repeatedly announced admiration for authoritarian tyrants, his many business dealings with Russian oligarchs, his susceptibility to cheap flattery, his sympathy for Putin’s anti-Islamic ethnic nationalism, and his unwitting reliance on Russian-funded news media and advisers in the pay of the Kremlin.
Instead of condemning Russia’s violations of the rights of fellow Americans, the incoming President defends Putin. Trump is openly and unapologetically on the side of a foreign enemy that attacked Americans.
Day after day, month after month, year after year, Trump continues to defend this petty tyrant and butcher who promotes ethnic hatred around the world, who has had journalists and political opponents jailed and killed, who has stolen billions of dollars from his people, who is responsible for mass atrocities in Syria and elsewhere, and who recently invaded and occupied a sovereign European state. Putin is not only an enemy of the United States. He is an enemy of the human race.
This is the man that Donald Trump, our incoming President, has praised and continues to praise. An attacker on the United States. A foreign enemy.
Our incoming President supports the butcher Putin, praises him, and defends his illegal interference in our elections and his crimes against our fellow citizens. Our incoming President’s party remains largely silent in response to this unprecedented betrayal of the United States.
This has never happened before. What will happen next?
Trump’s campaign and transition have already demonstrated that he is unable to control himself and unable to be controlled, perhaps in both cases due to manifestations of a serious personality disorder. As has often been noted, Trump’s words and deeds easily fit a description of narcissistic personality disorder.
We also know that Trump is capable of grave violations of democratic norms. He is willing to incite violence by his supporters against his perceived enemies, as he did and threatened to do at many of his campaign rallies. He routinely attempts to delegitimize the professional news media in favor of propaganda sources and the direct delivery of lies to the public. He lies on a scale with no precedent in American presidential history—far beyond the lies of ordinary political figures, and beyond even the damning but less frequent lies of Nixon. Trump lies constantly and unrepentantly in a way that threatens the possibility of democratic deliberation and negotiation. He has also demonized and slandered millions of Americans, targeting them for hatred and vigilantism based on their minority ethnicity or religion—above all, Hispanics and Muslims. In addition, throughout his life, he has specifically demonized African Americans as criminals and been trailed by unresolved accusations of discrimination and the use of racial slurs. Despite a willingness to engage in vicious, utterly unpresidential personal attacks in response to the slightest criticism, Trump has shown no passion—no interest whatsoever, in fact—in speaking out against the white supremacists who continually endorse him, including even members of the KKK. Like tyrants throughout history, he holds himself above the law in general and is particularly willing to ignore the law to punish his perceived enemies or enrich himself. The promised corruption of the Trump presidency is beyond the pale of any administration since the nineteenth century, long before the New Deal expanded the size of the federal government and the potential avenues for presidential self-dealing. Trump also holds enormous foreign debts and investments that he has not disclosed, creating unprecedented and unresolvable conflicts of interest between himself and the country he will pretend to serve. He has already chosen to violate his constitutional duties—under the Emoluments Clause—from the day he steps into office. He has surrounded himself for the most part with corrupt, faithless oligarchs, bigoted anti-Islamic conspiracy theorists, and open or closeted allies of the white supremacist movement.
(I except General Mattis, who has honorably chosen to serve in the Trump administration no doubt in order to uphold his oath to defend the country “against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.” The fact that General Mattis would, as I understand the procedure, have to convey to the military the President’s order to launch a nuclear weapon, rather than the President being able to unilaterally start a nuclear war, may be the most significant fact to emerge during the transition period.)
The list of the incoming President’s outrages could continue. (See James Fallows’s 152-part series chronicling Trump’s most reprehensible breaks with the norms that, until this election, governed contemporary American presidential politics.) I have not even mentioned that the President-elect is an admitted serial sexual predator, an exploiter of desperate Americans through fraudulent business schemes, an employer of illegal foreign labor, a climate change denialist, a conspiracy theorist, or that his first wife accused him of rape.
As a candidate, Trump did so many things that no presidential candidate had done before, acts that seemed unimaginable until he did them.
What previously unimaginable acts will he carry out as President?
Personally, I am concerned above all with Trump starting a war, or wars—either through incompetence, as a result of an emotional outburst, or deliberately to distract from his failures. It is a classic strategy of demagogues to begin a war in the face of declining popularity. Trump’s behavior has predictably followed the patterns of a demagogue up to now. We have every reason to believe his behavior will continue to do so. He already faces the lowest approval ratings of any incoming President in recorded history, and it is likely that his approval ratings will fall further as all but his most fanatical supporters come to realize what they have done to our country.
There is already a great risk that the United States and China may find themselves descending into military hostilities as China, relatively speaking, rises in power (the so-called Thucydides trap). Trump now has the power to set in motion a chain of events that could ultimately result in the deaths of millions.
Nothing like this has happened before. We as Americans find ourselves facing a greater threat than we have at any time in our history, at least since the Civil War. Even the threat of the Axis powers does not compare to the risks posed by a corrupt, utterly incompetent, mentally ill demagogue, backed by a militaristic, potentially violent mass movement, obtaining the vast executive powers of the modern American presidency, including power over the military and its nuclear arms.
Soon, Donald Trump will become the most powerful person in the world.
Anyone who loves democracy, the rule of the people by themselves, should be horrified. Anyone who loves liberty should be horrified. Anyone who loves the United States should be horrified.
There is a receding tide of civilization across the world today. In Europe, it recedes under the name of Jobbik and UKIP, Law and Justice, the Freedom Party, and the National Front. In the United States, Trump is now its face. Outside the West, it is Putin murdering his opponents, Duterte directing his extrajudicial slaughters, or the countless other strongmen grinding opponents beneath their heels, and extracting wealth to reward themselves and their mafia-like clans, across the global South.
The coming months and years will almost certainly continue to lead us backwards. The resistance, or lack of resistance, of those who do not want to live in a world of fascists and strongmen will determine how far back we go.
I close this post by noting that it should not be controversial to observe that over the last five hundred years, human beings have made halting advances along a number of moral fronts. Compared to any period in the human past, we live today in a remarkably civilized world: the relative decline of violence and violent tribalism, compared to any earlier period in human history; our growing abhorrence of once-accepted cruelties, from torture to slavery to aggressive war to the rape and abuse of women; the steady expansion of our spheres of sympathy even to strangers, even in some small ways to animals; the rise of a politics that recognizes the equal rights of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, faith, and now disability and sexuality. It is because we have come this far that we are more sensitive to the continuing outrages against our ideals, and sometimes this heightened sensitivity blinds us to our very real progress.
Trump and his party of liars and thieves, and their supporters and allies in Russia and elsewhere, stand for opposition to these advances, and above all to further progress. They do not seek a literal return to the dark ages–not all the way. They merely seek to repudiate many of the latest steps toward peace and justice, to make the world a little more barbaric. Trump has promoted ethnic and religious tribalism and violence. He has promoted torture, aggressive war, the sexual abuse of women, and the vestiges of slavery in our racialized system of mass incarceration. He invites his followers to constrain their spheres of sympathy to their ethnically and religiously similar neighbors, and to view all others with suspicion, as potential threats, even enemies. He rejects human rights, international cooperation, and the legal equality of Muslims and Mexican-Americans. He seeks to reduce the United States, the most powerful country in the history of the world, to a weak kleptocracy serving the interests of a self-enriching strongman and his clan of flatterers.
Walter Benjamin memorably described the “angel of history” viewing what we call “progress” as nothing more than a steady, endless accumulation of wreckage. “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.” The image is typical of the Frankfurt School and its contemporary academic descendants. By adopting a stance of infinite disillusionment, the critical theorist protects herself from ever being accused of naivete—the sophisticated academic’s greatest embarrassment—or of having overlooked some atrocity, hypocrisy, or unacknowledged crime.
But, as we now know, there has in fact been a decline in violence at certain periods in human history, such as with the establishment of states, and most remarkably, with the civilizing processes of modernity. To live in Western Europe today is to live with more safety from violence than any human being has enjoyed in the course of human history. The occasional terrorist attack must not distract us from this. It is important to recognize that this progress did, in fact, take place. It is important to acknowledge this progress so that we can protect it.
Benjamin’s image of history leaves out what I have come to see as one of the defining experiences of living in history, as opposed to reading about history. History is not a steady accumulation of anything. It is not a heap, because a heap is uniform and predictable. A heap simply grows. To live in history is to be continually surprised by the nature or extent of what comes next, whether it is a catastrophe, or the failure of a catastrophe to appear. We arrive continually at frameworks for making sense of events, drawing on our experiences and our reading about the past. But every framework is eventually, unpredictably superseded—even the framework of endless destruction.
Who could have predicted, writing in 1940, the peace of postwar Europe? Yet to deny its possibility would have turned out to be as misguided as to deny, in 1910, the possibility of the carnage that was to come.
I include these thoughts in closing because they shed light on what is at stake in the Trump presidency. Democracies that seemed secure have been lost, unexpectedly, while spectators did nothing. On the other hand, phenomena that appeared to be fatal threats to democracy have repeatedly been overcome. Similarly, wars that seemed unthinkable have often erupted, while wars that seemed inevitable have failed to arrive. We have no way of knowing whether the coming months and years will be a time of oppression, terror, and war, or a time of democratic mobilization and renewal, or simply a repulsive farce.
What is certain is that we are entering uncharted waters, and that demagogues in other places and times have often brought their states to ruin. The next post will explore, concretely, what might be done to prevent this from happening here.