As more than three in four Republicans continue to support our dangerously unfit president, despite the daily accumulation of evidence that his unprecedented mental and emotional unwellness and incompetence threaten the security of our country, I find myself wondering: how much further can our democracy decline before it collapses? How much more steady constitutional rot can we sustain before there is a true constitutional crisis?
The greatest threat to the future of American democracy, I continue to believe, is the risk that there will be an attack on the United States or other mass-casualty catastrophe, such as an epidemic or cyberattack on critical infrastructure, during the Trump presidency. Whether or not Trump bears responsibility for the catastrophe, through his unfathomable incompetence or otherwise, it seems virtually inevitable that he will respond, as he characteristically does, by blaming his usual enemies—the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, and opposition political forces that may now include not only Democrats, women, and scientists, but apparently the FBI and the American intelligence community.
In the wake of a catastrophe, I expect Trump would immediately call for harsh punitive measures against one or more of these blamed enemies, and depending on the nature of the catastrophe, it might be difficult for many Americans to object in a resolute or unqualified way. Everyone will agree that something must be done. Trump will have the power to set the agenda: support or oppose what he does. Many Americans may have reservations about supporting the excessive techniques of a president they revile, but what if the alternative resembles siding with America’s enemies, or putting American lives at risk? Accurate information will be scarce, and much of the relevant information will be in the hands of the administration, which will attempt to leak information favoring its views and conceal information that does not. Many Americans will also, naturally, be afraid and will want to turn to someone, anyone, who projects strength and confidence. Trump will provide this reassurance. He will read from a teleprompter before Congress, and the media will grudgingly praise him for having finally, at long last, matured (at the age of 71 or 72) and become presidential.
The administration’s punitive measures against its enemies will of course defy our democratic norms, although they may resemble actions taken in response to earlier threats, from the jailing of political dissidents during World War I, to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to McCarthyism and the FBI’s targeting of domestic dissent in the civil rights movement, to the various atrocities enabled by the CIA during the Cold War, to the use and defense of torture by the administration of George W. Bush. Trump’s more competent authoritarian allies will encourage him to exploit the disaster in ways that will entrench his power and undermine the power of potential critics and political opponents in lasting ways. As demagogues have done throughout history, including the contemporary murderers that Trump most admires, such as Putin and Duterte, Trump may also start a war of his own (maybe North Korea? or why not “send a message” to the world with a show of American strength in the South China Sea?).
In the wake of a catastrophe, the mainstream media, and not only Fox News, may set aside its reservations about Trump and rally around the mentally diseased child–tyrant out of a misplaced sense of national solidarity. We already saw a glimpse of this possible trajectory when the disgraced political-television commentator Fareed Zakaria quickly announced that Trump “became president of the United States” after launching a few missiles at Syria.
It is above all because of Fox News, and to a lesser extent other conservative media, that Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans remain so high. In response to each new scandal, Fox News develops a novel apology or excuse for what would have been attacked as an impeachable offense under a Democratic administration—or they simply ignore the topic, or distract from it by presenting the opposition’s outrage as the true scandal. If the mainstream media similarly found an excuse to believe in Trump in the wake of a catastrophe—perhaps by assuring themselves that he was surrounded by adults—I fear that Americans might follow the natural impulse to unify against a shared national enemy, and might rally around Trump. So far Trump’s incompetence, instability, and lack of understanding of American government, not to mention his apparent inability to understand other people’s minds, have prevented him from behaving as a truly authoritarian figure would—openly disobeying courts, directing law enforcement to jail enemies, announcing the emergency suspension of laws, and so on. But with public sentiment unified behind him, as Lincoln said, “nothing can fail”: anything might be possible.
All of these concerns are familiar from many other writers in recent days, weeks, and months. What needs to be done is also fairly clear. The more organized the opposition is today, the better chance the people will have of defending our democracy tomorrow in a true crisis.
I have little to add to what has already been written, beyond one thought.
It has been remarkable to see George W. Bush’s image being rehabilitated by comparison to the current president. And it is true that in comparison to a mentally ill, pathologically lying, corruptly self-dealing, serial sexual assaulting demagogue who rose to the presidency in significant part through racist appeals, George W. Bush’s mere ignorance, ideological blind spots, and self-serving, catastrophically harmful delusions of military grandeur seem less awful than they once did. It is fair to say: well, at least Bush could be a decent human being, unlike the current president. At least he meant well, sometimes, and had some experience as a governor.
But this only makes me wonder: will we one day look back with a faint nostalgia on the Trump years? What would a president look like who would make Donald Trump seem as tame by comparison as George W. Bush seems in comparison to Trump?
Perhaps one day, not too long from now, if the democratic rot continues, we will have a new president who will lead us to say, in retrospect: well, at least Trump wasn’t openly white supremacist. He may have had paranoid delusions and a debilitating personality disorder, and he may have praised and favored murderous foreign tyrants, but at least he hadn’t personally murdered anyone. He may have been the pawn of foreign powers, but at least he was the unwitting pawn. He may have talked about the press being the enemy of the people, but at least he didn’t order the arrest of journalists and the mass killing of protesters. He may have lied pathologically, but at least he wanted to be believed. At least he had a sense of humor.
I wonder if Romans living under Caligula felt like we feel today, anxiously awaiting the end of a disastrous rule, unaware that the rot went deeper than any one leader, and that just around the corner lay even greater disaster.
But there are other possibilities. It remains possible that our current democratic rot may contain the soil for a coming democratic renewal. Drawing on Stephen Skowronek’s theory of “political time,” several writers—including Skowronek himself—have plausibly suggested that Trump’s presidency may best be understood as a “disjunctive” one, like the presidency of Jimmy Carter. It may open the way to the foundation of a new political regime based on new political alignments, just as Carter’s presidency marked the collapse of the New Deal regime and the transition toward the Reagan regime, which has continued to orient American politics up to the present day.
If Trump is the Carter of the Reagan era, and what comes next has the rare potential to be transformational and new, then it becomes all the more important not only to oppose Trump but to lay the intellectual and institutional foundations for a progressive successor regime. Stephen Bannon, for example, already has a clear idea for what could follow the Reagan era. Just as Reagan’s framing of politics around the question of big government versus small government favored the economic right—who wants big government?—Bannon would like to see politics oriented around a choice between “nationalism” and “globalism,” which will naturally favor ethnic and religious xenophobes and traditionalists—who prefers allegiance to a faceless global abstraction above faithfulness to country, neighbors, friends? With Russia’s help, the ideas of Bannon and others like him continue to gain in strength and popularity.
It is more urgent than ever for progressives to think through alternatives—to think through the ideas that might help organize a new progressive era. This was one of the questions that originally inspired this blog, and it is a question that continues to have no clear answers. My own tentative thoughts would start with this post, which dealt with an economic idea. But must a new progressive era have economic thought and policy at its center? (I suspect yes.) If so, what book could be to a new progressive era as, for example, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was to the Reagan era? Around what opposition would progressives like to organize a political regime, if not “big government” versus “small government”? If we were to elect our Reagan, what would we want her to say?
Comments are welcome.