After a lengthy discussion, a conservative friend of mine finally granted me a single point about the state of our country today: that, if nothing else, the fear of a Trump presidency expressed by the left, while unwarranted, is genuine. He reminded me, however, that I could find solace in the U.S. Constitution, the greatest political document in human history.
I was less than reassured.
This casual dismissal of my concerns, and those of my progressive brothers and sisters on the left, smacks of wish thinking; the Constitution isn’t a magical document, impervious to devils and tyrants, if only we believe strongly enough. For indeed, while there are times when the Constitution protects me, there are also times when I must protect the Constitution.
Unconcerned by the precedent, the Senate has, for half a year now, expressed a flagrant disdain for both the Constitution of the United States, and for the American voter. They’ve ignored a key provision for the checks and balances this country so depends on by denying President Barack Obama his constitutional right (and his obligation) to appoint a Supreme Court Justice.(1)http://dailysignal.com/2016/06/10/gop-senators-renew-pledge-to-block-obama-supreme-court-nominee/ This cynical ploy is purely political, and employs an Orwellian tactic made far too common by the Bush Administration: make the unimaginable and inexcusable both common and plain, simply by framing it as its exact opposite. Today the Senate claims to want to empower the American people, give them a voice, by ignoring the results of the 2012 election (which, not for nothing, reaffirmed the results of the 2008). The Constitution is not ambiguous in this, nor was the gall of the Senate when they took their contempt a step further by saying that they’d ignore the will of the people in the next election, too, if the people chose Hillary.(2)http://www.npr.org/2016/10/17/498328520/sen-mccain-says-republicans-will-block-all-court-nominations-if-clinton-wins
They’ve done this, and many other galling acts of obstructionism in the name of satisfying a single constituency: The Tea Party. They do not care for the Constitution, the spirit of compromise on which it was built, or the oaths they took to protect and defend it, but rather for their own job security, over which the Tea Party has demonstrated remarkable influence.(3)http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/us/politics/gop-senators-fail-to-head-off-tea-party-rivals.html
This capitulation of our highest legislative body, intermixed with the smug condescension of liberals on the left, and a stubborn denial of facts on the right (reinforced by the most powerful media echo chamber in human history, happy to invent its own facts, both for profit and the furthering of its owners’ private political agenda) have combined to give us an unprecedented threat to the integrity of our constitution, and to the Republic itself.
By “The end of the American Republic,” I do not mean a repeal of the Constitution, nor, necessarily, of any of its amendments. Rather I mean the successful acquisition of power, by an individual or group, sufficient to be able to silence or disenfranchise nearly all political opposition, and to make clear, deliberate, and institutionalized violations of the constitution, and the rights therein, free of the checks and balances explicitly meant to block such violations. Indeed many countries, including the former Soviet Union, had grand and expansive constitutional rights. But it’s not just the quality of its founding documents which defines a country, but the enforcement (or lack thereof) of the rights they provide.
Donald J Trump is an incredibly talented man. Among his remarkable abilities is a complete mastery of the use of the carrot and stick; he can be both gracious and magnanimous, while also being a bloviating, intimidating bully. We’ve seen him use it throughout the election season, with opponents like Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Newt Gingrich. Trump doesn’t want power, not even money (he burns through it like it’s water). What he wants–what he needs–is fame, idolization, and complete and unwavering loyalty. He lavishes praise and rewards on those who cede their worldview to his, while he brutally and unrelentingly attacks those who would question it.
If these traits sound familiar, they should; they are common to all despots and demagogues, like Kim Jong-Un, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin, just some of the dictators whose methods Trump has professed admiration for.(4)http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/06/politics/donald-trump-favorite-dictators-and-strongmen/ They have terribly thin skin, are incapable of admitting error, and protect their ego by over-reacting to even the slightest perceived insult or threat to their image.
But the similarities don’t stop there. Adolf Hitler was able to come to power as a result of a number of factors. First, while he made his intention to eradicate the Jews clear in Mein Kampf, everybody assumed he couldn’t possibly be serious, that it was campaign rhetoric. Second, if he was crazy enough to try anything, the government and the people would never allow it. Further, it was assumed that the Jews– lawyers and bankers, members of the elite–could take care of themselves. Lastly, Hitler was thought not to be bright enough to pull it off.
But while I’ve been told that Mr. Trump boasts and bloviates simply to get his big crowds, I have always taken him at his word. I don’t see an alternative. When he says he will torture people, kill the families of terrorists, use religious tests to block entry into the country, and carpet bomb foreign countries, and lays veiled suggestions of Muslim internment camps, I assume he’s telling me the truth (I am, in fact, surprised by the people who take comfort in the notion he’s lying; if he is, then he hasn’t told a single truth in the last year and a half). And I don’t find him particularly bright or clever either, but he’s a talented bully, and has extraordinary instincts when it comes to the application of leverage over people.
This leaves a single question: Are the constitution, the people of the United States and their elected officials, strong enough to repel fascism?
Upon ascending to the presidency, Donald J. Trump will do what every president does, what he’s been doing since he won—project his power into Congress. With the help of the tea-party and a devout constituency, his position is simple—refuse to endorse me at your peril. Endorse—pledge your loyalty—and all is quickly and magnanimously forgiven (his proposal of term limits is along these lines. He likely has no real intent of following through on it, but he’s a negotiator, and the threat of it gives him a superior hand to bargain with members of congress). When Omarosa Manigault went on national television and proclaimed that every critic of Trump would bow down before him, he did exactly what you’d expect a fascist despot to do–he hired her and made her his director of African American Outreach.
He’s leveraged brutalizing attacks and gracious magnanimity in concert to decimate the Republican establishment and prove himself superior to every one of their leaders, from Mitt Romney, to the once beloved Paul Ryan. Ryan, facing obliteration before the Trump machine, changed tack to support Trump, and has now cleared re-election to speaker of the house, the second most powerful office in the Union. Former enemies of Trump, people like Ted Cruz, who openly and publicly defied him during the convention (and with good reason), find offers of presidential appointments waiting for them when they come around. Indeed Trump seems to care little for a candidate’s qualifications for any one job, but rather whether or not the person’s will to resist him has been broken.
This power he is projecting into our Congress is the same demagoguery that served him so well in his campaign. The notion that now, having ascended to the highest office in the Union, he will self moderate, or that Congress will be able to stop him, seems laughably naive. There is absolutely no evidence to support that. What I do see is a mass of broken careers, all of people who underestimated trump, stretching from Trump Tower in New York to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC.
Indeed, having shrewdly filled his administration with congressional insiders and tea-party favorites, Mr. Trump has accomplished what was thought to be impossible—the successful appeasement of both the establishment, and the tea-party, wings of the Republican party.
The consequence of this is stark but clear: whatever power or will Congress had to check the incoming president is already largely blunted, and appears to be waning almost by the hour. Congress is under Republican control, cowering before the Tea Party, which Trump openly courts as his primary constituency (to which the appointment of Steve Bannon as a senior advisory attests).
This represents a serious compromise in the checks and balances between the White House and Congress, one being deliberately built upon.
That is the most banal of our problems.
The Supreme Court is split 50/50, and down one justice. In all likelihood Trump will get a nomination right out of the gate, and we can expect a nomination keeping with the principals of loyalty above all else, and pleasing the Tea Party (one of his proposed picks, William Pryor, filed a 2003 legal brief on criminalizing homosexual activities, even in private amongst consenting adults.(5)http://www.snopes.com/2016/11/17/pryor-lgbt-laws/). Republican’s control of the senate–nay, Trump’s control of the senate–is strong enough to end-run around any Democratic filibuster. He will take the power he has leveraged in congress, and leverage it to the Supreme Court, where it’s estimated he could fill as many as four vacancies. This is a stacking of the court for which there is no historical precedent.
This will place a demagogue at the head of the executive branch, with little but a severely compromised congress and court in his way. I want to be clear: this will give a single human being more power and representation, across all three branches of government, than there has ever been, more than the founding fathers had ever intended, and in direct violation of the founding principal of The United States.
Who, then, would be in a position to protect the American people from the rise of a fascist demagogue?
Running down our remaining constitutional protections and institutions, the outlook is rather bleak.
I’ll start with The Fifth Estate, which is protected by the first amendment. It’s our first amendment, even over the right to bear arms, because it is assumed that where there is a free press, a dictator can not possibly come to power. This may or may not be true, but is entirely irrelevant. Mr. Trump has made clear his utter disdain for media outlets and news organizations. He has reviled them, cut them off from his campaign when he doesn’t like their coverage(6)https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/trump-revokes-post-press-credentials-calling-the-paper-dishonest-and-phony/2016/06/13/f9a61a72-31aa-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html, ignored the principals of a protection pool(7)http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/donald-trump-press-protective-pool-reporters-journalism-1.3854296, and promised a direct assault on free speech and freedom of the press (8)http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/donald-trump-libel-laws-219866.
All of these, without exception, reflect the top priorities of fascist and dictatorial regimes worldwide, and throughout history.
Fox News unwittingly lay the foundation for Trump’s dominance over the media by setting a dangerous precedent of making facts irrelevant(9)http://www.mintpressnews.com/pants-on-fire-analysis-shows-60-of-fox-news-facts-are-really-lies/205563/, turning ignorance into a virtue(10)http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2011/11/21/fox-news-viewers-uninformed-npr-listeners-not-poll-suggests/#362cbecf6189, and spinning wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.(11)http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/11/29/unbalanced-fox-news-conspiracy-theory-obsession/173820 Fox’s normalization of this kind of demagoguery has given Trump, who fifteen years ago would have been immediately recognized for the fraud he is, room to maneuver, and expand further to the right of Fox’s biases, making Fox News truly seem “fair and balanced”, and turning Breitbart, an irrefutably Anti-Semitic, white supremacist news outlet, into the new right.
But Trump’s promise to attack the principles of free speech are what are most troubling, promising to “open up the libel laws” so that he can sue anybody who prints anything malicious or unfair. The problem is that that’s already in the libel laws. It’s already illegal to print things maliciously which you know are untrue. What he means is that he wants to sue anyone who prints anything that he thinks is unfair, or untrue. Judging from past experience, this is simply anything which is critical of him, disagrees with him, or suggests he made an error, in even the slightest way.
This is the cornerstone of authoritarianism—to suppress freedom of expression, and to redefine anything critical of the leadership as bad press, a priori.
You may find yourself repeating the mantra we have all thought, the mantra of every good society facing fascism. He won’t get that far. At what point do we get to stop saying that? At what point are we obligated to stop saying that? If he goes after the New York times with the full weight of the office of the president, with a stacked Supreme Court, who exactly do you think is going to stop him?
Not only is free press under unprecedented assault in this country, but a large percentage of his constituency thinks it should be. They blame “the lame stream media” (which, by some feat of cognitive dissonance now seems to include Fox News) for empowering the elite which has so disenfranchised them. The barriers to a successful campaign against the institutions of journalism are already half down, and weakening.
The rule of law is an institution I had also looked to for some hope. The Trump University issue is actually quite serious, the training manuals alone irrefutable proof of deliberate fraud on a scale that had caught even me by surprise, with barely any effort to apply even a cosmetic appearance of legitimacy. He’s been insulating himself against impeachment by the house. But he can’t block a criminal fraud case, or a case of sexual assault, each of which are conceivable and could land even a president in jail. It wouldn’t surprise me if he chose to continue to serve under those circumstances, but he’d rapidly lose his stranglehold on the government.
The problem, of course, is that he could simply pardon himself.
Don’t balk. I remind you, again, that his audacity has been underestimated at absolutely every turn. He would paint the criminal charges as “unfair”, and “rigged”. As he attempted to subvert one judge in the case by questioning his heritage, he would subvert the judge, jury, and prosecution. He was already gearing up for a genuine challenge to the legitimacy of the election – one with violent overtones at that. If he could convince his constitutes that the elites are taking the election from him, how hard would it be to convince them that these same people, sore losers and rioters, have doctored charges against. There’s no suggestion in the constitution that the president can’t pardon himself, and if he did, our only recourse would once again be… The Supreme Court.
This leads me to the final institution on which we rely to maintain our freedom—voting.
I’m not black, so there’s at least the possible that I’ll be able to vote against Trump four years from now. But if I can, it will be despite a deliberate, widespread, and systematic assault against the fundamental right of all Americans to vote.
There are several ways in which this right is under attack, but I’ll address the top two: Voter Suppression and Gerrymandering.
Voter Suppression: This is when members of the local, state, or federal government deliberately make it harder for the opposing party to vote, thereby increasing their own chances to win. It’s both illegal and rampant.
The most common way in which this is done is with Voter ID laws which require people to show a government issued ID to vote. These laws are ostensibly to block voter fraud, but while there are many kinds of possible voter fraud, Voter ID can block only one kind—in-person voter impersonation (where a voter comes in claiming to be someone they’re not).
This kind of fraud is extremely rare, for several reasons. First, it’s easy to catch (especially if the other person has already voted). Second, the payoff isn’t particularly high (you get a second vote, congratulations). Third, the risk is quite high, as much as a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. For these reasons, people rarely do it.
The most pessimistic study of voter fraud suggested 241 fraudulent ballots. But after checking for clerical errors and other explanations, that number fell to about 31. We do know for a fact that 241 is way too high, but we’ll take take it. So 241 fraudulent ballots out of how many total?
Out of every billion votes cast.
This means that, absolute worst case, nightmare scenario, in-person voter fraud affects roughly 0.00415% of the vote (what’s more, for every one case of in-person voter fraud, there are 207 cases of voter fraud of another kind). In fact, from 2000 to 2012 there were only 10 cases of proven, in-person voter fraud, nationally.
On the other hand, 20 million eligible voters do not have any form of government issue ID. This is most often the poor, people without a car or passport, and the elderly. This represents roughly 11% of the population of the United States. If we assume that, in keeping with national averages, only half of them would even bother to vote, that’s still 5% of the population, or 10 million people, who would be unable to vote if Voter ID laws become a reality–easily enough to sway the outcome of an election. Voter ID proponents would eliminate 5% legitimate votes to guard against 0.004% illegitimate ones. Put another way, 208,333 legitimate votes are blocked for every 1 fraudulent vote.
Governor Scot Walker of Wisconsin’s reply to these figures? “It doesn’t matter… who would want to be the person whose vote is canceled out by a vote that was illegally cast?”
In the 2000 Election, Al Gore lost the state of Florida by only 537 votes.
So how hard is it to get an ID?
That depends. For the poor who live paycheck to paycheck, who don’t have a car, taking a day off to get an ID can be a heavy burden(12) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/getting-a-photo-id-so-you-can-vote-is-easy-unless-youre-poor-black-latino-or-elderly/2016/05/23/8d5474ec-20f0-11e6-8690-f14ca9de2972_story.html. Further, ID locations themselves are subject to voter suppression attacks, and are often underfunded with irregular hours (the most infamous of these is the Sauk City DMV office in Wisconsin, which is only open on the fifth Wednesday of every month). The requirements can be inconsistent and/or unclear, requiring multiple visits, and create another problem: to get an ID, you need to prove who you are, and so you need an ID. Again, if you’re poor, paying up to $300 for a copy of your birth-certificate (and taking another day off to get it) is a burden.
That this burden is proven both to disproportionately affect Democratic voters, and to significantly reduce voter turnout is, I’m told, just a coincidence. So too, is the fact that 34 out of 35 states considering or passing Voter ID laws over the last 4 years are controlled by republican governors and/or legislators.
The State of North Carolina even commissioned a report on the voting habits of black voters, then used findings to create laws to specifically to, in the words of one federal judge, “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”(13)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/court-north-carolina-voter-id-law-targeted-black-voters/ by closing polls early in African American communities, blocking early voting on Sundays (when black churches bus parishioners to the polls), cutting the number of polling stations, and eliminated same day registration.
In fact, with enough time spent in front of the camera, more than once a republican official has accidentally let slip that Voter ID is helpful, if not critical, to republican efforts to win elections.(14)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtmhX0ZIDcY
Between that, and republican efforts to purge voter rolls and block convicted felons from voting (efforts which successfully blocked 1.3 million votes in the state of Florida which, I’m told, occasionally has an impact on national elections), conservatives have made incredible advances in denying Americans the right to vote.
Gerrymandering: This is the redrawing of districts so as to allow lawmakers to choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their lawmakers. The goal is to clump as many like-minded voters into a single district, thereby diluting their power in the rest of the state. While gerrymandering exists on both sides, Karl Rove made it official policy and a national priority with project REDMAP,(15)http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2016/07/19/gerrymandering-republicans-redmap, a nationwide effort to install “a permanent republican majority” in spite of the will of the voters.(16)http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all The goal is to allow republicans to significantly increase their control of state legislators and lock democrats out of representation in the government. This effect builds, allowing them to make laws that compound voter suppression and further cement their control of their state, and to push that control upwards into the federal government. This tactic has allowed Republicans to block Barack Obama’s legislative agenda despite being a minority.(17)https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-that-gerrymandering-has-brought-to-republicans/2016/06/17/045264ae-2903-11e6-ae4a-3cdd5fe74204_story.html?utm_term=.a8e49e2bdc2c
I’ll save the moralizing for another time but to say this: There can be no argument that gerrymandering is not only a gross violation of democratic values, but the values and intent of the founding fathers and the Constitution of the United States.
Implementing national Voter ID is one of the principal agendas of the 2016 Republican Party Platform.
Donald Trump was responsible for none of this, but as a Republican, he has benefited. Given that the most recent supreme court enabled a huge surge in voter suppression by gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act just three years ago, and that Donald Trump will soon be able to stack the court as he sees fit, it is fair to say that institutionalized voter suppression and gerrymandering will only get worse, further solidifying Karl Rove’s promise and dream of single party rule in this country.
By looking at the severe damage done to the essential institutions of democracy in this country, I would estimate that Donald Trump, both through his own actions and by means of anti-democratic Republican infrastructure, is already between 30% and 40% of the way towards a successful overthrow of the American republic.
What does he need to do to complete the job?
A terrorist attack of any kind will help. Baring that, he’ll begin direct assaults on the national media. He’ll probably start with The New York Times, tie them up in lawsuits and intimidate any media organization which would speak poorly of him. He’ll severely limit the press pool, expelling and punishing any organization which prints unflattering articles(18)https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/trump-revokes-post-press-credentials-calling-the-paper-dishonest-and-phony/2016/06/13/f9a61a72-31aa-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html, and likely try to reduce or remove the protective pool (a process he has already begun by putting them on a separate plane)(19)https://www.yahoo.com/news/why-reporters-worry-about-trump-ditching-his-press-pool-173416077.html. He’ll begin trying to divide these organizations by going after individuals too, suing reporters, editors, and CEO’s of media outlets, and rewarding “honest” reporters for stories, substantiated or not (look up birtherisim) which undermine the credibility of these organizations.
The KKK does not support Trump for his policies on Muslims. They support him because they believe he isn’t going to stop there. With the ascension of Steve Bannon to the most powerful administrative position in the White House, and given the direction of Breitbart news under Bannon’s direction (with articles like “Why Equality and Diversity Departments should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men” and “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew“), it’s not hard to see why they’re optimistic.
He will continue to appoint racist, homophobic, and white nationalists to official posts, courting the alt-right and making a huge push to normalize its behavior. He’ll do this, not necessarily because he supports their cause, but because they’ll happily pay the price for getting a national voice for the first time in their history: unwavering loyalty with a dull, ever-present threat of violence seething below the surface. He’ll use their enthusiasm, as well as masterful policy feints (like the wall and term limits, which are likely only on the table so he can graciously take them off) to ensure that congressmen who oppose him find themselves facing credible tea party challenges in their primaries.
Internationally he will become more isolationist. He will improve relations with Russia, and hail such improvements as evidence of his superior leadership. We will (as promised) become far less concerned with the morality of a country (such as their respect for human life and international law) and more concerned with what that country can do for us, alienating us from first world democracies and aligning us with despots willing to pay any homage for legitimacy.
His protectionist policies will create trade wars with most of our trading partners, starting with Mexico. This will be framed as proof that they are treating us unfairly, and used as an excuse to begin targeting Americans of Hispanic (and eventually African American) decent, as well as to mobilize this country around him, around a shared view that the rest of the world is taking advantage of us. Hate crimes will go up, but organizations that report retaliatory crimes against white supremacists will be considered the only “fair” organizations, and coupled with the assault on media, it will be painted as vicious minorities attacking innocent white Americans. At this point he will be able to start bringing in the national guard to “protect” key pillars of our democracy, starting first with news organizations and polling places (indeed, he’s promised to boost military spending by 50%, but that will be the end of him if he can’t find a use for them). Liberals who oppose this will be branded as unpatriotic, and soon also be subject to scrutiny and intimidation (note the placement of people who already use this tactic, like Sarah Palin, in his administration). Indeed, a keyword in his administration will be “patriotism”, and it will be used like a knife to cut any who disagree with him.
Lastly, he’ll begin taking advantage of the tools available to him to engage in much more organized and national level voter suppression. He hasn’t mentioned Voter ID yet (likely isn’t even aware of it as a political tool, yet), but he will within the next year. Expect tremendous, full throated support from white supremacists, including those already installed in his administration, as they know full well the consequences of these laws. Further, he’ll begin suppressing the vote of Muslims, using intimidation and restrictive laws to suppress turnout. Expect “Security Checks” to “ensure” safety at the polls, checking anyone with robes or a headscarf.
None of this is original. What I’ve detailed here is an outline drawn from the playbook of every fascist leader, every dictator, in history. He has their traits, their ambitions, and has gotten as far as he has the same way they all have. Very little about him or his rise is original, as has been pointed out by those who lived through the rise of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin.
None of this is to say it is decided. Luck always plays a factor in world events, far more than we realize (had the wind across New York’s East River changed direction on the night of August 29th, 1776, George Washington and his army might have been wiped out, instead of escaping without losing a man, and we might well have lost the Revolutionary war). Thus far Trump has successfully made his own luck. But he’s got obstacles, including his own inexperience, and institutionalized resistance to his administration. Further, emboldened by their success, his own staff has proven somewhat difficult to wrangle; power like his breeds infighting and paralysis in large organizations, and the scope of this is beyond what Trump was prepared for. Given his short attention span and overwhelming boredom with the details of protracted projects, he may get bored and bail (I’m not saying it’s likely, but…).
And, frankly, fully opposed by every institutional body this country can bring to bear, he may well succeed anyway. In any case it seems to me that the United States has, as a country, failed catastrophically to recognize and deal with Donald Trump, and has at every possible turn underestimated him and the threat of a Trump presidency to our most basic institutions.
I do not know what the future holds. But I believe I have outlined here today a plausible path for the subversion of the principles of our democracy, into a fascist, totalitarian, single party rule, and the end of the American Republic in the span of an 8 year Trump presidency, and that such a process has in fact already begun.
N. Lamar Soutter
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