(Special to Informed Comment) – In 2016, thanks largely to the antiquated, nonsensical design of its creaky electoral system, the U.S. presidency was awarded to a candidate who lost the election by nearly 3 million votes to his opponent. This elderly man, a functionally illiterate game show host and petty real estate grifter with an unbroken, lifelong trail of stiffed creditors, unpaid workers, disastrous bankruptcies, acrimonious divorces and criminal allegations, oozes at every moment a grotesque, seething and conspiracy-laced resentment against women, minorities, immigrants and what he nearly always calls “the Democrat Party.” He pours this toxic ensemble into a cocktail shaker with empty embarrassing braggadocio, adding in equal portions of a genuinely bottomless ability to lie shamelessly and an all-around lack of even the most rudimentary ability to head the executive branch of the most powerful country in the world. The resulting concoction has been force-fed to us for nearly four years now.
It is the worst drink I’ve ever had.
This unctuous, insecure narcissist slithered into office in January 2017, already wildly unpopular, and began a relentless around-the-clock assault on our senses, our institutions and our decency that has been much more successful than is widely acknowledged. A catalog of President Trump’s misdeeds could fill a supertanker, so it is easier for the sake of brevity to paint them in broad strokes: The elevation of bloodthirsty conspiracy theorists into positions of power, the ceaseless retweeting of fascists and Nazis and certifiable kooks, the defense of mass murderers, the casual extortion schemes he has unfurled to remain in power, the constant bleating about his own persecution and helplessness, the sad transformation of the Republican Party into his personal enablement vessel, the daily violations of ethics laws and informal norms meant to prevent the use of the federal government as a vehicle for the president’s revenge quests, the blithe permission granted to Republican officials to commit crimes, defy subpoenas and hide behind his pardon power, the casual unleashing of a terrible, violent, racist ugliness across the land, the staggering mismanagement of the worst public health crisis in a century, the manic hyper-partisanship in every statement, Tweet and policy decision, the diseased relish with which he cavorts with tyrants and thieves while spurning democratic allies.
The last four years have been an exhausting, non-stop crisis. Political scientist Paul Musgrave wrote recently that it has been “a struggle between firefighters and a spree arsonist,” as the Trump administration has taken delight in using the immense power of the federal government to threaten disfavored groups and marginalized citizens with sudden policy reversals and outrageous indecencies, overwhelming those fighting back with the sheer quantity of provocations. As Musgrave writes, many of these trial balloons go nowhere (like the threat to eliminate birthright citizenship), but others have succeeded. The cumulative effect is akin to the fog of war.
In perhaps the most justifiably famous essay of this era, The Atlantic’s Adaw Serwer argued that the message of this vindictive mayhem is that “Only the president and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim.” The dispiriting trajectory of this period in our history has proven the scholars who doubted that our vaunted institutions would save us from authoritarianism completely right.
As Masha Gessen wrote in the aftermath of the election, “The problem, however, is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.” Trump has validated her fears by proving that the presence of laws on the books is not enough to prevent criminal conduct and illegal maneuvering, because his allies figured out early on that they could tie it all up in the courts almost indefinitely. Once the takeover of the federal judiciary is completed in a second Trump term, even modest legal pushback will evaporate.
Gessen’s good faith has been most conspicuously absent from the only organized group of people with the power to put a stop to any of it. The most disturbing development of the past four years has been the near-total capitulation of the Republican Party to President Trump’s lawlessness. The sight of GOP senators scampering away from reporters asking them about the latest outrage has become a kind of ongoing self-parody. Almost no elected Republican official has been willing to stake his or her career on a real confrontation with the president. The few who chose not to go along retired rather than suffer the humiliation of the president’s invective or endure a primary defeat.
They rolled over when Russia ran an open and illegal disinformation campaign with the eager assistance of Trump and his allies. They rolled over when President Trump refused to divest himself of his financial interests and hired as advisors a coterie of self-dealers who made a mockery of the “drain the swamp” campaign slogan. They rolled over when he tried to sabotage the 2020 election by extorting our Ukrainian allies to fabricate damning information about eventual Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son.
They rolled over when the Attorney General William Barr revealed himself to be a GOP operative who goes on hyper-partisan talk shows to yap about how Democrats have become a “Rousseau-ian Revolutionary Party that believes in tearing down the system.” They rolled over when President Trump installed one of his lackeys to obliterate the Postal Service and unapologetically tried to delegitimize vote-by-mail. Of course, none of this should be surprising – they rolled over in October 2016 when a tape surfaced of Trump bragging about sexual assault, and they haven’t stopped tumbling downhill since.
If nothing else they really must be quite tired.
Even if former Ohio Governor John Kasich standing at a literal crossroads during his brief video for the Democratic National Convention was hokey, he’s not wrong. The ever-gentle Biden campaign won’t come out and say this directly, but the 2020 election will likely decide whether American democracy can recover from its current shambolic state, or whether as a society we decide that this slide into autocracy that is undeniably unfolding before our eyes is just fine. The political assassins of the Lincoln Project, briefly on our side for this campaign, have snappily termed it “America or Trump.”
But this is not quite right. The thing that most Americans don’t understand about authoritarianism is that for most people, life goes on. They struggle and go to work and school and get married and have kids and rent apartments and shop at fully stocked grocery stores and host dinner parties and go to the gym. In all but the most ruthless, violent dictatorships, or states in the midst of full-on collapse, everyday life has a veneer of normalcy that it takes some effort to pierce. There is talk of politics everywhere, and the rulers are frequently the subject of disdain, ribaldry and mockery.
You have to spend significant time in these kinds of countries to get a sense of what is lost or missing, as it is experienced in daily life by the people who actually live there. In the soft authoritarian or hybrid regimes that the United States increasingly resembles, elections are hotly contested and deeply fraught but ultimately unfair with more or less preordained outcomes. Opposition parties and groups hold some leverage, and leaders cannot necessarily act with total impunity at all times, but the regime’s power is a fortress surmounted only with sustained, creative and extremely dangerous organizing. Its authority is passed along to designated successors while regime insiders identify critical points where power can be temporarily relaxed or reinforced.
The systems of patronage and elite privilege in authoritarian countries are not all that different from the way that wealthy Americans have gamed just about every institution in the country, from college admissions to unpaid internships and plum clerkships, to their advantage. As in the United States, substantial numbers of citizens conclude that the political system can do nothing for them, and they simply stop caring. This also is to the dictator’s benefit.
All of which is to say that the world will not suddenly wink out like some exhausted celestial body if Donald Trump is re-elected president of the United States on November 3rd. We will wake up the next day and trudge to work like we did in 2016, even if that slog is just to a different room in the house. Right wing militias will not kidnap you in the middle of the night and disappear you into some black site, nor will Trump have yet fully conquered the judiciary, which might maintain appellate circuit redoubts of opposition throughout his second term. The long-term arc will be more like aging, where you gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, lose your capabilities, your parents, your friends and your siblings. It does not happen all at once. But make no mistake – the various offensives that Trump and his allies have mounted, some successful and some not, on America’s democratic institutions will be given fresh life. And once the two elderly liberals on the Supreme Court step down or die, as they almost certainly will before 2024, there will be almost nothing to stand in the way of further backsliding.
The difference between the United States and Russia or Egypt today therefore is one of degree, not kind. The chief and most important distinction, for now, is that it is still possible, despite all of the absurd obstacles including the Electoral College, rampant voter suppression, the attempted knifing of the USPS and whatever the Russians have in store for us, for Democrats to win the presidency and take full control of Congress in 2020. The U.S. military, for now, wants no part of any scheme to annihilate popular democracy so that the GOP’s doddering president can continue ruling on behalf of a rapidly vanishing white majority. The election theft scenarios drawing thousands of likes on Twitter, such as the idea that GOP state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin can anoint Republican electors on some flimsy pretext even if Trump loses the state, are far-fetched. This is not to say that the playing field is even, or that nefarious efforts are not underway to tilt the election to Republicans, but rather that Trump has no clear way around a decisive defeat other than a break with the constitutional order that would likely fail spectacularly.
Yet it is not encouraging that this break feels much less fanciful than it might have four years ago. Then as now, Trump mused about not accepting the results of the election if he didn’t like them. What has changed is that in the interim, he has convinced some 40% of the country that he could not possibly lose, that an electoral defeat cannot be the product of his political incompetence and loathsome character but rather must be an electoral fraud conspiracy launched by the “deep state,” abetted by “suppression polls” and the “fake news media.”
In a very real sense, Trump’s ignominious reign has ensured that unprecedented numbers of Americans will never believe that the results of the 2020 election are real. Over 50% of Republicans in a recent survey agreed with the statement that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Fewer than 10% disagreed with the idea that “It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.” Rank-and-file Republicans now talk about – and sometimes assault – members of the media in ways that would sound perfectly plausible coming out of Kim Jong Un’s press shop, and have been whipped up into a fervor that may not be controllable should Biden win. While not everyone in Trump’s base is necessarily one election loss away from taking up arms, the seed of future armed conflict has been planted. It seems like the kind of plant that can flourish even in the shade.
A Trump victory would return the utterly shameless group of people who produced this wreckage to power. And the slide from there could be irreversible. You can read How Democracies Die cover to cover without encountering a country that recovered from a descent as far into authoritarianism as the United States will plummet in a second Trump term without suffering a prolonged period of tyranny and violence. In a very real sense, winning this election will not save American democracy, but rather grant us an extended opportunity to do so. While a Biden landslide would likely be impossible for Trump and his minions to overturn, a narrower win or a 2000-style contested outcome might require further heroic efforts from those who have spent the past four years fighting incipient tyranny.
Even if Biden is sworn in on January 21st, confronting the forces of chaos and white nationalism that Trump has cultivated and loosed on us will be a perpetually urgent task. And should we fail yet another test and send President Trump forward for another 4-year-term, it is more likely than not that ordinary Americans will eventually have to graduate from calling their representatives, donating money and showing up for the occasional protest to actions typically seen overseas – general strikes and massive occupations of urban centers, or if there is another Electoral College misfire, to arrive at a real conversation about dividing this broken country.
If, on the other hand, you’d rather just win decisively and then fight from a position of power rather than abject weakness, you have less than eight weeks left to help make it happen.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: