IT REALLY CAN HAPPEN HERE
A few days ago I was hanging out with a very educated, intelligent (defined as “laughed at my jokes”) friend of mine. After the usual preliminary discussion about the fun times we’ve had at The Hair Club for Men, the conversation turned to politics.
This was after the story of Trump’s decimating of the postal service broke, and long after we’d heard about him saying he might postpone the election, and seen him firing non-sycophantic US Attorneys, sending unidentified gendarmes into the streets in Oregon and explicitly saying that he might not accept the result of an election he lost. Although, given what politics has become, I’m surprised anyone would accept the results of an election they won.
I cracked open another virgin Bloody Mary to calm my nerves and began my formerly unhinged but soon-to-be prophetic speech about how Trump does not recognize democratic norms or the rule of law, and how he was not leaving after the election no matter what the results are. My friend just stared at me in puzzlement, but this time it wasn’t because I’ve been to 30 Jethro Tull concerts. “He has to leave”, my friend said. “He’ll have no choice”. And this illustrates a huge problem we have to address.
History shows there is no law of God or nature that any democratic nation must remain a democracy forever. Lots of countries were democratic, and then weren’t, often because they voted their own democracy away. You don’t have to go back to the 1930s and Hitler’s democratic election to see this. There are many more recent examples, including Turkey, Venezuela, Poland, Brazil and Hungary. But despite this fine all-you-can-stomach buffet of authoritarianism on the march, it is still hard for us to wrap our heads around the idea that this could happen here. This is America Dammit! We have well-established institutions of democracy that will protect us.
This was the attitude of my friend, who I will call…oh…I don’t know…“Brynjolfur” out of convenience because I’m tired of typing “my friend”. Brynjolfur agreed that Trump saw democracy as a nuisance to be ignored, like tax laws and wedding vows. But if Trump couldn’t be trusted to respect the results of a fair election, the pillars of democracy, or at least the people, could. “Daylin, If he doesn’t leave, the Secret Service will escort him out”.
“Brynjolfur Ugluspegill!!” I almost shouted. (I tend to use his full fictitious name when I am frustrated with him). “The Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department, run by Steve Mnuchin. Who do you think will order the Secret Service to do that?”.
“Well Daylin, if the secret Service won’t do it, then the army will evict him at gunpoint”.
“Trump is Commander-in-Chief of the military, and he has filled it’s top ranks with loyalists. The Army won’t just take it upon themselves to march into the White House with guns drawn. Who will order that?”
“Look, if nothing else, the people will take to the streets and throw the bastard out themselves, or my name isn’t Brynjolfur Ugluspegil” (which it isn’t).
But really?? If Trump orders thousands of troops and scores of tanks to surround the White House, it is very unlikely that any popular uprising is going to be successful. We see what is happening in Hong Kong and Belarus. Authoritarian leaders have little reluctance to use extreme violence on those who threaten their power, which is why I always saw Portland as a dry run.
Of course Trump will couch this all in terms of stopping a “rigged” and “fraudulent” election and actually preserving democracy. But that will be a lie, and I have to check on this to be sure, but probably not his first. Trump cares about democracy the way an otter cares about car insurance, surprisingly little. As Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer said this week, “There’s no way he’s leaving peacefully”.
Imagine I’m right, maybe not about Jethro Tull, but about this. Trump refuses to leave. Let’s who controls the relevant levers of power.
Military…..Donald Trump as CAC and Defense Secretary and Trump lacky Mark Esper
Justice Department….. Bill Barr
Treasury…. …………...Steve Mnuchin
Postal Service ………… Louis DeJoy
US Senate…………..…..Mitch McConnell
Which one of these people do we trust to stand up to Trump, and take action to ensure that Joe Biden is sworn in as President? Who of these men has demonstrated a willingness to put democracy above Trump so far?
At the end of the day laws and constitutions are pieces of paper. And institutions are just people (and, spoiler alert: so is Soylent Green! Now you don’t have to see that awful movie). Look at Germany in 1932. It had an advanced democracy, with high culture and a vibrant middle-class. They had the rule of law and lots of the same institutions we have now. And in a few weeks, it was all gone.
We are living in a time of authoritarian ascendance throughout the world. And we are being governed by a man who routinely “jokes” about staying in power for life and who clearly loves power. I may not have been able to convince Brynjolfur Ugluspegil that we have to begin gaming out and preparing for what is about to come. But I hope I can convince you.