Show of hands: in light of the events of the past week, who here thinks Trump intends to graciously hand over power should he lose on November 3rd?
It seems almost petty to talk about electoral politics right now while we are grappling with the brutal, state-sponsored murder of George Floyd and the shameful legacy of racism that it represents (and oh yeah, also a historic pandemic and an economic depression). Unfortunately, all three of those nightmares are connected to an impending one.
Because as bad as things are, they could get a whole lot worse come fall.
RETURN OF THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
A few weeks ago, Franklin Foer published a piece in The Atlantic that was so scary it made The Shining look like Goodnight Moon. It was titled “Putin Is Well on His Way to Stealing the Next Election,” an excellent demonstration of the bottom-line-upfront school of headline writing.
Its premise, in case you still aren’t tracking, is that the Kremlin surprised even itself by how successfully it ratfucked the 2016 US presidential election, and therefore is engaged in an even more ambitious effort to do the same again, especially since the ruling Republican Party has actively refused to do jackshit to stop them. The reason the GOP is not doing anything, equally obviously, is because it is benefiting from that interference.
This is not exactly news; it’s been painfully apparent—to the US Intelligence Community anyway—since the fall of ’16, before the last presidential election. Since then it has been made public in the loudest possible way. You may remember that for two years it was the centerpiece of a criminal and counterintelligence investigation surrounding the President of the United States, who for all practical purposes is a quisling, notwithstanding the efforts of his party to deny and obscure that fact. (Efforts that, in their hysteria and desperation, only further prove it).
It ought to be an ongoing national scandal. But to our great discredit, it ain’t.
And all that was before George Floyd’s murder plunged the United States into incipient revolution and Donald Trump went full bull goose Mussolini manqué.
I have never faulted the Russians for screwing with our elections; it’s not exactly admirable, but that is the game of nations. But I damn sure fault Americans for helping them in order to help themselves.
Now, with Trump in the position of a cornered rat, with his support crumbling and America on figurative fire on three major fronts and literal fire on one of them, he will surely clutch ever tighter to Moscow’s helping hand. In fact, I’m confident he will seek to use this crisis not only to cling to power, but to extend it. Recall that during the impeachment—an earlier episode where he was fighting for his political life—Trump and his surrogates like Alan Dershowitz had the gall not only to argue for his innocence, but to actually try to grasp even more monarchical power.
Many keen observers are raising this alarm. To cite just one, I refer you to Brian Klaas’s piece in the Washington Post, “We Need to Prepare for the Possibility of Trump Rejecting Election Results”:
I’ve studied genuinely rigged elections across the globe. The tactics, context and strategies vary enormously from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. But one trait they have in common is this: The winner doesn’t claim they were rigged.
Not so with Trump. In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question:
If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?
For nearly four years now, Trump and the GOP have been turning up the boil on us frogs in this authoritarian soufflé. Attacks on the press, undermining the rule of law; rejection of the authority of Congress; demonization of the opposition party as traitors; weaponization of a state-sponsored propaganda machine; extortion of foreign states for personal political gain; transformation of the treasury into a personal ATM; installation of wildly unqualified family members at the highest levels of government; the obliteration even of truth itself….
There’s no need to recap the whole roadmap of rest stops on the road to fascism.
But we now appear to be at an especially terrifying turning point.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing public outcry, the Washington Post reported that, “Former intelligence officials said the unrest and the administration’s militaristic response are among many measures of decay they would flag if writing assessments about the United States for another country’s intelligence service.”
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday, Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst and expert on how regimes slide into autocracy, discussed that very issue with the authors Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic (Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of the Authoritarian State) and Masha Gessen of The New Yorker (Surviving Autocracy).
Ms. Applebaum talked about Trump’s efforts to take nonpartisan governmental institutions like the DOJ, the courts, the FBI, CIA, and the military and try to make them into entities that owe personal loyalty to him alone, not the state. That is what kings do, and dictators, and tyrants. (That’s cool, right Prof. Dershowitz?)
She then turned to the Republican Congressmen and other GOP leaders who have consistently failed to offer a peep of objection to that, and indeed applauded it:
(Sometimes they have used) a kind of Vichy-ite argument, which is that the other side is worse. In other words, we have to collaborate with Donald Trump no matter what he does, because the left is so dangerous and so negative and so damaging to American life. This is the kind of argument that has been used in occupied countries in the past. This is how the Nazi collaborators in France justified what they did.
I would quibble only in arguing that most Republicans don’t find Trump all that offensive in the first place, at least not to a degree that requires them to make any kind of Faustian bargain. (I’m not sure which is worse.) It’s like the oft-heard question, “Why don’t Republicans stand up to Trump?”
But the whole premise is wrong. Why should they stand up to him? They actively like him, and his policies, and his style.
Ms. Helt compared Trump’s stunt at St. John’s Episcopal Church to Kim Jong Un riding a white horse up North Korea’s Mount Paektu, which she said “really really unnerved me.”
That comes at the end of three years of him eroding our trust in our democratic institutions, and eroding the institutions themselves. We don’t believe our press anymore. We don’t believe in our intelligence community anymore. We don’t respect our civil servants anymore. Donald Trump doesn’t respect the Constitution anymore. I mean, honestly, I’m terrified.
Just to reiterate: a CIA expert on autocracy is terrified.
Masha Gessen, who knows from brutal authoritarianism, also used the “t” word:
Donald Trump is showing us what he thinks power looks like and sounds like. He thinks that power looks like unidentified troops on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or guarding the White House…..The fact that these troops are refusing to identify themselves, that they’re unmarked, is absolutely terrifying to me.
He thinks that power looks like helicopters and tear gas being used to clear protesters. He thinks it sounds like the word “dominate,” which he used over and over again.
She then talked about this “performance of fascism“ as a prelude to the real thing:
A power grab always begins as a performance. A claim is made, and then the aspiring autocrat sees whether the claim is accepted, whether the performance is believed.
We have seen strong voices from the military object to this claim to unitary power and to the right to use military force in the United States. But we have not seen an appropriate reaction from Congress. We have not seen an insurrection within the White House, which is what we should be seeing. We should be seeing this power plan being rejected.
VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL
We’ve seen the exact dynamic Masha describes in the Mueller probe and the impeachment, and many other aspects of this presidency. Trump asserted that the president can order his staff not to obey a subpoena from a special counsel, or even from Congress—a Republican president anyway—and no one with any real power pushed back, and now it’s the new normal. Same with hiding his taxes. Same with ripping migrant children from their parents and caging them.
As Masha notes, there is some cause for optimism in the pushback that Trump received for his astonishingly vile stunt at St. John’s, which of course was part of a broader swath of violent suppression of peaceful dissent all across the country, and cheerleading for even worse. (Go to hell, Tom Cotton.)
I am still baffled by what Trump thought he was doing, which speaks to the entire irrationality of the man. Brutally suppressing peaceful protestors so you can stand like an idiot holding a Bible upside down for the camera? (Not open it, not read it, not offer prayers for the suffering at this terrible time. Just grimace and wave it.)
Maybe his theocratic base thrills to that sort of spectacle, since their gullible belief that this walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins is an icon of piety already renders their judgment suspect. (Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said admiringly that it was “hard to imagine [any other president] having the guts to walk out of the White House like this.” Yeah—in a cloud of tear gas and a hail of rubber bullets. AYFKM?)
But for everyone else in America, it may prove to be the single most emblematic display of all that is wrong and wrongheaded about Trump, including the fact that he himself couldn’t understand what the problem was.
Even Pat Robertson criticized him. To repurpose LBJ speaking about Walter Cronkite, if you’ve lost Pat Robertson, you’ve lost the whole theocratic, Kool Aid drunk, batshit evangelical community. (Fingers crossed.)
If the St. John’s fiasco does prove to be a real turning point that marks the beginning of the end for Trump, I promise to disavow the atheism of my adulthood and return to the religiosity of my youth in recognition that it was a Bible that saved us.
NIGHT OF THE GENERALS
Even more than the clerical and popular outrage, I was heartened to see a number of retired four-star flag officers (Mullen, Dempsey, Thomas, Allen) speak up in righteous opposition to the appalling, immoral, and fundamentally un-American idea of using the US military against the American people. (I can’t believe we live in a world where that sentence even has to exist.)
In Foreign Affairs, retired Marine General John Allen was one of those firing a figurative warning shot, taking off from the episode at St. John’s. “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020,” he wrote. “Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
I would argue that what happened on June 1 was hardly the beginning of that slide. But the general is quite correct that it is up to us to decide if it will be just another station of the cross on the death march of democracy, or a decisive point at which we begin to reclaim our national soul.
General Allen is also far too generous for my money, asking: “(D)id Esper and Barr know that hundreds of peaceful U.S. citizens had been attacked by riot police just minutes before, their civil rights massively violated just to set the stage for their picture?”
We now know that not only did Barr know, he ordered it. So the benefit of the doubt that has long been granted to Mr. Bill—the alleged insitutionalist, in spite of his participation in Iran/contra even before he became Trump’s consigliere—continues, notwithstanding his rampant criminality since.
Most welcome and satisfying of all, of course, was Jim Mattis’s scathing, deeply cathartic attack on Trump, published in The Atlantic. Such is Mattis’s stature that in the wake of his pronouncement, the threat of the 82nd Airborne opening fire on American civilians seems to have abated, for now, which raises the question:
Did Jim Mattis singlehandedly just stop an American Tianamen?
Much as I deeply respect him, I’ll cop to having been frustrated with General Mattis’s silence up until now. But the upside is that, by keeping his powder dry, he was able to have maximum impact once he finally did speak out. (The title of Admiral Mullen’s piece, “I Cannot Remain Silent,” could have been Mattis’s as well.) Score one for the tactics department at the USMC Command and Staff College.
It seems impossible that, within their very small fraternity, these men are not consulting with each other. Recalling Mattis and Kelly ’s reported “babysitting” pact, it’s tempting to think we are seeing a reverse military coup d’etat, in which sensible generals save us from a power-mad civilian leader. (The screenplay will write itself.)
One hopes that Mattis’s gravitas, together with the constellation of his many-starred comrades, will provide encouragement and cover for other conservatives to break with Trump, not to mention bolstering the backbone within the Pentagon, and even within the rank-and-file. (Disapproval of Trump within the US military was already at 50% even before this latest crisis.)
But it’s horrifying that it’s even come to this. And we are by no means out of the haunted wood.
As yet another four star, Army General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, recently said, don’t look to the generals to lead the way here. They’re meant to be apolitical. Echoing both Applebaum and Gessen, the fact that they’ve had to speak up at all—with trepidation—is an indictment of the cowardice of our civilian leaders who have any leverage over this criminal president, which is to say, the Republican leadership.
So amid a historic pandemic, Great Depression-level economic collapse, and our cities aflame over violent system racism, what did Senate Republicans spend their time this week doing?
What else? Holding hearings into alleged DOJ/FBI misconduct in the origins of the Russia probe, or as they call it, “Obamagate.”
THE RETURN OF IVAN DRAGO
Given how successful its efforts were last time, and how happy Trump and GOP have been to let it continue, it’s no surprise that Moscow is already engaged in an even more aggressive effort to undermine this election cycle. Foer writes that “Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.”
And why not?
Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have ever dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it.
Foer reports that “Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, the Russians are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork.” On the menu: meddling with voter registration databases; making voter IDs mismatch with the rolls; creating long lines to discourage the impatient; purging voters altogether, and applying even more sophisticated disinformation techniques and “new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics.”
They won’t even have to work very hard.
Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote. On Election Night, the Russians could place a page on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead. Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax. Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion.
Foer also writes of the deep and troubling paradox in play. The mere fear that the Russians have a robust capability to mess with our elections itself undermines the confidence of the American people in the legitimacy of those elections. Mission accomplished! The Kremlin doesn’t even need hackers—just PR guys.
The final irony is that Foer’s masterful piece of reportage, public service that it is, at the same time serves to advance precisely that Russian goal, that scaring the bejesus out of us of by trumpeting their terrifying omnipotence.
PUTIN’S POODLE REDUX
So why write about Russian election interference (sooooo last September) in the middle of a pandemic, a new Depression and a rising revolution?
Because we have a regime that has made it clear that it is keen to remain in power indefinitely. I’ve written on the topic at length. (See “Knives to a Gunfight” and “The Fiasco to Come,” both from last September, and “Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)?” from July 2018.)
And the current conditions, as Anne Applebaum says, create fertile ground for its efforts.
Jim Mattis notwithstanding, a massacre of and the imposition of martial law and the cancellation of the upcoming election remain possible. Doubt me? Brian Klaas again:
Since 2017, so many events in US politics that were previously unthinkable have come to pass. Don’t believe me? A few days ago, the president of the United States baselessly accused a cable television host of murder and it barely made a blip in the news cycle. The shocking has become unsurprising—almost routine— under Donald Trump’s unhinged presidency.
(That host, as it happens, was “Morning Joe”’s Joe Scarborough.)
But it’s more likely that, a la his hero Gospodin Putin, Trump and his GOP allies will stage a Potemkin election that provides the veneer of legitimacy. Foer again:
Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump…
But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.
In 2020, Russia might not need to push the US for it to suffer a terrible election-year tumble. Even without interventions from abroad, it is shockingly easy to imagine how a pandemic might provide a pretext for indefinitely delaying an election or how this president, narrowly dispatched at the polls, might refuse to accept defeat.
It is a chilling paradox is that the more Trump is politically damaged by this trio of crises and the less likely he is to win 2020—cheering as that is—the more the risk that he will resort to cheating. So sadly, every gain we make also increases our risk.
At the end of the “Morning Joe” segment, Applebaum took up the baton again, speaking of the predictable pattern seen in what she called “illiberalizing countries that cease to be democracies.” The ruling regime first uses violence to suppress public dissent and opposition. Then it proclaims itself the defender of “law and order,” often invoking a divine mandate to do so. And then, what comes next?:
What comes next is the attempt to steal an election.
And what I hope all Americans will be focused on over the next several months is, will Trump and will the Republican party collaborate in an attempt to steal this election? Will they try to change the rules? Will they mess around with distance voting? Will they exacerbate the problems caused by the pandemic to prevent people from voting? That’s the thing that’s going to happen next.
Ah, but Anne, we already know that they will do all those things, because they are in the midst of doing them now, aggressively, even as we speak. The only question that remains is her final one:
(Does) the Republican Party….value democracy in America enough to allow a real election to go through and to allow themselves to lose?
The mere fact that we have to ask is deeply worrying.
LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL
Just a few hours after Ms. Applebaum asked that question on national television, those same airwaves carried George Floyd’s deeply moving memorial service live to the whole country, including a speech by the Rev. Al Sharpton that will surely go down in history.
The vast, righteous, long overdue public outrage sparked by Mr. Floyd’s killing might be a galvanizing moment that sets us on the road to redemption. But it’s clear that it also presents perilous dangers that could send down a much darker path….and that there are folks who are eager to lead us that way.
We can already look back ruefully on our self-congratulatory backpatting of November 2008, when even some conservatives (note: only some) felt proud that the United States had elected a black president. (And after only 219 years!) Will we look back even more ruefully on 2012, and the dawn of Obama’s second term, as we realize that it was our last real presidential election before the US became an autocracy, a one-party sham democracy conquered by the Russian Federation in the most successful intelligence operation in human history?
We can’t expect Jim Mattis to protect us forever. Masha Gessen issued the call to arms. Trump has floated a trial balloon concerning the kind of violent absolute power he would like to wield. Tom Cotton is all in. It’s up to the rest of us to howl back with a furious “Fuck no!”
That howl is echoing in the streets right now: in Minneapolis, in New York, in Washington, in Louisville. If we let the volume down, will we someday look back on 2020 and realize that was when let democracy’s enemies put their collective knee on its neck and kill it?
We might. The answer is within our power to decide, right now.
Photo: Win Mcnamee/Getty Images. Members of the District of Columbia National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, June 1, 2020.
Just kidding—it’s from a dystopian science fiction movie by Ridley Scott.
Just kidding again—it’s America in 2020.