In some ways, Trump’s announcement that he plans to resume his usual campaign rallies—on Juneteenth, a landmark anniversary in the abolition of slavery; in Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of one of the worst racist massacres in American history; and without any precautions against spreading the coronavirus, which is killing people of color in record numbers—is a classic Trumpian ploy.
It’s a calculated outrage designed to infuriate the “libs” and monopolize the news cycle, the better to distract us from literally graver matters. (The recent announcement that they’re moving it 24 hours, to June 20th, hardly makes it better, except to show that they’re feeling the heat.)
But in other ways, it is a grotesque offense all its own, deeply connected to all those issues.
Trump himself doesn’t know Juneteenth from June Cleaver. But I’ll bet Stephen Miller does, and his greasy little rat fingerprints are all over this. The White House is doing this not out of thoughtless insensitivity but as deliberate and provocative hatemongering, in hopes of further energizing its white nationalist base.
(Not for nothing, Team Trump is requiring attendees to sign an ur-Trumpian waiver promising they won’t sue if they get covid and fucking die.)
I don’t want to wish ill on other humans beings, but if an epidemiological bomb goes off in that arena in Tulsa in the middle of this re-enactment of Triumph of the Will and wipes out thousands of his voters, my tears will be occupied elsewhere.
But setting aside the immorality of it all, is this ploy even smart on a purely selfish, pragmatic level?
Why have a rally in Oklahoma, a deep red state he already has in the bag? Every political expert, even Republican ones, knows that Trump ought to be courting the middle right now…..that arithmetically speaking, he can’t win in November with his base alone, even if every single one of them turns out. Why then traffic in incendiary tropes that are viscerally alienating to everyone else?
I know Trump won in 2016, but is it really smart to appeal only to the people who lost in 1865?
Maybe he really does think this is the way to win. Maybe some of his advisors do too. (Miller is also rumored to be penning Trump’s speech to nation on unity. I look forward to it, and also to OJ’s TED talk on how to stop domestic abuse.)
On the other hand, could it be merely a matter of ego? Does Trump so crave the adoration of a crowd shrieking with Beatlemania-like intensity at his greatest hits—lock her up, no collusion, fake news, happiness is a warm gun—that he would choose it not only over something that would actually help him in the election, but even though it might actually hurt him?
He might. Especially if he is not concerned about a legitimate vote at all, and only about getting his rabid followers juiced up for a constitutional crisis.
The conventional “appeal to the middle” is only in play if this is a fair election. And it’s clear Trump and the GOP are gonna make sure it ain’t.
As Jonathan V. Last recently wrote in The Bulwark, there’s a tedious regularity to many of these anti-Trump pieces, mine very much included, a subgenre that my friend Matt Bardin calls “Donald Trump Bad Man.” But as Last also points out, there’s a reason for that.
It’s because Trump is a very very very bad man, all the goddam time.
That’s part of Trump’s strategy, of course: to inure us to his terribleness and make us give up hope. Even if all we can do is be a collective voice crying in the wilderness to raise the alarm about his crimes and his unfitness for office, we have to keep doing that, among other more substantive efforts to evict him from office, like voting.
But we also have to recognize that this is not a normal election, not even like 2016, and just voting may not be enough when Trump and the GOP are openly trying to steal the race outright, with the help of their friends in Moscow.
The fabled sportswriter Rick Reilly has a book called Commander-in-Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, about Don’s legendary, shameless, lifetime of cheating at golf. His thesis, in short: if Trump would cheat at golf, on his wives, on his taxes, do you not think he would cheat to stay in the presidency? Especially when that is the only thing standing between him and criminal prosecution for a dozen different felonies?
(Arguably, he did it once to get in office in the first place.)
With his usual say-the-quiet-part-loud approach, Trump is not even trying to hide what he’s doing. A few weeks ago in The Atlantic, in a piece bluntly called “Trump Is Brazenly Interfering With the 2020 Election,” David Graham wrote:
Imagine that the White House chief of staff wrote a secret memo, at the behest of the president of the United States, to the Treasury secretary and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In the carefully hidden memo, the chief of staff directs the two to secretly and illegally cut off all federal funding to two key swing states, both led by Democratic governors, with the goal of rigging turnout in favor of the president’s party in the 2020 election.
Now imagine that the memo leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which splashed the story across its front page. The other major papers would quickly follow. Cable news would cover it wall to wall. There would be congressional investigations.
If he did this privately, it would—rightly—be a massive scandal. Yet when he does it as part of a few dozen wildly varied tweets over the course of a morning, it’s written off as just another wacky missive from the wacky president.
Joe Biden himself recently told Trevor Noah that he expects Trump to try to steal the election, a remarkable escalation of that fear from the province of lunatic fringe tinfoil-hatted conspiracy-mongers (me: size 8 and half) to a nationally televised statement by the presumptive nominee of one of the two major parties—an unthinkable scene at any previous time in the modern era.
But I’m glad it’s being voiced, and well ahead of election day. It’s our best protection against Trump’s efforts to do it come autumn.
Fears of such authoritarianism by Trump have been raised since the earliest days of his administration, but covid-19 has recently provided the GOP with new and unique avenues by which to carry out this robbery.
The Republicans are eagerly seizing on the pandemic both to exacerbate and to camouflage the chaos and confusion that it wants to create on Election Day. They don’t need to outright steal the election if they can generate enough anarchy that they can mount a successful propaganda campaign and invalidate it, thereby stealing it by forfeit.
MSNBC’s Chuck Todd is among those who has pointed out that it takes time to count absentee ballots. If, for instance, Trump is ahead for several days after November 3rd, until the Democratic-heavy count from Philly and its suburbs comes in, how do you think he’s gonna portray that reversal?
Graciously, and as fair and square, I’m sure.
Witness also the goatscrew that was the Georgia primary last week and understand that this was malevolence, not incompetence. It’s no coincidence that chaos was brought to you by a governor who is one of our nation’s foremost, unabashed pros at voter suppression, and stole his way into office himself.
This is what the GOP will ensure happens nationwide in November.
In the broader scheme, it’s what the Republican Party has been doing since at least 2000, knowing that it can only win by gaming the system, given that it has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential campaigns, and this year doesn’t look to change that pattern.
The latest poll numbers are historically bad for Trump, worse than any incumbent president has ever faced at this stage of the race, with only 20 weeks to go. I know, I know—Hillary was prohibitively ahead in 2016 etc etc. But Jonathan V. Last explains very thoroughly here why that analogy doesn’t necessarily hold, why her lead was never really “prohibitive, ”and why there’s cause for optimism.
What’s worrying of course, aside from the ghosts of 2016 and other conventional political calculations, is the extent to which Trump and the GOP—realizing that they can’t win fairly—will be incentivized more than ever to rig the election, or at least to create conditions to dispute its results. How’s that for a paradox?
Here’s an idea: maybe show some respect for democracy, do your best, and then see how it shakes out, accepting the will of the American people whatever it proves to be.
Just kidding! The modern Republican Party has no more regard for democracy than there are tits on a bull.
THE FOG OF PEACE
Biden also opined that he believes that the Pentagon will take action to remove Trump should he try to stay in office illegally.
I would agree that it’s likely that our armed forces would do so (I say again: likely, not certain), having recently watched numerous retired general officers draw a line in the sand when Trump threatened to use the US military against peaceful protestors. Reportedly at least one active duty one, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, did so too, in an Oval Office shouting match.
Then again General Milley also let himself be used as a prop in the St. John’s Church stunt, accidentally or otherwise, an act for which he was roundly criticized by his retired peers, and for which he subsequently made an unusual televised apology.
Given his boss’s demonstrated attitude toward such displays of integrity, were I a headhunter, I’d be calling the general about his imminent entry into civilian life.
In any event, the once unthinkable notion that the American military might have to evict a power-mad US president from office has now become among the most urgent topics of the national conversation. In the Nation, Elie Mystal writes:
Trump has been told that he can’t be prosecuted and won’t be removed…..He’s convinced the opposition party to pin its hopes on a future election that might never happen—and, if it does, certainly won’t happen without foreign interference and industrial-strength voter suppression.
And nobody has stopped him. Nobody is even really trying to stop him anymore. Those who want him stopped are just kind of waiting and hoping he goes away. Maybe on January 20, 2021, he’ll just leave, and we can get back to having a society.
He won’t just leave. He won’t leave unless the men with guns—the armed agents of the federal government—make him leave.
But per above, if Trump can create ambiguity over whether he is in fact illegally clinging to power—that is, over who really won the election—the military’s willingness to evict him might not matter, and might even work to his advantage.
For the same reason that the armed services are rightly loath to intervene in domestic politics, they are unlikely to take active steps to remove a president if his (or her) electoral defeat is merely in doubt, rather than clearcut, a la the trolley problem. In effect, a tie would probably go to the incumbent, constitutional crisis wise.
In other words, Trump doesn’t even have to win in November: all he has to do is create doubt that Biden did. Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, like 2000 when Bush maneuvered himself into the position of the presumptive winner and dumped on Gore the burden of overturning that state of affairs, it will harder for Biden to take power when Trump already has his shoes under the bed in the West Wing and is arguing—deceitfully or not—that the numbers support keeping them there.
In that sense, it is not unlike the way that modern propaganda, as pioneered by (ahem) the Russians, seeks not to promote a specific point of view so much as merely create confusion that the truth is knowable at all, and therefore prompt a mass throwing-up of hands.
Of course, Trump has long had a love/hate relationship with the military in which he actively avoided serving, alternately attacking it and over-valorizing it in the time-honored fascist way.
Trump’s troubles on that front continued with his listless speech at the US Military Academy’s commencement yesterday, during he which he did a convincing impression of Marco Rubio drinking a glass of water, and needed his Trump Tower golden escalator to avoid a Chevy Chase-as-Gerald Ford tumble down the ramp when he was done.
True to form, Don took to Twitter to mount a strong defense:
The ramp that I descended after my West Point Commencement speech was very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery. The last thing I was going to do is “fall” for the Fake News to have fun with. Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!
Sounds like something General “MacGarther” or “Grand” would have said.
(The vile order to recall 1000 cadets from all over the country to a place 50 miles form the epicenter of the global pandemic for this sop to the presidential ego is yet another matter.)
But the active duty military is not Trump’s only martial option when it comes to holding onto power by force. The DOD does not control the National Guard except when the president federalizes them—state governors do. What’s to stop Trump from prevailing upon the deeply loyal Republican governors of Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, et al to mobilize their state militias to do keep him in office? Would General Milley order federal troops to oppose them? Would we really see the active duty US military facing off against National Guard units? (No offense to the NG, but I know what odds Vegas would give.)
As I find myself saying with tedious regularity, can you believe we’re even discussing this?
MEMO TO MITCH
So are we on the verge of full-blown Trump-brand™ Fascism (now with extra whiteness!), as opposed to the Trump Fascism Lite version to which we’ve become accustomed? Numerous experts on authoritarianism—from academics to CIA analysts and field agents who’ve watched it over and over in foreign countries—are shitting their collective pants over that very possibility.
Paul Krugman writes in the Times:
At this point it’s alarmingly easy to see how the United States could follow the path already taken by Hungary, becoming a democracy on paper but an authoritarian one-party state in practice. And I’m not talking about the distant future: It could happen this year, if Trump wins re-election—or even, potentially, if he loses but refuses to accept the results.
We’ve already seen paramilitaries in unmarked uniforms deployed during the Uprising (let’s get that name trending, people), a violation of basic constitutional precepts and an ironic echo of Putin’s “little green men” in the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Don sure does like to ape Vlad.
But at least Crimea was a military operation in a foreign country, circumstances in which non-uniformed irregulars is commonplace, if deceitful when deployed by an invader trying to hide his hand. On the streets of DC, we’re talking about the ruling regime using anonymous goons to suppress and intimidate its own citizens.
To that end, there has been credible reportage by The Intercept of Republican plans to flood the streets in November with police, troops, and ex-military Blackwater-style contractors, the better to intimidate voters and tip a potentially contested election their way. Ironically, the Uprising has given them the chance to do that well ahead of time, and with a credible fig leaf (“Riots! “Law and order!”), so we will already be used to it by fall.
But the Uprising has also shown the Republican Party that—covid or no—if sufficiently outraged, the American people will themselves get out in the streets and burn the whole damn thing to the ground. I’m not so naïve as to think that will deter the GOP from trying to mount a coup d’etat, but it ought to sober them up about how hard it will be.
Can we scare the hell out of the GOP to the point that they won’t try to steal the election? Doubtful. But we can make them think twice about how difficult and bloody it will be. As Prof. Ruth Ben Ghiat of NYU has noted, mass protests in the streets are among the most powerful means to push back against an incipient autocracy, because they not only tell the despot that he’s unpopular and in trouble, but because they also show the despot’s allies the same thing.
Mitch McConnell is nothing if not a pragmatist (oh, and also a pox upon humanity). His alliance with Trump has been self-serving only, not one of any kind of shared ideology—except greed and power—or of any personal affinity. If Moscow Mitch sees that Trump is about to go the way of the Shah, or Marcos, or (gulp) Mussolini, he might decide discretion is the better part of valor and cut his losses.
THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN. AGAIN.
Speaking of Ulysses Grant, even as we’re talking about a new Civil War, Trump—over the objections of that same Pentagon—is petulantly defending keeping US military bases named after traitors and losers, and pronouncing himself the greatest presidential champion of the Black community ever. (Except, maybe, Lincoln, but his achievements were iffy.)
As Mike Jollet says, it’s a neat trick to claim to be the Party of Lincoln and fly the Stars and Bars at the same time.
But judging by its prevalence at heavily-armed “Liberate” rallies even up north, Trump campaign events, and the like, it’s clear now that the Confederate battle flag is no longer a banner of the South and has become one of racism, white nationalism, and treasonous anti-Americanism across the board, irrespective of geography. It’s no wonder Eugene Robinson called Trump the last president of the Confederacy.
And even as the Uprising shows that a majority of America simply aren’t having it any more, support for that vile cause is alive and well with millions of our countrymen.
We learned that the vigilante redneck who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia a few weeks ago stood over his dead body after gunning him down and spat out a racial epithet. (Gee, I wonder which one.) It took weeks for authorities to charge him and his accomplices, who had ties to the (so-called) law enforcement community.
We also watched the junior senator from Kentucky, the one named after Ayn Rand, singlehandedly block an anti-lynching bill, even as protests against racism and police brutality roil the streets. Talk about a no-brainer—who’s anti-anti-lynching? A guy who can win state-wide elections in Kentucky, I guess.
I was stunned to hear Nancy Pelosi call for the removal of the statues of twelve Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, from the US Capitol—stunned not that she called for it, but that they were there in the first place, in the year A.D. 2020. (I understand that the individual states can choose their own statues, but that hardly makes it better.)
Asked whether he supported ending the honoring of Confederate leaders, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) went back to the usual, dishonest argument that he didn’t think we should rewrite history.
But how is it rewriting history to not honor its villains?
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Even as he stumps for the legacy of people who mounted a violent insurrection against the US government that took 750,000 American lives, Trump has declared himself “your president of law and order.”
The possessive actually irks me more than the risible claim to be a defender of the peace. (John Oliver recently ripped Tucker Carlson a new orifice on the topic.)
Trump is eager to gin up white panic about a race and class war, with his bull-horning on the former—a step up from dog-whistling—and his wild-eyed theories about 75-year-old antifa infiltrators on the latter, portraying himself as the man who can restore order (by shooting looters).
It’s funny how American conservatives used to be much more sanguine about civil unrest when it was happening in, oh, Baghdad, where Donald Rumsfeld argued that “looting is the transition to freedom.”
That must be one of the “known unknowns” that he used to talk about with his friends Dr. Seuss and Gertrude Stein. But everything worked out great in Iraq, so maybe we can get Paul Bremer to step in and fix things here in the United States.
David Frum zeroes in on the hypocrisy:
When pro-Trump protesters descended on state capitals to demand reopening, nobody shot at them, not even when they endangered police lives by screaming into their faces, unmasked, during a pandemic. Nobody shot at them when they carried weapons into state legislative buildings to intimidate state legislators and governors. And of course, those protesters received the full-throated endorsement of President Trump. “Liberate Minnesota!” Trump tweeted on April 17.
(N)o federalizing of the National Guard there, no threats of indiscriminate shooting, only gentle understanding of people who gridlocked state capitals in service of their abject lunatic theory that Bill Gates wanted to inject microchips into their bums.
Naturally, many of Trump’s opponents have with good reason raised the specter of 1968, when Nixon was able to ride a similar racially-based hobbyhorse into the White House, exploiting the fears of a nation roiled by assassination, war, and protest in the streets (accompanied by shocking, televised police brutality).
But as James Fallows notes, in 1968 our villainous politicians were at least competent.
In a different piece for the Atlantic, Frum recently dismantled the Nixon comparison. In ’68 the “silent majority” was much more upset about violence and disorder from the protestors than from the cops—wrongly, but nonetheless. Today the anger, except for the really Kool Aid-drunk, is reversed.
Likewise, in ’68 Nixon portrayed himself as a calming influence on the police as well as the demonstrators—wrongly, but nonetheless. Today Trump is encouraging even more state violence, and even calling for the participation of the 82nd Airborne.
In that regard, as Frum says, Trump may think he’s Nixon, but he’s really George Wallace. Or is he Nero? Or Deng Xiaoping? (Metaphor still under construction.)
Krugman inverts the issue, arguing that “Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon — he’s much, much worse,” and the GOP of 2020 is worse than the GOP of 1968, or perhaps any other year:
….(T)here are important differences between now and then—and the differences aren’t reassuring. In many ways we’re a better country than we used to be, but we’re in dire political straits, because one of our two major parties no longer believes in the American idea….
(T)he reason democracy is threatened in a way it never was under Nixon is not simply that Trump is a worse human being than Nixon ever was; it is the fact that he has so many enablers.
Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his admiration for and envy of foreign strongmen, his desire to militarize law enforcement have long been obvious. These things wouldn’t matter so much, however, if the Republican Party were still the institution it was in the 1970s—a big tent with room for a variety of views, represented in the Senate by many people with real principles. These were people willing to remove a president, even if he was a Republican, when he betrayed his oath of office.
The modern GOP, however, is nothing like that….
(T)oday’s Republican Party wouldn’t object to a Trumpian power grab, even if it amounted to a military coup. On the contrary, the party would cheer it on.
THE DEEP PURPLE RIVER OF CRUELTY
How did we get to this point, where one of our two major parties and its millions of supporters are down with neo-fascism? Let’s circle back to covid-19 for some answers.
When the pandemic first hit and it became clear how much Trump was to blame and how badly he was botching it, there was a lot of talk that finally, at last, this would be something so huge and so horrific that even the MAGA Nation faithful could not deny it.
Turns out they can.
Trump’s sins there are not those of mere negligence, which would be bad enough, but of active measures (to use the Russian term) to make matters worse. The myriad ways he is responsible for the scope of the coronavirus’s damage have already been well catalogued. Most recently, we learned that Trump’s people have been sabotaging efforts to track the virus, because the numbers makes him look bad, and cheating the stats to make him look as good as possible, which still ain’t very good.
The Trump administration has now stopped even trying to address the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci was last seen on the side of a milk carton. That is because the administration is completely outmatched and unable to address it, but also because they have succeeded in gaslighting their followers into not caring. (“Mission accomplished!”)
The few remaining Trump supporters with whom I am still on speaking terms have totally bought the White House’s spin that this is really no big deal, and if it is, it’s not his fault. This includes people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by it. They’ve made their peace with 100,000 dead, as they surely will with 200,000 dead, or a million, especially if they are disproportionately people of color.
(The latest estimates have us headed to several hundred thousand casualties by Christmas, much higher than the administration’s initial estimates and starting to approach the worst case scenario original posited by researchers at Imperial College London.)
Theirs is an absurd position of course, so absurd that it can’t even be rationally argued against. But it’s hardly the first Big Lie that a demagogue has gotten away with.
Needless to say, I’m sure these folks would have been just as understanding if Hillary was in office. In fact, we don’t have to speculate, as many of them go so far as to blame the Democrats for those deaths even now, though I am still awaiting the explanation for that one.
Even some “moderate” Republicans whom I know have been retroactively questioning the need for the quarantine measures we’ve lived with for the past three months. Naturally, it’s an impossible request they are demanding, which is to say, that we defend precautions that prevented a disaster that didn’t come to pass thanks to those very precautions.
It’s like angrily saying, “Hey, that boiling hot saucepan didn’t burn me. Why did I need an oven mitt?”
I point all this out not to be defeatist, but merely to show how deep the Kool Aid River runs, and what we are still up against. As I’ve already written, people in death cults from Garmisch to Guyana have been known to follow their leaders right into the depths of hell.
I recently heard Eli Stokols of the LA Times say on MSNBC, with great understatement, that empathy is not the President’s strong suit. That’s like saying the Ayatollah Khomeini is not super good at literary criticism. Trump’s appalling, lifelong lack of empathy—the hallmark of a sociopath—is plain as day. But now he has infected millions of his followers with the same disease…..and not just over covid-19 but from the very start of his political career, with his hate-filled racebaiting, his birtherism, his demonization of everyone from immigrants to Democrats to the cast of “Hamilton.” And his base thrilled to it—it was a feature, not a bug.
That destruction of empathy laid the groundwork for the callous shoulder-shrugging by millions of American conservatives over the deaths of more than 117,000 of their countrymen and still counting, and it will be equally useful if it comes to him shitting on the Constitution and staging a coup d’etat come November.
That is the scope of what Trumpism has done to America (or less generously, revealed about its pre-existing condition): It has made us—or a good chunk of us at least—into a nation of soulless, lawless cretins.
ALL COME TO LOOK FOR AMERICA
Here’s the best case scenario:
Trump gets beaten in a landslide so big that even he and the GOP and the Russians can’t plausibly claim it was fixed.
They will try, of course, but cynics like Mitch McConnell will understand that the Republican Party stands a better chance of surviving to fight another day if it falls back, reassuming its traditional role as bomb-throwing “government is bad!” outsiders (to which Republicans are temperamentally suited anyway), and promoting a QAnon-style/birther-like that the election was stolen from them, as opposed to provoking a constitutional crisis that it might lose, suffering greater and longer-lasting damage in the process.
I realize that counting on the practical wisdom of Mitch McConnell is not a comforting thought.
In that case, all we will have to worry about (all!) will be a furious MAGA Nation insurgency of sixty some million heavily armed Americans who are livid that they were “robbed,” dining on a steady diet of ex-President Donald shrieking on his daily TV/radio/Internet show on the new Trump TV Network, to the right of Fox News on your TV dial.
Trump might actually love that even better than being president. Can we propose it to him now and see if he’ll cop a plea? Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with the executive immunity he so desperately needs. Maybe he’ll just pardon himself right before he resigns.
Barring that pipe dream, this election will be an acid test for America. If we let him steal it, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. If, even worse, we actually somehow re-elect this motherfucker, God help us…..though the Good Lord may just throw up Her hands because a people who would do that don’t deserve divine intervention. (Yswidt?)
Who could blame Her?
Illustration by the brilliant Akiko Stehrenberger