As of November 9, 2016, here was the bad news: America had elected as its president an egregiously incompetent, childishly impulsive, crassly narcissistic man with authoritarian instincts. Here was the good news: it was possible to imagine these causes for concern interacting in such a way that some would neutralize others.
In particular: Maybe Trump’s incompetence, impulsiveness, and narcissism would keep him from realizing his authoritarian potential. After all, it takes skill and focus to erode civil liberties and aggrandize power while maintaining a critical mass of public support. Mussolini didn’t get to be Mussolini by throwing a public tantrum every day, filling his administration with dimwits, and engaging in zero long-term planning!
As of five months ago—three years after inauguration day—this hopeful scenario remained more or less intact. Trump had been thuggish and cruel, and he’d weakened norms that guard liberties, but it was still hard to imagine him systematically subverting liberal democracy and ushering in an authoritarian state.
But then the ground started to shift, and over the past ten days it’s shifted a lot. Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption, rather than short-circuit his authoritarian bent, are now energizing it.
What started the shift was the arrival in January of something the country had been spared throughout the Trump era: a new challenge of epic scale that urgently demanded presidential competence. Trump’s failure to contain the coronavirus with early and decisive intervention meant that his belated intervention would have to be dramatic but still couldn’t be conclusive. A nationwide lockdown would now “flatten the curve” but at this late date couldn’t crush it and meanwhile would create massive unemployment. America was condemned to a state of widespread economic deprivation and social dislocation with no end to the epidemic in sight.
This atmosphere of disease and discontent fed the civil unrest of the past ten days in various ways. For starters, if it weren’t for the pandemic, George Floyd might still be alive. Before he allegedly handed a counterfeit $20 bill to the store clerk who fatefully called the police, Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer because of the lockdown.
News of Floyd’s death—probably the most plainly indefensible killing of an African American by a police officer ever captured on video—would have been explosive in any event. But the pandemic and its mishandling had created an especially incendiary landscape. Millions of young people had more time on their hands and more pent-up, edgy energy than three months earlier. And they were, more than ever, surrounded by signs that the system just wasn’t working—including an imploding economy that not only added urgency to calls for social justice but strengthened the incentive of some to seize chances for looting. And, of course, it’s easier to break the law with impunity—whether you’re a looter or a violent provocateur of the far left or far right—when you’re wearing a mask.
So it naturally took state and local authorities a few days to grasp the magnitude of the challenge and respond effectively. Which was long enough for Trump to start feeling his authoritarian oats.
First came presidential tweets saying only “LAW AND ORDER!” Then Trump used federal park police to aggressively displace peaceful demonstrators as prelude to his strongman stroll to St. John’s Church. Then federal forces, including soldiers, started showing up in various Washington venues.
None of this transformed America into a fascist state, but it did provide vivid glimpses of how authoritarianism grows in increments. There was the needless use of violence in Lafayette Park to get a TV cameraman to vacate the premises. There were the vaguely uniformed forces—presumably from some federal agency or other—who lacked the personally identifying markers (a nameplate, a badge number) that help hold cops accountable. There were the helicopters whose pilots tried to almost literally blow protestors away.
Fortunately, Trump encountered influential resistance. His own secretary of defense, Mark Esper, showed previously hidden reserves of principle by arguing publicly against invoking the Insurrection Act, which Trump had threatened to do and which would bring the nationwide deployment of soldiers in a policing capacity—whether governors wanted them or not. And James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense (a status Esper may soon occupy if he keeps piping up), denounced Trump and warned against blurring the line between soldiers and police.
This and other such unfriendly fire from the military establishment must have shocked Trump and no doubt caused him to think again about the further extension of federal power. This elite blowback was in a way reassuring, but it was also alarming, because interventions this extraordinary could only have been motivated by a sense of real danger. It’s great that Esper, Mattis, and others rose to the occasion but scary that the occasion existed.
This particular occasion may be passing. But even if so, the landscape has changed. The economic and social stress brought by the pandemic and by Trump’s inept response to it will fade only slowly, and the civil unrest, even if it ends soon, will leave strong emotional residue. The atmosphere will be ripe for another crisis that brings out the strongman in Trump.
And though this week’s exercise of authoritarian impulses got lots of establishment pushback, it got positive reinforcement from many elite and grassroots Trumpists. Trump has gotten a taste, and there’s no reason to think it tasted bad.
Warnings about Trump’s fascist potential have often been hyperbolic. The idea that he was crafty and capable enough to lull us to sleep while morphing into Mussolini never made sense. The only real threat has been that we’d be wide awake but frightened—that a sufficiently terrifying crisis, whether a foreign attack or chaos of domestic origin, would permit even a crude, ham-handed power grab to succeed.
This past week fell short of that threshold. But it brought us closer to the next level of crisis—violent conflict between groups of Trump supporters and groups of Trump opponents.
In Philadelphia’s Fishtown—a white working class neighborhood already ambivalent about the young progressives who are gentrifying it—men carrying baseball bats, golf clubs, and in one case a hatchet were milling around, poised to act, until Philadelphia police arrived and defused the tension. In Oregon, a group of people carrying those same weapons—plus guns—gathered and glared at protestors, separated from them by police. (Some had expected antifa, thanks to false reports on Facebook—which are easy for provocateurs to generate.)
If things do escalate to the next level, and people start using the term “civil war” seriously, the chances of Trump’s invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying troops nationwide will grow. To grasp the significance of this step, reflect on that police officer who gratuitously punched the TV cameraman in Lafayette Park without first telling him to move. That officer can rest assured there will be no punishment. Park police, unlike municipal police, answer ultimately to Trump, whose opinion of mainstream journalists is well known—and whose recent deliverance of psychokiller Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher from the clutches of military justice left no doubt about his tolerance for savage behavior on the part of his troops. Now imagine every major city full of those troops, armed men and women who know they can behave brutally with impunity.
And dispatching, say, the 82nd Airborne to American cities (as nutcase Trump cheerleader Tom Cotton infamously recommended this week) is far from the only authoritarian avenue Trump can explore. He threatened only 10 days ago to “strongly regulate” social media platforms or even “close them down.”
Spookily, Trump has the ability—and the natural inclination and maybe the incentive—to set the stage for all this, to push crisis to the next level, to make violent conflict between his supporters and his opponents more likely. He’s great at firing up a crowd, and among the crowds he’s expressed sympathy for lately are armed men who occupied Michigan’s capitol building. And his current position in the polls, with only five months before the election, gives him an incentive to stir things up.
And, finally, there is that perennial friend of volatile polarization, the balkanized world of media and social media. As Trump supporters view mashups of looters and violent protestors, progressives view mashups of violent police. Both groups could stand to ponder the fact that, in a world of pervasive smartphones and efficient social media, we are treated every day to videos of some of the worst things done in public by anyone—and that, by definition, those things aren’t typical of the class of people the perpetrators belong to, whether that class is protestors or police, whites or people of color, Trump supporters or Trump opponents.
Our luck, such as it was, lasted three years. Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption stayed in healthy tension with his authoritarianism. But then came the pandemic. His incompetence, by sowing the seeds of instability, now prepared the ground for a power grab. A Wall Street Journal poll published this weekend found that 80 percent of Americans feel the country is spiraling out of control.
All that’s required for Trump to have a new and very real shot at destroying American democracy is an even deeper and more pervasive sense of disorder—the kind of thing that contagious violence between Trump opponents and Trump supporters could bring. If you love America, or even if you just hate Trump, it’s in your interest to pause and reflect, to try to judge your adversaries fairly, even charitably, and, after you view the next mashup of misbehavior by one side or the other, to think twice before sharing it.
Illustration by Nikita Petrov.
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