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America Is Staring Autocracy in the Face

President Donald Trump. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Who could forget that moment?  The blue [red] wave — long promised but also doubted — had, however modestly [however massively], hit Washington and [the Democrats had just retaken Congress] [the Republicans had held Congress] [the Democrats had taken the House].  The media, Fox News and the usual right-wing websites aside, hailed the moment. [Fox News and the usual right-wing websites cheered the president on.] Donald Trump’s grip on America had finally been broken [reinforced].  Celebrations were widespread.  Congressional investigations, possibly even impeachment, were only months and a new Congress away [were now a faint memory], and it was then, of course, that the unexpected struck.  It was then that President Trump, citing national security concerns and a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, began the process whose end point we, of course, already know…

Okay, consider that the dystopian me speaking.  We don’t, of course, really know how our story yet ends, not faintly.  While I was writing this piece, I didn’t even know how Tuesday’s vote would turn out, though by the time you read it, you may.  Given the experience of election 2016, it would take a brave [foolish] soul to make a prediction this time around.

I certainly learned a lesson that November.  During the previous months of campaigning that election season, I never wrote a piece at TomDispatch that didn’t leave open the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidency.  In the couple of weeks before that fateful November day, however, I got hooked on the polling results and on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website and became convinced that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in.

Of course, I was in good company.  As Michael Wolff would later report in his bestselling book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, on election eve, few in the Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, expected to win.  Most of them, again including The Donald, were already trying to parlay what they assumed was an assured loss into their next jobs or activities, including in the candidate’s case a possible “Trump network.”

So when, sometime after midnight, reality finally began to sink in — fittingly enough, I had a 103-degree fever and was considering heading for an emergency room — I was as disbelieving as the president-to-be. (He had, Wolff tells us, “assured” his wife, Melania, who was reportedly in tears of anything but joy that night, that he would never win and that she would never find herself in the White House.)  By then, it was for me a fever dream to imagine that bizarre, belligerent, orange-haired salesman-cum-con-artist entering the Oval Office.

Honestly, I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.  During election campaign 2016, I grasped much of this.  I wrote of the future president, for instance, as a con artist (particularly in reference to those taxes of his that we couldn’t see) and how Hillary Clinton’s crew hadn’t grasped the obvious: that many Americans would admire him for gaming the system, even if they couldn’t do the same themselves.  As I wrote at the time: “It’s something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton’s advisers) don’t: Americans love a con man.”

I also saw that he was daring in ways unimaginable to an American politician — because, of course, he wasn’t one — particularly in promoting his slogan, MAGA, whose key word few of the political cognoscenti paid the slightest attention to: “again.”  At that moment, for presidents or politicians who wanted to become just that, it was obligatory to claim that the United States wasn’t just great but the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable land ever.  (As Hillary Clinton typically put it that election season: “America is indispensable — and exceptional — because of our values.”)  Trump’s “again” in Make America Great Again suggested something quite different and so rang a bell in the heartland.  In the process, he became America’s first declinist presidential candidate. Early that October, I wrote this:

“[A] significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go.  Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them. That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled.  It’s hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.

“Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore…”

And yet, on that day of decision, I evidently reverted to the boy I had once been, the boy who grew up with a vision of an idealized America that would always do the right thing.  So I was shocked to the core by Donald Trump’s victory.

In that fever dream of a night, when he washed up on all our shores, I had certainly been trumped, but then, so had he, so had we all.  Under the circumstances, I’m sure you’ll understand why I’ve remained hesitant about putting my faith in polls in this election season or giving special significance to reports that the White House staff was glum as hell about the coming midterms and expected the worst. (After all, mightn’t this be that Michael Wolff election night all over again?)

The American Shooting Gallery

Two years after that fateful November night in 2016, we’re still living in a fever dream of some sort, enveloped 24/7 by the universe of President Trump and the “fake news media,” that provides him and the rest of us with a strange, all-encompassing echo chamber.  America, you might say, now has a 103-degree temperature and there isn’t an emergency room in sight.

And it’s unlikely to get better, whatever happens in the midterm elections.  Those who expect that a Democratic victory or a devastating Mueller report in the weeks to come will be the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency (or, for that matter, that the victory of an ever more extreme Republican Party will simply prove more of the grisly same) might want to reconsider. Perhaps it’s worth weighing other grimmer possibilities in the as-yet-unending rise of what’s still called “right-wing populism,” not just locally but globally.  Here in the United States, with hate and venom surging (and, yes indeed, being encouraged by President Trump for his own purposes), a genuinely ugly strain central to this country’s history is being resurrected.  In the process, a burgeoning number of deeply disturbed (and deeply animated) figures from among the most over-armed civilian population on the planet — Yemen, of all the grim places, comes in a distant second — are turning this country into a shooting gallery.

Win or lose today, don’t think that the Donald Trump we have is the one we’re fated to have until the day he goes down in flames. He is distinctly a work in progress, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: in regress.  In that context, let me mention an evolution of a grim sort in my own thinking over the last two years.

For some time now there have been both thinkers and activists who have been convinced that Donald Trump is an American Mussolini, an outright fascist.  (According to his ex-wife, in the early 1990s he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedsideand, during the 2016 election campaign, he retweeted a Mussolini quote, defending himself for doing so.)  I’ve always disagreed, however.  To my mind, he’s clearly been a man who wants to be idolized and adulated (as happens at any of his rallies) — wants, that is, to have fans, not (in the fascistic sense) followers; applause and the eternal spotlight, not a social movement.  That, it seems to me, has been an accurate description of the president who entered the Oval Office and occupied it in such a suggestive way these last nearly two years.  But I’ve recently started to wonder.  After all, once upon a time, Donald Trump wasn’t a Republican either.  Let’s face it, he’s a quick learner when it comes to whatever may benefit The Donald.

And keep in mind that he entered an unsettled world already well prepared for such a presidency by his predecessors in Washington.  If the fascist or, if you prefer, autocratic tendency that lurks in him and in the situation that surrounds him does come out more fully, he will obviously be aided by the ever more imperial presidency that was created in the decades before he left Trump Tower for the White House.

When he entered the Oval Office, he found there a presidency in which — particularly on the subject of war (the president was, for instance, already America’s global assassin-in-chief) — his powers increasingly stood outside both Congress and the Constitution. The weapons he’s now bringing to bear, including executive orders and the U.S. military, were already well prepared for him.  The refugees he makes such effective use of, whether from Syria or Central America, came to him, at least in part, thanks to this country’s war and other policies that had already roiled significant parts of the planet.  Before entering the Oval Office, the only aspect of such preparations he had any role in was the increasingly staggering inequality that gave a “populist” billionaire president, always ready to put more money in the hands of his .01% pals, a pained but receptive audience in the heartland.

In other words, this world and the fever dream that goes with it were Donald Trump’s oyster before he ever lifted a finger in the White House.  As a result, no election results, no matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans “win,” are likely to bring that temperature down.  In fact, if the Democrats do take the House (or even Congress), Donald Trump is unlikely to become more pliable.  If the Mueller report results in impeachment proceedings in the House, he won’t be humbled.  In the face of any such development, my guess is that his impulse will be to become more autocratic, more imperial, and even possibly more fascistic.  And the same may hold if the Republicans hang onto both houses of Congress.

Waiting for the Red Hats

Even before the vote was in, the evidence was there.  In the lead-up to the election, 5,000-plus U.S. troops (or maybe 15,000?) are headed for the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with what the president has called both an “invasion” and a “national emergency.” (“Fake news!”) There, those troops will essentially twiddle their thumbs (since they are legally allowed to do little) simply because the president wanted it so.  There may, in fact, be two soldiers for every desperate refugee, including children and babies, headed toward the U.S. border in that now notorious “caravan” from Honduras.  In other words, on a whim, Donald Trump is already capable of building a wall (of troops) at that border.  The question worth asking is this: In an embattled near-future moment in which a truly Trumpian military figure (think of “him” as the next John Bolton) is in place as secretary of defense and another “national emergency” is declared, where might those troops go next because the president wanted it so?

In the days before the election, the president also threatened to sign an executive order to nullify birthright citizenship — in the process, threatening to functionally nullify the Constitution (see the 14th Amendment), while bringing back to life the ugliest strains of American racial history just because he wanted it so.  At the moment, he might not even sign that order or, if he does, it might go down big time in Congress and the courts.  But who knows what the future of an executive-order presidency holds, especially with another Supreme Court justice pick or two in place, no matter who controls Congress?

As for those rallies of his: tell me you can’t conceive of a future America in which his adulatory crowds have stopped simply cheering and shouting for him (“Build the wall!” “Lock her up!”) and are now marching for him as well.  Is it really so hard to imagine a future in which there would be a place for a Trump Corps or for “the Red Hats”; for, that is, the kind of social movement that would no longer be confined to the arenas and stadiums of red-state America or even the polling booths of Election Day, one that might indeed be in the streets of this country at the beck and call of a fierce and autocratic billionaire?

In an increasingly unsettled world, an Autocrats, Incorporated moment globally, with an ever more powerful chief executive, and a right wing still on the march, everything that Donald Trump inherited could certainly be intensified further.  And he might be just the man to do it.  In a world in which Congress is no longer fully in his camp, in which legal charges against him, his family, and his cronies only grow, to adapt a title from a Russian novel of the early twentieth century, unquiet could flow The Don — and in that lies peril for us all.

Now, excuse me, I’m heading out to vote.

Tom Engelhardt / TomDispatch

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