Running Out of Options
100,000 dead, forty million unemployed, a cratering economy, tear gas and looting in the street. America divided. Please, Mr President, “it’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore”.
A good rule of thumb with Donald Trump has always been that if you think this is the bottom, just wait. There’s still plenty of time before the election for Trump to plumb new depths, spread more mayhem and steer America closer to collapse. The president may judge that this summer’s ‘divide and conquer’ chaos is to his advantage, and he has the tools and the personal propensity to burn the place to the ground as he goes. America is facing its most dangerous moment since 1968.
The protests may mean that, for a moment, Trump has lost control of the narrative, but he retains the survival instincts of an alley-cat. The president knows he’s up against it this November. He’s a whopping ten per cent down in the polls and has a job approval rating that is once again underwater. Facing such numbers, Trump has done the most Trumpian thing possible, hiring his own pollsters rather than listen to the ‘FAKE’ ones that currently bear him bad news.
It’s clear that the only thing Trump truly cares about is winning re-election, so riots, pandemic deaths and social order are valued solely by their utility in achieving that goal. Despite his many bankruptcies, lawsuits and failed marriages, Trump’s psychology demands that he never, ever is seen to lose, but Trump will also be keenly aware that if he leaves office, information will quickly come to light exposing the staggering scale of his malfeasance. Once unprotected by public office, the release of his tax returns, FBI records, Russian connections or a thousand other acts during this administration will condemn Trump to spending the rest of his days fighting prosecution. With what we already know, absent a pardon Trump may become the first president to be jailed for his crimes.
So the stakes couldn’t be higher. There is very little Trump wouldn’t do in order to win, and as his behaviour grows steadily more outrageous he knows he can count on the support of his White House coterie of grifters and criminals, who themselves face enormous risks when America’s national nightmare finally ends. Men like Barr, Kushner, Don Jr, Mnuchin and Pence have all been instrumental in the cover-ups and misconduct that make this administration the most corrupt in American history.
And then there’s the mind of Donald Trump, malignant narcissist, tin-pot dictator, madman. For a man who lies congenitally, Trump’s psychological weaknesses are permanently on public display. The president of the United States constantly paints himself as a victim and requires the sort of fawning praise that would make most men blush. Trump’s fragile and fractured ego (which would be pitiful in a man without the power he holds) could never tolerate the kind of public humility that the democratic transfer of power eventually demands.
All of these matters combine to make it almost impossible to imagine that in just a few months America will conduct a free and fair election, and that if Donald Trump loses he will accept the results and leave Washington of his own free will. Trump disputed the result of the 2016 election before it even happened. He contested his loss of the popular vote for months after he won. And Trump has already taken disturbing steps to cast doubt on the legitimacy of an event that is still months away and to suppress Americans ability to vote.
Entering an election season during a global pandemic, with teargas and troops on the streets and a president unwilling to accept the realities of democracy, leaves America in what is becoming a state of existential crisis. Trump will lie, cheat and disrupt the election. He has said he will accept foreign interference. He may try to postpone or even cancel the election. And if he loses he is likely to dispute the results and refuse to leave.
And then what? Will the Senate which refused to hear impeachment witnesses finally do their duty? Would the Supreme Court on which Trump has a republican majority rule against him, and would he respect the decision if they did? What about the police and secret service, who take an oath to support and defend the constitution but have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. Do they seem likely to turn on the president in order to maintain what’s left of America’s democracy? Is there any doubt that Trump is capable of once again inciting armed insurrection to aid his quest to retain power?
No. Laws, norms and regulations won’t save America this time. Trump has shown withering disdain for democracy and the rule of law. His lawyers have argued in open court that the president enjoys such a level of legal immunity that Trump couldn’t be prosecuted even if he shot someone in the street. Trump has perhaps mortally wounded the institutions designed to constrain a president and attempted to place himself beyond the rule of law.
It is the very essence of authoritarianism to argue that laws of the land just get in the way when a leader wishes to exercise power, and that challenges to their rule represent an existential threat to the country. Strongmen conflate the fate of a nation with their own, so something bad happening to the leader is by definition something bad befalling the country. Elections just get in the way.
The rules of American democracy in 2020 appear to be that the Democratic party must win by an overwhelming margin or the Republicans will claim victory. Donald Trump’s casual disregard for democracy threatens a national paroxysm this fall, one that neither he nor anyone else might have the power to control. Trump promised to build a wall, but the one going up right now is around the White House. It may come in useful this November. Because Trump isn’t leaving.