Could Trump Overturn American Democracy?

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tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election

The author of over a dozen books, Richard Striner taught history at Washington College for more than three decades and is now a writer, public speaker, and professional consultant.  His latest book, Summoned to Glory:  The Audacious Life of Abraham Lincoln, was published in June.    A long-time contributor to HNN, his other public affairs commentaries include the Winter 2012 and Spring 2017 cover stories for The American Scholar Magazine.  He was a contributor to the on-line New York Times "Disunion" series on the Civil War. 

Donald Trump speaks at Mount Rushmore, July 3, 2020




The word has crossed the lips of a great many people in recent days in response to what we saw in Portland:  faceless armed men sent into our cities over protests of local officials, people whisked off in unmarked vans to be… processed.

The truth about Donald Trump is on display as never before.

His re-election chances look dim, and yet he looked like a very sick joke back in 2016, until the shock of election night hit us.  So if four more years of this hell are over the horizon, we should wonder how bad it might get.

It is no hyperbole to use the term "fascistic" when it comes to this man, for his appetite for one-man rule is getting worse.  Our checks and balances have placed some limits on his penchant for tyranny, but the efficacy of our constitutional system is eroding.  Trump has paid no price for his lawlessness; he has been curbed now and then and even disappointed sometimes but never really punished.

Can you imagine four more years of this, with Trump pushing the limits to impose his will upon Americans?  If that happens -- and it might -- our federal and constitutional system, as designed by the Founding Fathers, will have failed in a fundamental sense.  And in such a case -- especially if more and more people come to feel that our American heritage is slipping away -- the times could become revolutionary.

Is such a thing impossible to contemplate?  Ask yourself this:  how clearly did anyone foresee our current mess four years ago?

Could our democracy be overturned?  The notion might appear to be ridiculous.  But there has been a lot of talk about this among some sober and intelligent people lately, and why not?  Nothing like this has ever happened in America before.

If Trump prevails in November, he will find it very hard to resist the temptation to act out every authoritarian impulse that has ever crossed his mind.  The results of the congressional elections will of course be decisive.   If the Democrats capture both houses of Congress by super-majorities, they can rip him right out of office.  But if they take control of Congress with less than supermajorities, the prospects get dimmer.

If the status quo prevails, things become much worse, and if 2020 turns out to be a year of Republican triumph — for who can say what “October surprise” may be in store? — there is simply no telling what Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham would allow Trump to do to our country.

We don’t want to think very much about this because the prospect is sickening — so we put it aside for the sake of maintaining our morale.

In 1935, the novelist Sinclair Lewis produced a full-fledged dystopian fantasy, It Can’t Happen Here, that presented a vivid account of what the onset of fascism would be like in America.  It is time for us to conjure up some similar visions since we need to consider what would happen — and what could be done — if the worst came to pass, though it might seem alarmist to think so.

It would be extremely difficult to overturn American democracy in the current environment, bad though it is.  But things have certainly gone far enough for a reality check to be in order.

If you agree with this premise — if you agree it can be useful now and then to “think the unthinkable” — don’t flinch as you consider the following.  You may feel that the people who are warning of “fascism” are posing or bluffing or posturing, talking nonsense.  Alright, then:  let’s call the bluff and see what happens.

Try this.  Through some twist of fate, the Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches in 2021.  Trump’s worst aberrations accelerate and he becomes a true madman on the order of Hitler.

This point is extremely important:  the following fantasy can only be convincing if we think of a quantum leap in Trump’s derangement, a plausible conjecture in light of his ongoing mental deterioration.

In the past, there would have been quick action if a president went stark raving mad:  the Twenty Fifth Amendment would have been invoked and that president would have been removed.  But the cynicism of Republicans who have sat on their hands in the course of Trump’s presidency thus far has created a new climate — one that would make it much harder to take corrective action if Trump went over the brink. 

So imagine that the madness of Trump verges into a full-fledged case of insanity in 2021.  What does he do in his quest to gain the kind of absolute power that can only be found in dictatorship?  In what manner does he try to usher in fascism?

Close your eyes and imagine it.

He finds a pretext — never mind what — to resume his armed incursions in American cities but now on a vastly greater scale.  McConnell and Graham would of course let it happen: they will say that the idiot liberals are at it again, exaggerating a threat from a radical left. 

Depending on the scale of the outrages that are perpetrated by the faceless and nameless armed men — their camouflage and gas masks will continue to make it impossible to identify them as they beat people up — rioting will resume all over America, but on a vastly greater scale.  The process would feed on itself, with every act of brutality fueling the outrage of citizens.

Governors would call out the National Guard to get the situation under control.  This would be the pretext for attempting a fascist revolution.

Based upon the world’s experience with out-and-out fascism to date, the playbook moves would be standard, so let’s go ahead and recite them, however absurd it might seem to imagine this happening in America.

A fascistic president hell-bent on overturning American democracy would declare another national emergency, federalize the National Guard in every state, impose martial law, disable the internet, and then get his henchmen in the Homeland Security department to set up “emergency detention areas” for “terrorists.”

Attorney General Barr would claim that everything was lawful and legitimate.  Federal officials who refused to carry out Trump’s  orders would be fired and  replaced with minions, like the ones who are running the Homeland Security department without Senate confirmation.

Trump would adjourn both houses of Congress — he has claimed to have the power to do this — for reasons of “security.”

Our cities would remain under occupation and the people who are taken away would begin disappearing.  Federalized National Guard units would be ordered to shut down state and local government on a strictly “temporary” basis for reasons of “security.”

There you are:  the playbook scenario, quick and nasty, for applying the standard moves of fascism to a Trump second term in which the president went berserk.

Is this paranoid enough?  It ought to be, since our goal is to push this fear just as far as it can go — as a test — and then think of what would happen.  

So let’s continue, and ask ourselves the following questions:  (1) could any of this really happen, and (2) if it did, how on earth could it be stopped?

Of course there would be massive resistance if Trump went berserk in this manner.  Members of Congress, judges, and elected officials all over the country would be up in arms, though the fury and commotion would be stifled to some extent if Trump’s henchmen succeeded in using high-tech methods to block the internet and other channels of communication.  But let’s be realistic:  the total disruption of communications in the United States would prove to be impossible.

So a chaotic and uncoordinated resistance movement would coalesce.

The task of imposing police-state conditions on a continental nation with a population of over 300 million would be arduous.   Hitler had his own private army in place all over Germany — the brown-shirted SA storm troopers and the black-uniformed SS skull-and-crossbones elite — when he imposed dictatorship in 1933, but Trump does not have a private army.

He might try to give the NRA paramilitary status to pin down state and local police.  He would probably refrain from using active-duty military units, for the difficulties would be much too great in the short run:  officers are sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States and the push-back would be significant.  Indeed, the members of the high command would be engaging in urgent consultations as to how to respond to this grotesque situation.  So Trump would find that his task was to neutralize the military, not try to use it.

Moreover, a federalized National Guard would be operating under command structures that emanate from the Pentagon, and this would constitute another impediment.

Furthermore, the members of the National Guard are citizen-soldiers who would understand what was being attempted.  Governors whose stature has recently risen under the conditions of the COVID emergency would take action in consultation with the adjutants-general of their states in response to a presidential effort to pervert the National Guard.

But even if a handful of National Guard units could be tricked or dragooned into aiding and abetting a lunatic president, the results would be immensely destructive and potentially deadly.  Americans would not submit meekly, and chaotic civil war might ensue in certain parts of the country — especially the “red states.”   Some parts of the United States might become nearly ungovernable for a time.   The bogus “emergency” would become a very real emergency as chaos disrupted nearly every facet of American life.

Would that faze Trump?  Of course it wouldn’t:  he revels in disorder, mayhem, and chaos just as much as he savors the pleasures of dictatorship.

So he would not give up.

One thing alone would put an end to all this, and we know what it is, so let’s have it.  In 1938, a group of German officers planned a coup d’etat against Hitler on the eve of his occupation of Czechoslovakia.  Among the leaders were Colonel Hans Oster, General Erwin von Witzleben, and General Erich Hoepner.  The plan was to seize the government sector in Berlin and bring Hitler to trial (or kill him) while other military units were deployed to prevent interference by the SS.  After Hitler’s trial and conviction, a new constitution for Germany would be established, since the old one — the Weimar Constitution — had proven worthless. Alas, this plot was never carried out.

No constitution makes provision for a military coup, but when constitutions cease to function, all bets are off.  Our soldiers take an oath that includes a promise to abide by the orders of the president.  But the oath entails a much larger promise that encompasses the others:  to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  If the president violates his own oath of office and attempts to overthrow the Constitution — if he commits treason — our commanders would decide what to do.

If they did intervene, let us hope that they would summon a new constitutional convention, for the country should never be placed in this kind of situation and a new constitution for America would be justified.

Let’s ring down the curtain on the fantasy of fascism in America, for in all probability — or so it seems — Trump will plunge to defeat in November in any event.  And even if this hellish man gets another four years in which to torture our nation, ways and means would be found to keep his worst propensities contained — or so we can hope.

But even if Trump never ushers in a fascist revolution, the deterioration would continue.  We would continue to slide toward a “mafia state” in which our institutions are subverted from the top by criminality.

Trump’s  attempted subversion of our Postal Service — an act of sedition to undermine mail-in voting — is indicative of what may be in store.  Depending on the whims of his aberrant mind, this man is capable of anything.

Still, the issues that we have been considering go beyond this uniquely hideous man.  We have been talking about the intersections of two fundamental principles:  constitutional law and the physical force that can undermine it or support it.

Constitutionalism is the foremost principle invoked by the leaders of The Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump Republican effort to awaken conservatives to the danger of Trump’s abuse of power.  How are we faring at the moment when it comes to our constitutional tradition?

We wouldn’t be considering any of this — we would not be in this nightmarish situation at all — if the constitutional protections designed by the Founding Fathers were as functional as they ought to be.

Our much-amended Constitution remains a deeply flawed document.

In normal times our Constitution works, but at the moment its weaknesses are flagrant.  Our plight should be seen as a grave constitutional failure.   Things have gone too far when observers are concluding that our task in the immediate future may be staving off the threat of fascist rule.   Deride these fears if you wish, but the conditions that prompt them are much too real to shrug away.  Look to Portland, where the mayor was tear-gassed and Donald Trump bragged about it.

Did you ever expect that you would see such things in the America you once thought you knew?

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