If a political candidate promises that, if elected, he will destroy your way of life, it’s best to believe him.
Since early this year, reporters and commentators have dutifully reported and commented on the bits and pieces that Donald Trump promises will feature in his second term. In March, Trump promised, as a top priority, “retribution.” In July, he spoke of expanding presidential powers. More recently, his allies speak of invoking the Insurrection Act on Day One.
But I wonder: Has this threat to our democratic way of life — ominous in the extreme if fully understood, but hard to grasp in bits and pieces — impinged yet on John Q. Public?
Not on most Republicans: Fully 70% of all Republicans — 74% actually — remain committed to a candidate who is the subject of four (4) criminal indictments, totaling 91 felony charges. Clearly this big chunk of the electorate does not understand the threat.
Tellingly, and instructively, it is “recovering” Republicans who are raising the alarm and calling out Donald Trump’s plans for American Democracy for the dire thing they are: a “dictatorship.” Far better than the terms “autocracy” or “fascism,” dictatorship is instantly understandable and may impinge. Of course, dictatorship would mean for our way of life its destruction.
And what does “our way of life” signify to John Q. Public? It is no smear on the average American to say that, in the day to day, democracy is not a pressing concern. Ideally, that is the way democracy should be: a system that allows the citizen the freedom to go about his business, to pursue his dream (as long as that dream is legal), without fear of state interference. Which is why, instinctively, Americans believe their system is better than what History served up before: rule by kings and an aristocracy sustained by hereditary rights and divine dispensation. What needs work is John Q. Public’s understanding of — and participation in — the self-governance that democracy entails. Other than checks and balances, rule of law, and voting, it’s all a little vague.
Which brings us to why Donald Trump’s plans for American Democracy are so dire.
About those checks and balances: Most Americans (though the percentage is falling) understand there are three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — and that, through checking and balancing, no one branch can dominate the others. But Trump’s plans for the executive — the presidency — are grandiose: Per the “unitary executive theory,” Trump would consolidate in the presidency more power than ever before. How? First, by firing the professional civil servants in the federal bureaucracy, the so-called “deep state,” and installing loyalist toadies who’d carry out, without pushback, whatever extremist plan he has, for example, impounding funds that Congress has appropriated for a specific purpose but which he doesn’t like. In his first term, Trump was restrained by “the adults in the room”; now Trump would have enablers. As The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser puts it, without his enablers “Trump is just an old dude shouting at his television.”
About the rule of law: Similarly, Trump would do away with the hallowed independence of the Department of Justice and install loyalists in its hierarchy. Meaning: He would get legal clearance from “my Justice Department” for any of his extremist plans. The Justice Department’s independence is not something the average American ponders, but it is the difference between the rule of law, impartial and just, and the rule of man — i.e., one fallible man with his thumb on the scales of Justice. If that one fallible man is Donald Trump, the implications are stark, as Trump’s stated aim is to “weaponize” DOJ and the FBI in pursuit of retribution against his enemies and critics. David Frum, a “recovering” Republican with The Atlantic, writes of Trump’s “retaliation agenda” and his epically self-serving and illegal priorities for the Justice Department:
“(1) Stop all federal and state cases against Trump, criminal and civil. (2) Pardon and protect those who tried to overturn the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf. (3) Send the Department of Justice into action against Trump adversaries and critics.”
Further about point number one, Trump stopping all federal and state cases against himself, Frum says: “For his own survival, he would have to destroy the rule of law” [my italics]. And if he were convicted in any of the four pending cases, as president Trump would pardon himself. By now, it may be dawning on John Q. Public how awful, and un-American, this scenario would be.
About the Insurrection Act: Not that the average American thinks about it, but America’s military is, historically and by law, deployed only to foreign shores, not domestically, except in special cases where the president sends federal troops into a state, usually at the governor’s request, to quell an outbreak of violence or threat of it. But ever since the George Floyd killing by police in 2020, Trump has been itching to deploy the U.S. military domestically: He wanted to use it against protesters outside the White House (“Can’t you just shoot them….in the leg?”), but was dissuaded; should he be reelected, he threatens to invoke the Insurrection Act on Day One, to quell anticipated protests to his election. Having taken an oath to the Constitution, not to one man, it is unthinkable that the military would face down its own fellow citizens at one man’s order, but it is possible. Experts worry that, as written, the Insurrection Act allows a president to invoke it as described, without much judicial overview. Meaning: This is a recipe for a police state.
Just to be clear: This is also, taken altogether, a recipe for the worst-case scenario — dictatorship.
The dictionary definition of dictatorship is: “a government where one person makes all the rules and decisions without input from anyone else. Dictatorship implies absolute power.”
Again, it is “recovering” Republicans raising alarm about Trump’s dictatorial plans. In addition to David Frum, above, there is scholar Robert Kagan, whose recent essay “A Trump Dictatorship Is Increasingly Inevitable. We Should Stop Pretending” is must-read. And last weekend, former Congresswoman and arch-conservative Liz Cheney warned on network television that we are “sleep-walking into a dictatorship.” (Cheney is now weighing a possible third-party run for president.)
Raising the stakes, and the peril, of a vengeful and fallible dictator in power is this unsettling development: Trump now speaks of his opposition as “vermin.” This language is so deeply reprehensible on so many grounds, most notably for its dehumanizing of “the other,” the better to incite violence against the subhuman. For someone who knows about incitement — no question, Trump incited the January 6th mob on the U.S. Capitol — he surely knows this term’s deadly implications. Another “recovering” Republican, Peter Wehner, also writing for The Atlantic, recently asked, “Have You Listened Lately to What Trump is Saying?” In fact, Trump’s “vermin” comment did penetrate the public: America is listening. Yet the media is underplaying its significance: Per Media Matters, Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment got 18 times more play on major networks and 29 times more play in major newspapers than Trump’s “vermin” comment. Hillary’s comment was insulting, but Trump’s is dangerous.
Which leads me to this appeal to Trump’s Republican base (if they dare listen): For decades now, in your anti-government ranting, you have inveighed particularly loudly and at length against “tyrants.” But, if re-elected, what Trump is proposing to become is — believe it! — a tyrant, a dictator. Is this truly what you want? You accuse Democrats of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but who truly is deranged?
Talk about unintended consequences….or are they intended? It is disturbing to read of Republicans’ predilection for political violence: Polling by the Public Religion Research Institute shows one-third of all Republicans agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” also nearly half of all Republicans agree that the U.S. needs a leader who is “willing to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right.” PRRI’s founder sees this, writes National Public Radio, as “a clear indication of authoritarian sentiment.” Read: dictatorship.
How did America get to this low point? I will concede that it is out of the culture of the left — Hollywood, TV Land — that the amoral Trump arose; as I wrote in 2017, “A ‘Breaking Bad’ Culture Got Its President.” But conservatives have overreacted to this perceived degradation of America, by viewing all liberals as the hated enemy and allowing their professed bedrock, the Christian faith, to be hijacked for political purposes. But Trump is the falsest of prophets; this “messiah” would make America great again by destroying its very foundation — democracy. And, like the con man he is, he’s harnessed conservative grievance to supercharge his own aggrieved objectives; thus his theme of retribution. Has anybody heard Trump, out on the campaign trail, talk much about policy? (No.)
Meanwhile, Trump’s allies are recruiting pliant lawyers who will, as The New York Times puts it, “bless” his extremist moves. Project 2025, an initiative of the Heritage Foundation, is amassing names and resumés of willing enablers, with emphasis on the resumé: These enablers will come experienced and savvy, also thoroughly vetted for loyalty. Especially loyal: those corrupt individuals whom Trump pardoned in his first term. Also, there is much talk of heralding a “Red Caesar.” (No joke.)
What can John Q. Public do to fend off dictatorship? Plenty.
Democracy, powered by the demos — the people — can be saved if its people mobilize. Become activist: march, sign petitions, urge Republican politicians to call out the proto-dictator Trump. To get activist, track this all-important presidential campaign which, in just five weeks with the Iowa caucuses, gets underway big-time. Listen to “recovering” Republicans who, forsaking their wayward party and speaking from anguished hearts, paint in vivid colors what a Trump dictatorship would mean. Read the Federalist Papers, notably the first one, and see why our Founding Fathers feared demagogues the most: As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” Think further about what a dictator bent on destroying “vermin” —that is, our fellow human beings — might do: Could he incite a civil war? (Yes.) And then vote. Vote for what’s left of the good of this country.
And remember: Out of the Dark Ages, came the Renaissance.