Trump in perpetuity?

There is an excellent Tweet thread from the consistently insightful Alexandra Erin here:

She finishes with this observation:

‘the way Trump will deprive us of democracy is by two years of his collaborators sitting here and saying “But surely you wouldn’t suggest that he is.”‘

It’s an alarming thought and some might say it is itself alarmism. Afterall, I’ve heard (and considered) whether numerous leaders would somehow rig or cancel elections to stay in power permanently. I thought Margaret Thatcher would do that, I was worried that George W Bush might do that – I certainly read worried rightwingers who thought Bill Clinton or Brack Obama might do that. Notably, none of them did. Power shifted using normal means. Phew!

Yeah but…Vladimir Putin? Robert Mugabe? Or we cast the net wider and think of leaders who had to be forced from power by more assertive means such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru who ran for a third term as President when the role was limited to two terms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberto_Fujimori#Third_term ). The point being is that leaders in recent history have found ways to cling to power by authoritarian, corrupt and anti-democratic means. There is no shortage of cases and the leader subverting democracy doesn’t need to be a literal Hitler to do it. That’s not to say the Hitler comparisons are in-apt or a case of Godwin’s law – that Hitler came to ultimate power in Germany by quasi-constitutional means *is* a highly relevant example, it’s just that it is one of many.

So why aren’t we in the fifth term of a George W Bush presidency? I think two factors are in play:

  1. George W Bush really wouldn’t want to be President for life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not joining the rehabilitate-George campaign — his presidency damaged the world and damaged American democracy — I just don’t think he was ever really the sort of person who would want to cling to power. The key point being character. It takes a particular kind of paranoid narcism to want to hold on. It requires fear of your enemies gaining control and unwillingness to accept anybody else can rule.
  2. Civic society and institutions. Power requires societal co-operation. It requires generals to carry on running the army and the army to carry on following the orders of generals. It requires courts to continue functioning. It requires the police to carry on policing. It also requires people to literally carry on turning up for work each day.

For the kind of slow-coup to happen, where a leader can move beyond constitutional/formal limits and effectively suspend democracy both elements need to exist. You need somebody willing and eager to take control and weak institutions who won’t provide adequate resistance.

This latter point isn’t even one requiring powerful entities to be progressive or pro-democracy. What is required is that there are powerful groups who an aspiring dictator needs for his rule to proceed who would refuse to cooperate for reasons that could be cynical or high minded. The armed forces are the most obvious example and is why the slow-coup scenario is more likely to be of a rightwing nature (counter-examples would be when the military was born from a revolutionary movement in the first place).

So how do those two conditions apply now?

  1. I can’t say I understand Trump’s character. I openly wondered prior to the election whether he even wanted to be President. However, whatever his motives are they clearly aren’t uncynical or motivated by a desire to provide good stewardship. There are good reasons to think that by being President he avoids deep financial troubles and possible criminal prosecution  — both of which are reasons that he wouldn’t want to stop being President. He really wouldn’t want to lose in 2020 either just in terms of ego.
  2. US institutions have been actively weakened. Congress is not holding the President to account. The courts and federal agencies have been politicised in the sense that any actions they take are cast in party-political partisan terms by the GOP and the wider right. The press is economically and institutionally weak and news media is fractured and distorted.

Niether of those mean that Trump will attempt to remove democracy but it is more than fair to say that:

  • he has no deep attachement to democracy as a principle
  • the GOP has been acting anti-democratically with regard to a whole host of issues for some time (covered in Alexandra Erin’s thread above, i.e. ‘voter fraud’ fakery, gerrymandering & voter supression
  • US civic institutions are weaker in various ways and being actively weakened.

In other words, the concerns are real and the risks higher than they have been for a long time.

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19 thoughts on “Trump in perpetuity?

  1. The Republicans know that they cannot win honestly anymore, so they cheat as much and as often as they can. Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on Gerymandering clearly shows how much advantage a stolen Court seat gives them.

    Trump is far along the road to authoritarianism and nobody in the Senate or the Congress has tried to stop him. The Republicans are complicit in the destruction of the United States as we knew them.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yep. Trump is the culmination of the modern Republican party, not an aberration. Treating all Democratic presidents as illegitimate has been part of the Republican playbook for decades.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They’ve gotten so good at obstructing that they’ve forgotten how to actually accomplish anything. It’s a small blessing that they’re so very incompetent at governing.

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  2. I think Charlie Stross’ Slow AI applies here to the Republican party. It doesn’t need an “eternal leader”, just one who will enforce the hold on power, and that can change easily enough. I’m pretty sure that any alternative Republican candidate would have behaved in much the same way in terms of controlling the legislative agenda (by killing it dead), running the judicial branch (the new judges have not been Trump’s picks, but come from a different list), and exploiting the executive order power. About the only difference I can think of that might set Trump apart is the North Korea bizarreness, and possibly the tariffs (although there may be a “keeping power” element to them that I’m not seeing.)

    Once the Republican party had become that entity, then it could run itself and maintain power whilst still allowing “democracy” to appear robust. It’s doing really, really well. Alas.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’d argue Trump, like Abbott here in Australia, didn’t really want the job they wound up in, which is “leader of a representative democratic society”. What they both wanted was the role of absolute monarch. Neither of them has a leadership style which is suited to representative democracy – both of them are autocratic and authoritarian in an extreme. However, the problem with degraded democracies (which both the USA and Australia are – they’re degraded in slightly different ways, but the degradation is still there) is they make it easier for autocrats to seize power.

    I can see Trump not so much suspending the elections in the USA (he definitely wants to be able to win one by a landslide, if only to be able to say he did – it’s something Barack Obama succeeded in doing that he hasn’t done yet, and I think it niggles at him), but refusing to accept the results of one which voted him out. Watch what he does in response to the upcoming mid-term elections (the ones the “Blue Wave” Democrats are busy hoping they’re going to be able to win big at). I will be willing to bet if the result comes out against him, he’s going to be saying there was “voter fraud” again, and there will be more restrictions on who is allowed to vote, where they’re able to vote and so on. At present there are plans for an election in 2020 in the USA (Trump has a campaign set up for it, and has done practically since the day he was inaugurated), and I do suspect that election will be going forward. Whether the voting rules will be the same in 2020 as they were in 2018… now, that’s a different question.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly. Disenfranchise enough people — like all the people in Texas who “accidentally” got removed from the ballot (guess what color their skin isn’t), pass enough voter ID laws, deport citizens (or have them leave when their whole family is put into a camp and then deported), have the easily hackable voting machines, and the appearance of democracy goes on.

      I mean, technically, Russia and China are democracies, or were till recently.

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  4. 1) Trump did not expect to win the Republican primary. When he won it, he did not expect to win the Presidency. The idea was to build publicity for his new t.v. network and business operations. Once he became President, he hates the job except for the pomp parts and he doesn’t understand democracy much less want it around. He’s used to ordering around and talking tough because he’s a rich crook boss, and the Republicans in Congress are currently treating him that way. And he’s been backed by rich people who have put their people around him and it is those people who are crafting policies, mainly to disrupt globalism, the stability of alliances, and destroy the U.S. influence in the world because they think that chaos and instability will allow the rise of right wing autocratic control of “western civilization” — and make them even richer, etc.

    2) Gorsuch is a Justice by a stolen seat, but he simply replaced Scalia, who was worse than he is. The harmful and unconstitutional decisions that occurred from the Supreme Court this week — and previously in gutting the Voting Rights Act and Citizens United — occurred because of Justice Kennedy, the semi-conservative swing vote on the court. When Kennedy decides to side with the far right four justices, that’s when we get a mess. When he sides with the four left-center justices, we get marriage equality, etc. Everything depends on persuading Kennedy to uphold the Constitution and civil rights. Sometimes he does, sometimes he does not. Should a left-center Justice or Kennedy have to be replaced during Trump’s term, we will then have a far right majority court and women may lose their civil rights to their own bodies.

    3) To have a successful autocracy, you have to have the military with you, supporting you in your autocratic overthrow. Trump has ICE and a lot of the border control folk and a lot of the cops, and the military is not involved and has ignored most of it. And there are factions of the military dedicated to autocracy of various kinds, including white supremacy (see John Kelly,) but they do not have control of the bulk of the military, which also has a strong need to include diverse, multi-racial, Latino, gay, etc. soldiers to fill ranks and is often more progressive than much of the country in its operations. Trump does not have control over enough of the governors/National Guard, and he does not have enough support in the military. At least at the moment. Times can change things, as Erin notes.

    But to get the support of the majority of military leaders to inflict your autocracy, you have to be giving them something they want, so that they will violently beat up your enemies external and domestic and not stage a military coup against your autocratic coup. For Hitler, he offered them the chance to retake what was lost in WWI, to reclaim Germany’s military glory after it had been beaten, and lots of power as the military in the country. That’s not the circumstance that the U.S. military is in. Could you come up with circumstances to get them there? Possibly. That the military bases are now being used for kiddie concentration camps that will benefit defense contractors and other vultures, and that the military is okay with this is troubling. But it doesn’t match and necessarily follow Hitler’s model.

    Trump is not president because he’s charismatic or a strong leader, because he isn’t those things. The majority of the country doesn’t support him but was either blocked from voting or apathetic enough to assume other people would take care of him. He just happened to come at a time when the Republican party is facing fifty years of catering to white supremacists to survive and desperately trying to keep that going. In many ways, the fascistic movements in other countries, such as in Europe, Great Britain — and Australia — are a lot more scary, since they have some very competent autocrats leading them. But it does come down to what the U.S. military does and what they put up with. You have to be able to physically control much of the public when you get to the serious stuff, and that takes their guns.

    But even if he doesn’t get his autocracy and the military backing, Trump has already killed many people and is vigorously setting things up to kill many more, and more importantly for the Republicans backing him, keep the system rigged as long as they can. Those things will not be easily dislodged even if Trump is gone. And those things could help out someone else be an autocrat by further reducing the democracy of the country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And Kennedy is retiring, the jerk, so we’re screwed. He couldn’t wait two more years and give us a shot. This is exactly what the Evangelicals have been waiting for and mainly why they backed Trump, so the Republicans will defend anyone Trump nominates fiercely. So Erin’s model is getting a boost.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “And Kennedy is retiring, the jerk, so we’re screwed. He couldn’t wait two more years and give us a shot. ”
        I think it’s a safe bet he doesn’t want, or at least doesn’t care if we have a shot. Trump picking his replacement is A-OK with him.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. He didn’t even have to wait two years – he could have simply waited until this November’s elections. Kennedy chose to actively abet the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court. That’s all he should be remembered for.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As for the original question – “What’s your mental model for how Trump prevents the 2020 election from happening, thus depriving us of our democracy?” – a very basic point is that Trump doesn’t need to stop the 2020 election to stay in power, it’s enough for him to rig the game enough to win despite being relatively unpopular.

    A more critical point for Trump personally is in 2024, which is when the max-two-terms restriction comes into play. Will he find some excuse to run a third time? What would that excuse be? Personally I doubt it will be a problem – he doesn’t seem that fond of being president. (My impression is that he hates the idea of losing, so he’ll hate losing in 2020 or in any way being forced to step down, but I doubt he will have objections to a “normal” way out by stepping down after the regulated two terms.) He’ll also be closing in on 80 by then.

    However, I think both of these points put too much emphasis on Trump personally and too little emphasis on the party and the political ideas he represents. The real issue is not whether Trump is doing an illegitimate powergrap, but whether the Republican party is doing so, and what they’re using that power for. Then we’re talking about midterms in 2018, both presidential and congress elections in 2020, and midterms 2022. And local elections, and media and the narrative of “fake news”, and so on.

    And Alexandra Erin’s final point about “how will he do it? By collaborators saying he’s not doing it” is very good.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I can’t see Trump ducking the election. He LOVES campaigning and basking in all that love from the base. And I suspect that much like he overestimates his competence in every other way, he’ll believe he can win despite the odds (after all nobody expected him to win the first time). Back in 2006, W was confidently predicting the Congressional elections would be a magnificently red wave. Oops.
    I don’t know that Trump would really fight if he loses in 2020 — as others have pointed out, he’s too lazy to be a good tyrant — but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans tried taking this to court, whipping up charges of voter fraud, Russia interfering with the election to help the Dems, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, Megan McArdle. A woman who’d be fine with a fascist takeover as long as it was handled with understated good taste and didn’t inconvenience her personally.
    The No More Mr. Nice Blog had a post yesterday where one blogger was telling liberals to Vote Stein to show the Dems they wouldn’t put up with Clinton. Sure, that might give Trump the election, but he’d never be able to put those anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies he’d talked about into action.

    Liked by 2 people

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