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The pundits who said we had little to fear from Trump were wrong. So what now?

The outgoing president’s instincts were always authoritarian – which is why, even now, speaking out is vital.

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
7 January 2021, 3.32pm
Trump supporters last night flooded Washington DC, breaching the Capitol, to protest his election loss
Michael Nigro/SIPA USA/PA Images

If nothing else, yesterday’s insurgency-cum-riot on Capitol Hill sidelines a few insouciant pundits who quietly enjoyed Donald Trump’s upstaging of liberals, even as they assured us that, ultimately, we had little to fear from him.

'He Won’t Concede, but He’ll Pack His Bags' was the headline on the Atlantic writer Graeme Wood’s pre-election column of 15 October, which informed us that although Trump “has signaled that he’s willing to plunge America into chaos in an effort to remain in the White House ... we should remember that Trump had a vision of the presidency that began with extreme laziness, and that the end of his presidency could go roughly the same way ... [A]ll evidence suggests that he would run from the responsibility ... of overseeing the violent fracture of America.”

Trump's denunciations left him no choice but to humble or destroy all “politicians” who resist him.

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Was Wood right? Maybe. And maybe The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was right to assure us, on 10 October, that There Will Be No Trump Coup. Douthat offered us a “final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat. Across the last four years, the Trump administration has indeed displayed hallmarks of authoritarianism ... But it’s also important to recognize all the elements of authoritarianism he lacks. He lacks popularity and political skill, unlike most of the global strongmen who are supposed to be his peers ... Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.”

Well, maybe. But Douthat – who I’ve characterized as a casualty of Ideological Displacement Syndrome – worries that “With American liberalism poised to retake presidential power, it ... has become a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture. Its return to power in Washington won’t be the salvation of American pluralism; it will be the unification of cultural and political power under a single banner.”

Again, maybe. But, begging Douthat and Wood’s pardon, what I think we’ve witnessed on Capitol Hill is pretty much what I predicted in March of 2016, as Trump was rampaging through that year’s Republican presidential primaries, demolishing both that party’s and the Democratic Party’s establishments. “Armed, racist American goons and drooling fools who are circling liberal democracy’s proverbial town meetings in our nightmares ... weren’t born to do what they’re doing now, nor were they all disposed to do it back on the playground,” I wrote then:

The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their young lives as their parents' lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have blossomed into open resentment seeking the right target.

Warning signs

The potential for Trump to orchestrate tyranny was always there, as I warned in a 2017 essay for openDemocracy. How many of us remember that shortly before Trump’s inauguration in January that year, his transition team had discovered that the President had complete command of the National Guard unit of the District of Columbia? The team informed the unit's commander, Errol Schwartz, that his dismissal would be effective precisely at noon on Inauguration Day, in the middle of the ceremony, so that he wouldn’t even be able to welcome back the troops he’d sent out that morning.

Trump may not be as competent or consistent as other authoritarians: two days before the inauguration, his decision was reconsidered, and Schwartz was granted enough time to finish the ceremony and wrap up his affairs. But Trump’s impulses resemble the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon’s description, in ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, of the formation of the Emperor Augustus’s Praetorian Guard: “By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital.”

So far, what I and many of us feared years ago hasn’t quite happened. But Trump’s inaugural denunciations in 2017 of “politicians who prospered as jobs left and factories closed” – coupled with his vow that “the American carnage” caused by the hiring and buying of non-American people and products and deepened by crime, gangs, and drugs, “stops right here, stops right now” – left him no choice but to humble or destroy all “politicians” who resist him.

Last night, for the first time, Trump, totally cornered, predicted an orderly transition. Just look now at the Republicans, as well as Democrats, who he’s thrown under the bus. Let’s hope that we can look at this moment as a historic one in which, once again, most Americans told Trump and the millions who’ve indulged the armed goons and drooling fools among us that – as Joe Biden said yesterday – enough is enough.

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