by Ali Minai
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
—Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”
On January 24, 2017 – four days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States – I sat down at my computer and wrote out an 8-point plan by which I feared he and his party could change forever the nature of American democracy. Now, as we approach another presidential election, it is interesting to look back and take stock.
Here was the plan – reproduced verbatim without any change except a small typo correction:
Step 1: Delegitimize all authoritative sources of information – mainstream media, scientists, economists, historians, other experts.
Step 2: Use control of government resources to foment conspiracy theories and generate fake information (including fake data) to delegitimize popular predecessor.
Step 3. Use the judiciary and the legislature to criminalize criticism and dissent.
Step 4 Stop keeping track of data that would quantify inconvenient facts about climate change, economic inequality, social problems, civil rights problems, gun violence, police brutality, corporate greed, foreign wars, etc.
Step 5: Use control of government institutions to revise previous data and generate new false data to shape perceptions of prior dysfunction and current progress.
Step 6: Divide the opposition by tangling them in internal feuds on issues such as trade, race, political correctness, Israel, etc.
Step 7: Pack the bureaucracy and judiciary as far as possible with compliant functionaries who support the program.
Step 8: Use government institutions to ensure single-party electoral dominance for the foreseeable future, thus removing all fear of public accountability.
I would now like to pose two questions:
- Was all this possible in January 2017?
- Did it come to pass, and if not, why not?
To answer the first question, yes, it was certainly possible. The mechanisms were all there. Trump had come in with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The party dominated governorships and state legislatures across the country. The judiciary had already been packed well by previous Republican administrations, and the reversal of this packing stymied by Republican obstruction during the Obama years. The Right-Wing propaganda machine, led by Fox News and Talk Radio, was humming on all cylinders.
Trump’s election had shown that facts did not matter sufficiently to a large part of the American electorate who could be duped into believing even the most outlandish conspiracy theories. The Democratic Party was in disarray – its most recent flag-bearer left crippled by the short-sighted attitudes of voters in her own party. And – most importantly – the template for executing the plan had been perfected over several decades by Republican operatives like Lee Atwater, Roger Stone, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and Steve Bannon. All that was needed was a coup de grace by a charismatic man who could be king.
Fortunately, the man America got was Donald Trump.
In what must be regarded as a demonstration of Divine providence akin to the fact that snakes don’t have wings, the strategy brewed over a half century by the Republican Right was injected with bleach and capped with a red cap that said: Poison, Do Not Drink.
But let us begin with the first part of my second question: Did it come to pass? Did Trump and his administration take some or all of the eight steps I had listed. The stunning answer is that they did. At the risk of sounding vain, I must say that I am both horrified and humbled by how spot on those predictions were. Of course, it took no genius to see the writing on the wall even then, but still! However, there is a twist: Though all these steps were pursued by the Trump Administration, the level of success was variable. And we still don’t know how well they have done on the most important step of all – Step 8. We’re about to find out in a few short days.
It is almost tedious to document the actions that the Trump Administration took on the first seven steps, but a sparse sampling is sufficient to establish the case.
On Step 1 – delegitimizing authoritative sources of information to make false information indistinguishable from the truth – we can begin with the way Trump has treated all media outside the right-wing Fox-Talk echo chamber, regularly labeling CNN and other mainstream media as “the enemy of the people”. Right-wing mouthpieces such as Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham reinforce this message every day on Fox News and Fox Business. Trump has gone out of the way to celebrate MSNBC’s Ali Velshi being hit by rubber bullets while covering anti-racism protests, and has regularly insulted White House correspondents – especially women of color such as Weijia Jiang of CBS, Kristin Welker of NBC, and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Network. As the election approaches, the demonization of journalists has reached a fever pitch with Trump himself directing vitriol towards Welker, Bob Woodward, Chris Wallace, Savannah Guthrie, and Lesley Stahl, among others. Trump has also established a regular pattern of undermining information from trusted sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and even the National Weather Service, as demonstrated in the absurd “Sharpiegate” incident. The systematic undermining of the various US intelligence agencies has, of course, been a feature of Trump’s political discourse as well. But the most significant – and tragic example – of the systematic war on trusted information sources is the way the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and even White House physicians have been coopted into creating false narratives during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is labeled as a “loser” and “a disaster” by the President himself. The net effect of all this has been to fracture the national consensus on facts and truth, which was always the intention as the first step on the road to an alternative reality. Fortunately, it appears that a majority of the country is still on the side of real Reality.
Step 2 – the use of government resources to foment conspiracy theories and false narratives – has also seen a great deal of action through the Trump years, but a few instances are extremely salient. The first is Spygate – the suggestion that the Obama Administration “spied” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 elections. This false theory – pushed by the right-wing media echo chamber, Republican politicians such as Sen. Ron Johnson (WI) and Rep. Devin Nunes (CA), and Trump himself – has been debunked repeatedly, most notably by the fizzling out of the latest “investigation” instituted by the Department of Justice. But ideas that do not need the support of evidence can never truly be killed, and this one is still alive as a zombie on the election trail. Another close relative of this conspiracy theory is the one that tries to enmesh the current Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice-President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, into a web of international corruption involving Ukraine, China, and other mysterious actors. This theory, of course, is still very much alive as the election approaches, and is likely going to be the mainstay of an ongoing Republican delegitimization of a Biden presidency should it come to pass. In addition to these two political tales, the Right has also promoted several false conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus, such as its supposed creation in a Chinese lab, the imaginary involvement of doctors in hyping up the pandemic, and the benefits of miracle cures from hydroxycholoroquine to Clorox cocktails. The Scientific American has compiled a helpful list of the most pervasive COVID-19 conspiracy theories, almost all of which are linked to and spread by the US right-wing media machine. As for delegitimizing his popular predecessor, Barack Obama, it can be argued that the entire Trump presidency is a project driven by this goal, as shown by his determination to reverse every Obama achievement – in particular, the Affordable Care Act – and misinformation has been a key part of this, from claims about the economy to health-care to violent crime.
Step 3 – using government power to suppress dissent – seems a little less visible, until one realizes what counts as dissent in the Trump universe. Basically, anyone seeking to expose an inconvenient truth is seen as a threat, and several have been subjected to various forms of government harassment. The most obvious cases were those related to Donald Trump’s impeachment earlier this year, when truth-tellers such as Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Col. Alexander Vindman, Dr. Fiona Hill, and others were subjected to career-threatening actions because of their audacity. Trump and others in the administration have also gone out of their way to threaten government whistle-blowers with lawsuits and other punishment. And then there are all those who used to work for the Trump Administration but have decided to leave and tell some truths about it. Their right to speak has routinely been curtailed through unprecedented non-disclosure agreements that they were forced to sign, and failing that, through active lawsuits, as in the case of Omarosa Manigault Newman and Ambassador John Bolton. Still, this aspect of the plan seems to be one where Trump’s success has been rather limited.
On Steps 4 and 5 – the corruption of government data and its use to construct a false narrative of success – the results have been mixed. There have indeed been attempts to interfere with data at the EPA, NASA, NOAA and the CDC, but the scope of this interference is still not as vast as feared initially. Most of the effort seems to be directed at data related to climate change, endangered species, pollution, and recently, the COVID-19 pandemic – in some cases focusing more on how the data is used rather than on tampering with the data itself. Almost all these efforts – except the last – are aimed more at removing regulations on various industries rather than explicitly creating false narratives, though that is an inevitable side-effect. However, while the actual alteration of data has been limited, the same cannot be said of trying to create false perceptions about the success of the Trump Administration in undoing the imaginary dysfunction it claims to have inherited from the Obama Administration. A good example of this is the claim that the economy was performing poorly under Obama and has somehow “recovered” under Trump – a claim that was demonstrably false even prior to the pandemic (see this analysis for a comprehensive view.)
On Step 6, Trump and his army of media propagandists have tried their utmost to sow dissension in the Democratic ranks. Plan A for this was to create a Progressive vs. Centrist divide. However, both sides of the Democratic coalition seem to have learned the lessons of 2016 very well, so that, in spite of an energetic and competitive primary, all the major contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are in strong support of Joe Biden, and are among his best surrogates. The Democratic electorate too has united behind Biden in numbers that are even stronger than those that Trump gets on the Republican side. One would have to say that, after showing some early promise, Step 6 has been a dismal failure for Trump, which is extremely important because dividing the Democrats was always Trump’s best strategy to win a second term.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Step 7 – packing the judiciary and the bureaucracy with Republican loyalists who will use the law to promote the political preferences of the GOP. As I write these lines, a third Trump appointee to the US Supreme Court is about to be confirmed. All three have well-established records as partisan Republicans and extreme conservatives in the Federalist Society mold. As of October 23, 2020, Trump has successfully appointed two associate justices of the US Supreme Court, 53 US Court of Appeals judges, 162 US District Court judges, and two judges on the US Court of International Trade – giving a total of 219 – soon to be 220 and more – judicial appointments in under four years. In contrasted, over more than twice the duration, President Obama was able to appoint a total of 329 judges (two to the US Supreme Court, 55 to the US Court of Appeals, 268 to district courts, and four to the US Court of International Trade.) Thus, Trump’s presidency, even if it ends in 2021, will leave an outsize and enduring mark on the country. Very importantly, many of the judges appointed by Trump have been deemed unqualified by the US Bar Association – formerly seen as a terminal designation for federal judicial appointments. Not a single one of the 53 appellate judges appointed by Trump is black, and the vast majority of the others are white men. In a very real sense, Donald Trump has set the complexion of US judicial system for decades to come – and it does not match that of a rapidly diversifying country. How that mismatch plays out will be one of the most important stories of the near future in the United States. But, to be fair, Trump’s role on this monumental achievement is more that of an instrument than the master strategist. That would be Mitch McConnell. Trump’s surprise election in 2016 handed McConnell an opportunity that he had probably not dreamed of getting, but which he was fully prepared to grasp – as shown by his blocking of Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for eight months. On the bureaucracy side, it is harder to judge the effects of the Trump presidency. His political appointees will, of course, leave when he does. How many right-wing ideologues he has managed to insert into the career civil service depends on the recruitment policies of his political appointees. Given the incompetence they have demonstrated in visible ways, it is likely that they have mostly failed in their project as well.
Which brings us to Step 8 – using government institutions to entrench one party Republican rule. First, the single most important institution for accomplishing this goal is, in fact, the judiciary, and, as discussed above, Republicans have truly captured that institution for the foreseeable future, and it paid off handsomely in 2013 when the Roberts Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder case. But the judiciary can only rule on legality; it cannot enact laws or execute policies. That task has fallen to Republican officials at the State level, who have used every tool of voter disenfranchisement available to them from gerrymandering to poll taxes and voter ID laws to curtailing voting sites. It can be argued reasonably that these methods were crucial to Trump’s victory in 2016, but also – more importantly – for the Republican Party’s strong and enduring grip on state governorships and legislatures, where the real business of establishing power goes on. That grip began to loosen a little after the 2018 election, but many crucial states, including North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania remain at the mercy of Republican legislatures and state courts, even though some now have Democratic governors. Other states, such as Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, that are now becoming more competitive also have the same issues. The 2020 election has seen a whole slew of Republican lawsuits trying to curtail early and mail-in voting, reducing the number of voting sites, and enforcing voter ID and virtual poll tax laws. In most cases, even if state courts and lower federal courts decide in favor of expanded voting rights, the Republican-dominated federal appeals courts and the US Supreme Court have generally sided with the Republicans (a good overview of the decided and open suits can be found on SCOTUSblog.) Still, it is heartening to see that some cases have resulted in wins for expanded voter rights, including in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The real impact of the courts on the 2020 election will be seen if and when results are disputed after the election is over. Unless Biden wins a very clear, comprehensive victory, that is very likely to happen, and that is where the Republican capture of the judiciary may play a critical role.
But the use of government institutions to consolidate partisan power has gone well beyond the courts and state legislatures. Through the entire Trump presidency, almost every department of the US Government has functioned as an arm of the Trump political machine. Nowhere is this more apparent in the actions of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Bill Barr – from the sabotaging of the Mueller Report to the thwarting of Congressional subpoenas for impeachment witnesses. In the last few weeks, the Department of Justice has even jumped in to defend President Trump on personal civil litigation related to sexual assault allegations against him from before he was president! The Department of State has similarly become a tool for boosting Trump’s political fortunes – to the point that even the Pope has noticed. The same has happened with the Department of Defense – highlighted most clearly in the use of military equipment (including helicopters), the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as part of Trump’s recent political stunt at the St. John’s Church in Washington DC. A less systematic but potentially more troubling development is the nexus that has become visible in some places between local law enforcement and the right-wing. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon is the United States, but things seemed to have improved considerably in recent years. Now, with a spate of police brutality cases and the resulting anti-racism demonstrations, the problem has re-emerged as documented by Amnesty International and others, and Trump’s approval is a key element in this.
All-in-all, one can say that Donald Trump has attempted to execute on every one of the eight steps I had hypothesized he would take. And yet, eight days before the election, he is in dire shape for re-election. Trailing his opponent by more than 9 points nationally, and handily in almost all swing states (plus a few traditionally Republican ones). One is tempted to say that the system has worked; that, for all his assault on them, the institutions of democracy – and, most importantly, the voting public – have withstood the most severe norm-breaking assault in recent American history. But it would be both too early and too late to say that. Too early because we do not know how the election will turn out. Though a clear Trump victory looks almost impossible, that is how it looked in 2016 too. To be fair, there are many differences this time: Biden has led Trump by a virtually unchanged margin for months; Trump has now been president for four years and his ineptitude is visible to all; he is by far the most unpopular president in the history of presidential polling in the US; his handling of the pandemic has already resulted in almost a quarter of a million US deaths; even his supporters can barely stand him as a person; Biden – unlike Hillary Clinton – is personally popular, and becoming more so with time; younger voters – of whom there are more this year than ever before – despise Trump with a passion, as do women, suburban voters, voters with college degrees, and voters of every demographic minority. These and many other factors make it unlikely that Trump can prevail. But if he comes close enough on November 3rd – and he can – the onslaught of propaganda, litigation and violence that he can unleash might put everything into question, including the future of American democracy. Personally, I think that the chances of that are low – if only because all other players on the Republican side still want the system to survive – but we will not really know until the time arrives and passes.
It is also too late to rest easy in the certainty of the system having worked because four years of Trump have injected the venom of Trumpism deep into the veins of the American body politic. It will not disappear when Trump leaves. Rather, it will continue to incite new fevers that we can barely imagine now. In 2009, after Barack Obama began his presidency, we got a preview of what we now know lay ahead. We can now see that the emergence of the Tea Party, its birther conspiracy theory, and its assault on institutions prefigured the rise of Trump. What, then, is the Trump presidency prefiguring? Nothing good, I fear. The delegitimization of institutions, the subversion of consensus on facts, the systematic undermining of science, the trashing of norms – all of these will be difficult, if not impossible, to repair. They will certainly not be repaired in a year while the pandemic is still raging, but that is all the time that a Biden presidency will have to get its sea legs and steady things. Then the campaigning will start for the 2022 midterms, the right-wing media juggernaut will move into action, the funders of dysfunction who feed off it will put in their money, and another cycle of mortal combat will begin. It is too late to avoid that. The one thing that may mitigate this dismal prospect is a cataclysmic Democratic victory on November 3 – a Blue Tsunami so immense that it washes away the very foundations of the structure built by the right-wing propaganda-industrial complex over the last forty years. That this is actually a real – if remote – possibility is the most exciting thing about the upcoming election.
It is strange to say this, but, in a way, we got lucky in 2016. Over several decades, the American Right had built a powerful machine for acquiring, centralizing, and holding on to power. And, in spite of working against the country’s demographic currents, it had done extremely well. The stage was set for a final grab that would wrap things up in a nice bundle and deliver it to the oligarchs of the Right. But the impish providence that governs human affairs decided that the instrument of this binding would be a narcissistic showman with no ability to concentrate, and so the carefully crafted mechanism of power was delivered into the small, clumsy hands of Donald Trump. Perhaps this was inevitable, that – as some have argued – Trump was the logical culmination of a fundamentally corrupt project. Perhaps, but in any case, he did become president and took complete control of all the assets the Right had built up over decades – turning the Republican Party into the Party of Trump. If America’s luck holds, he may now take this abomination down with him into the sewer of history, allowing a saner – and very necessary – conservative party to emerge. But just as likely is the possibility that, as the poison of Trumpism continues to circulate, a more capable version of Donald Trump will arise and this time accomplish ruthlessly what Trump may have almost wrecked with his impulsiveness. Is there a Sulla, a Caesar, an Octavian in our near future?
And what of the Democratic Party? If Trump wins next week, it will be such a blow to the Democratic psyche that things may fall apart entirely, with the party descending rapidly into internecine warfare among the moderates and the progressives. But if – as appears likelier – Biden wins, the Democrats will face an equally daunting challenge. The force that had united them, i.e., Trump, will be gone. There will be a brief moment of real power – especially if the Senate also goes to the Democrats – and that is always a moment of real peril and real opportunity. It will be up to Joe Biden to build on the goodwill he has developed within his party and with all his erstwhile opponents for the nomination. He will need to work with both the moderates and the progressives – and, very importantly, with the Republicans who were brave enough to oppose Trump – to forge a new consensus for a more diverse, more equal America. Everyone from the far-Left to the center-Right will need to think beyond themselves because the Democratic tent is about to get bigger. Time will be short. The knives will be out. The world will be watching.