The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup

Bottom line up front. Donald Trump is not the real problem. The real problem is that the Republican Party is mounting a slow motion authoritarian coup in the United States.

Facing fatal demographics that would otherwise doom it, it is clear that the GOP is attempting to destroy the fundamental democratic norms and institutions of the United States in order to establish permanent control of our government while it still can.

Do you doubt it? Think it’s liberal hysteria? Read on….

GET WITH THE REPUBLICAN PROGRAM

It’s not a new theory that the Republican mainstream is using Trump as cover to advance its agenda. But what I am talking about goes well beyond the regular pasting that the GOP has taken for enabling and excusing Trump. You know the mantra, the one that goes, ”McConnell and Ryan are kind of worse than Trump, because they are adults and are supposed to know better.” That’s true, and I engaged in that very discourse in these pages just a few weeks ago. But that formulation casts Trump as the core of the problem and the GOP in a mere supporting role. I am arguing that it’s the other way around.

Over the past ten years, Republicans have gerrymandered the electoral map to give themselves disproportionate representation regardless of the will of the people, creating a near lock on numerous Congressional districts and — unless things change — a good shot at permanent control of the legislative branch. They have, thanks to Citizens United, poured obscene amounts of anonymous money into our political system. (Yes, Democrats have too, but it is an arms race that the right wing initiated and has pursued with an unmatched vengeance.) They have cleverly focused on local politics and methodically taken control of state legislatures (admittedly through entirely legal means). If that continues through the 2018 midterms, it will — crucially — allow them to control the upcoming 2020 census, which will reapportion seats in the US House of Representatives for the next ten years. They have violated every possible interpretation of the spirit — and arguably the letter — of the Constitution to steal a seat on the Supreme Court and keep it stacked in their favor. They have labored mightily to destroy public faith in journalism and replace it with blatant propaganda masquerading as objective reportage, undermining the commonality of truth as a standard to which we all look — with Donald Trump, the logical conclusion of that strategy. They have redoubled their focus on wedge issues, incubating in their base a foaming hatred of the Democratic Party that goes far beyond ordinary political rivalry, often using outright lies to do so. And in what might be their most blatantly anti-democratic gambit — and it’s a very competitive field — they have engaged in a systematic effort to disenfranchise huge segments of the American electorate that are unfriendly to them, and to gin up the myth of massive voter fraud to justify further unconscionable restrictions to keep the American public from voting them out of power.

All that was before Trump.

You may say that all those things are perfectly legal. But that does not make them healthy for the republic or in any way defensible.

And collectively their effect has been tectonic. If Democrats did even one of those things, Fox News would never stop howling about it and Republicans would be out in the streets with torches and pitchforks. By comparison, the Democrats’ tepid objection to the GOP’s actions has been the equivalent of a polite throatclearing.

Then came 2016. Last year the Republican Party ran a presidential candidate who campaigned on shameless bigotry, outrageous lies, and general neo-fascism. He was installed in office despite losing the popular vote by three million votes. (The existence of the Electoral College does not make this result any more democratic.) As part of that process, a foreign power brazenly monkeywrenched with the election, possibly with the collusion of that candidate and his team. (The evidence is certainly mounting.) Since taking office, he has shamelessly abused the power of the presidency to squash investigations into those possible crimes and others, committing acts which may well constitute impeachable offenses….principally, obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of his office for personal gain. Yet the craven GOP leadership has hypocritically stood by this demagogue so long as he carries out its loathsome agenda, cynically refusing to put country above party and ensure a proper inquiry into those allegations, all the while sanctimoniously proclaiming their own patriotism.

Can we all now open our eyes and acknowledge that the United States has suffered a right wing coup d’etat? We are, quite simply, no longer a democracy by any reasonable definition of the word.

THE ACCIDENTAL DESPOT

I can already hear people on the right scornfully dismissing this argument as sour grapes — crybaby whining from the hapless side that lost the election and is looking for excuses. Call it what you will, and the American Right is certainly adept at playground insults. But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.

Could the Democrats do better? Certainly. Some of the GOP’s success can be blamed on Democratic incompetence, fecklessness, and other mistakes, though by no means all. But we may be approaching a point where ordinary politics are no longer sufficient to stop the Republican-led movement toward autocracy. If you think we are still operating in politics as usual, that it’s just a matter of better robocalls, you either tragically mistaken or a Republican operative trying to keep the opposition docile and deluded.

I’m not suggesting that the top officials of the RNC had a secret meeting at Bohemian Grove some time around 1992 and all pledged their souls to Satan. (I can’t prove that anyway.) But I do think that over the past 25 years the Republican Party has slowly, bit by bit, almost imperceptibly slid into an acceptance–and then an embrace — of increasingly ruthless anti-democratic practices that are now the party’s norm. Trump did not initiate that; far from it. But he conveniently came along at a pivotal moment and accelerated it like nitroglycerin added to the engine of the GOP stock car.

As the party’s initial opposition to Trump during the primaries made plain, the GOP was not consciously looking for a demagogue to send its authoritarian crusade into hyperdrive — at least not this particular demagogue. His success was a happy coincidence, one that the GOP at first failed to realize and even actively resisted, the silly boys. But once Trump was more or less forced on them, the party’s leaders quickly recognized their luck, and are now capitalizing on their unlikely but fortuitous control of both houses of Congress and the presidency to finalize this anti-democratic takeover of the US government that has been years on the slow boil.

A certain segment of the right was looking for such a frontman, of course. Steve Bannon and the Mercers have openly — brazenly even — said as much. Bannon has famously described himself as a “Leninist” (lopping the “Marxist-” part off the usual formation) who wants to destroy the state. That the Republican Party is cool with that is yet another head-shaker, akin to its sudden warmth toward Moscow. I guess all things Russian are in vogue with the American right at the moment.

Certainly Trump himself has hastened autocracy in myriad ways, from brazenly refusing to release his tax returns, to installing unqualified family members in positions of authority, to encouraging violence against protestors and journalists, to illegally enriching himself through his office, to trying to declare his Inauguration as a “Day of Patriotic Devotion” complete with tanks and missile launchers and parade — all hallmarks of banana republics ruled by tinhorn despots. Even his habit of engaging in petty Twitter feuds that demean the office contributes in its way to the coarsening of American politics by lowering the bar for presidential behavior….the beclowning of the executive branch, as I find myself repeating week after week. (No other phrase has yet proven as succinct or accurate at encompassing the sheer awfulness of this administration.)

But as appalling as each of those actions are, they were merely gross public manifestations of — not the impetus for, nor the heartbeat of — a Republican attack on democracy already in progress. (Talk about your pre-existing conditions.) Despite the nonstop media coverage that would lead you to think otherwise, Trump is not the engineer on this death train, even though that’s exactly how the Republicans want it to look. The truth is that he is just a useful idiot tool serving the broader, long-term GOP attempt to undermine our democracy and secure itself in irrevocable power before America’s shifting demographics make that impossible, and render the Republican Party irrelevant full stop.

MISDIRECTION IN ACTION

Witness how this dynamic has played out very recently. This past two weeks Trump has descended to a new level of juvenility and shamefulness that even an exhausted American public did not think possible. In no particular order (and not even a comprehensive list):

He launched another in his series of misogynistic attacks on the physical appearance of female journalists who have dared criticize him. Even amid the bipartisan outrage over that (well, kind of bipartisan — the Republican response was characteristically timid and equivocal), he doubled down with further insults, even reviving his ancient feud with Rosie O’Donnell. (Very presidential.)

In conjunction with that tantrum, both in person at a rally and on Twitter, he threw himself on the floor, kicking his legs and screaming “I won the election! I did, I did, I did! I am the president! I am, I am, I am!”

He further poisoned the public’s confidence in the press and reminded us that he was an actual pro wrestling villain, decrying — with no discernible irony — a legitimate journalistic organization — CNN — as “fake news” by invoking a fake sport. In the process, he arguably incited physical violence against reporters, just as he did during the campaign, to a base that is already predisposed to such behavior. (Oh, you say it wasn’t an incitement, not even implicitly? This on the heels of Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte literally bodyslamming a reporter just as Trump did in the WWE video? Imagine what the right would have said if Obama had done something like that, as difficult as that is to imagine from a reasonable chief executive like 44.)

And lastly, the alleged leader of the free world and his Secretary of State met privately with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov and — by the Russians’ account — accepted at face value Putin’s assertion that the Kremlin didn’t meddle in the 2016 presidential election…..in short, taking Moscow’s word over the unanimous conclusion of the entire US intelligence community, which to any thinking person only further cements the belief that the accusation is true. Then he suggested that Putin should be part of a joint effort to improve the cybersecurity of our elections.

The mind reels. And yet, from the GOP leadership — crickets.

With each new atrocity that our insane clown president commits, the punditocracy asks, “What will it take for the Republicans to stand up to Trump? What will finally be a bridge too far for them?” But with each passing day of meek silence it becomes more and more obvious that they not only never will, but that they actively don’t want to.

Consider the fact that during the same two weeks that this cretinous behavior by the POTUS dominated the news cycle, the GOP continued its barbaric and senseless attack on Americans’ access to affordable health care, which is but a prelude to its true dream of a change in the tax code to benefit the richest among us; the EPA — now headed by a climate change denier — began a massive rollback of Obama-era protections of our air and water; the shameful Muslim ban went into partial effect, pending a very worrying final say from a polarized Supreme Court; the GOP-controlled House of Representatives went full Margaret Atwood and prohibited women — not only its own staff, but reporters as well — from wearing sleeveless attire in the Speaker’s lobby (praise be) ; Hans Von Spakovsky, the man behind the voter fraud myth, was appointed to the new federal commission to advance the Republican cause of voter suppression, a central pillar of its effort to secure a permanent majority; and that same commission made an outrageous demand for crucial personal information about voters from the states, an act that ought to send a chill down the spines of all Americans regardless of party. And I’m limiting myself here just to domestic political skullduggery…we won’t even get into the fact that while all this unfolded we faced a dramatic escalation in nuclear tensions with North Korea, to which the Republican-led US government responded with pointless saber rattling, or the sad spectacle of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, where America’s sudden decline was on full display.

These events got some play in the media, but not on the level that they should have, not when the dumpster fire that is President Donald J. Trump is irresistible column inch bait.

Rather useful camouflage for a party that has a vastly unpopular agenda that it wishes to foist on the helpless public.

THE IMPEACHMENT ILLUSION

The resistance is understandably focused on removing this horrific, vastly unqualified human wrecking machine from the Oval Office. I am guardedly optimistic that it will happen, one way or another, before his term is up. Resignation strikes me as the most likely, if Trump tires of this miserable life, and faces possible criminal prosecution and/or exposure of the vast nefarious dealings of his business empire. True, it’s hard to imagine a monstrous narcissist like him giving up the biggest spotlight in the world, and his reputation is not exactly one of strategic withdrawal. But that reputation is misleading. In his business career Trump has often settled when he knew he was cornered, while baldly denying that he was doing so. Moreover, the self-destructive lengths to which he has gone to hide whatever it is he’s hiding regarding Russia suggest that there exists a sufficient degree of existential threat that would entice him to skedaddle. I could see him resigning if and when he is really up against it and can depart while claiming “victory.” Which of course he will.

But imagine that happens. Even as we breath a collective sigh of relief, I fear that it will not stop the tidal wave of authoritarianism that is sweeping across America. It may be harder for the GOP to advance that cause without Donny as frontman, but it’s difficult to imagine that they will willingly surrender any ground without being forced to do so. Authoritarianism is like a ratchet that way.

It isn’t just about “President Pence.” As many have noted, the removal of Trump would still leave us with this nauseating right wing Christian zealot, a man whose moral bankruptcy is evident in his willingness to totally shitcan his alleged religious values for a spot on this ticket, and his craven bootlicking once in office. As a chief executive himself Pence is potentially worse than Trump in that he is more professionally capable of actually carrying out a reactionary agenda. But for that same reason he is the kind of conventional politician that we have the time-tested weapons to fight. Trump, by contrast, represents a whole new kind of monster, which is precisely why the GOP is standing by him. The base loves Trump in a way they never have — and never will — love an ordinary politician, and that is an invaluable advantage for the GOP. Trump has accidentally energized this newly passionate segment of the electorate, which includes (but is not limited to) white nationalists, previously apathetic non-voters who thrill to a reactionary bombthrower, and various others. Pence could never inspire the same level of devotion, nor any other politician I can imagine. And thank god for that.

So, yes, I would take President Pence in heartbeat and welcome the chance to shift this fight to a new phase. If my options are boola-boola or death by boola-boola, that’s no choice at all. Of course, it is quite likely that Pence will be brought down in the same fecal avalanche that brings down Trump. As head of the transition team, he was surely embroiled in whatever dirty business was going on, despite the fiction that it was Flynn’s lie to the VP that precipitated his sacking. We may be faced with President Ryan, or whatever other toady manages to escape prosecution and is in next in line. But make no mistake: Even when Trump is gone, and Pence or no Pence, the GOP will continue to try to tighten its chokehold on the American political system.

And yes, we will hang the albatross of the monstrous Trump presidency around the GOP’s collective neck and never let any Republican candidate forget (nor the voting public) that he or she is a member of the party that foisted this motherfucker upon us and then indefensibly stood by him. But considering how they currently behave like Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun (“Nothing to see here folks!”), I am confident that the moment Trump is out of office they will instantly shrug and act like they never had anything to do with all that. Their shamelessness and chutzpah knows no bounds.

But all that presumes that democracy as we know it is still functioning by that time. Which is why it is imperative that we fight the entire Republican movement and not put all our energy just into opposing Trump as an individual, as if he is the sole problem. Sadly, he ain’t.

THE NON-TIPPING POINT

It is often said that the GOP will not turn on Trump until his falling numbers reach the point where he does them more harm than good electorally. But that calculation has nothing to do with Trump’s base, which represents the last gasp of white “Christian” America animated mostly by racist panic. (Let’s not pussyfoot.) That is why those voters threw in with the Donald in the first place, given that — like Pence — he otherwise represents an absolute insult to their alleged values. That demographic won’t abandon him unless he does something that he never will….which is to say, something good, like acknowledge that America is a nation of immigrants, or assert the vital importance of a vigorous free press, or pull the US back from wanton military adventurism that hurts us as much as our enemies.

No, the GOP will only turn on Trump if and when he loses enough of that small but crucial middle ground of independent swing voters who make all the difference, considering how immovably the hardline pro- and anti-Trump forces have calcified. And it’s true that his numbers with that group are plummeting.

But here’s the rub. The Republicans will only exercise that self-serving option IF THEY CANNOT MAINTAIN POWER WITHOUT IT. But if their authoritarian efforts succeed in suppressing the opposition vote, in locking down control of enough statehouses, in creating enough gerrymandered congressional districts, and in turning the courts into rubber stamps for their agenda, then the support of their base will be sufficient. Elections will become irrelevant, and then god help us all. That will be the fulfillment of a genuine coup d’etat in America. Then that small minority of white, pseudo-Christian right wing fanatics will be able to enforce its will on the rest of the country, democracy be damned. You scoff? They just did so during the 2016 election, thanks in large part to the apathy of the rest of us (among other things). If they are able to continue on that path, then apathy — or lack thereof — won’t make any difference, not even if it turns to righteous outrage, because by then the system will be totally compromised.

This returns us to the issue of impeachment, and the hope that removing Trump from office will halt this slide into autocracy. But it may already be too late.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bob Mueller and his intrepid team find that Trump or his associates colluded with the Kremlin, and/or obstructed the investigation into that collusion, or that Trump is so inextricably entangled with dirty Russian money that he is Moscow’s de facto puppet, or that he is indisputably violating the emoluments clause and shamelessly using the office of the Presidency to enrich himself and his family, or some combination of any or all of the above. Ecce pistola fumare! Behold the smoking gun! That will be the ignominious end of that bastard Trump! Right??

Wrong. I fully expect that the GOP and its devotees will say, “So what?”

They’re already doing it. As if anticipating trouble, the Republican Party lately appears to be trying to preempt such incriminating news by pivoting to a new mantra, one that abandons the argument that there was no collusion and says instead: “So what if there was?” (Yeah. What’s so bad about treason anyway?) Witness Reince Priebus’s “nothing burger,” on which I hope he chokes.

The hypocrisy and immorality of this position needs no comment. But it speaks to how low the GOP has sunk, and just how much it now prizes power over any semblance of morality, integrity, true patriotism, or any other honorable value.

And such a Republican reaction is more likely than not. Do you really think they will accept a finding like that from Mueller and dutifully surrender their advantage, as a more honorable era of Republicans did with Nixon? There is not a shred of evidence or precedent to suggest that today’s GOP would show that sort of integrity. Then we will see if the rest of America has the fortitude to rise up and DEMAND that Republican politicians do their constitutional duty and act on such evidence, and what will happen if they refuse.

HOW REPUBLICS DIE

Not long after John McCain topped the 2008 GOP ticket with the slogan “Country First,” then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly proclaimed that the Republicans’ number one goal was ensuring that Barack Obama was a one-term president. Ponder that a moment. That was the Republicans’ top priority — blocking the Democrats and making Obama fail at every opportunity. Not creating jobs, not ensuring national security, not fighting terrorism. Wow. Yet somehow that did not raise hackles with the GOP constitutency; on the contrary, they applauded it. Principles and genuine patriotism had been replaced by a blind lust for victory at any cost.

To that end, the GOP demonized Obama to a degree not seen in US presidential politics since the 19th Century, tacitly (and sometimes openly) fomenting virulent racism in order to do so. As part and parcel, it incubated the rise of the Tea Party, which embraced and spread the vile lie of birtherism, which — not coincidentally — is the very issue that the pandering, pathologically dishonest Donald Trump used as a springboard for his own electoral ambitions. McConnell was true to his shameful word, and later said that his scorched earth campaign that kept Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court was one of his proudest moments as an — ahem — public servant.

These were the warning signs of a sickness in the American political soul.

Republics don’t always or even necessarily die by force, in coups and invasions. They are often brought down bit by bit, like the frog in boiling water, in the political equivalent of a hostile takeover by corporate raiders who become majority shareholders or otherwise take control of a board of directors from within. And some republics commit suicide by voting in leaders who brazenly have no intention of honoring the democratic system by which they took power.

In 1932, a then-famous American foreign correspondent named Dorothy Thompson got a rare interview with Adolf Hitler, who had just begun to rise in Germany. (Godwin’s Law remains in abeyance until further notice.)

“When you come to power,” she asked, “will you abolish the constitution of the German Republic?”

“I will get into power legally,” Hitler answered. “I will abolish this parliament and the Weimar constitution afterward. I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.”

Thompson, who was not impressed by the fuehrer-in-the-making, thinking him a buffoon, wrote incredulously: “Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights.” Two years later she became the first foreign journalist expelled from Nazi Germany. Soon after, she reconsidered her assessment of the Nazi leader, and authoritarianism in general, writing: “No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship….When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.”

Of course, Nazi Germany is the ultimate dark fate we fear. But we need not go that far for a tragedy to befall the American experiment. We could become an autocracy like Franco’s Spain, or Peron’s Argentina, or — more apropos, the best modern example — Putin’s Russia, the most insidious kind of police state, one that insists it is not one and hides behind the illusion of freedom.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

So here we are. To quote Stevie Bannon’s hero, V.I. Lenin: shto delat? What is to be done?

In saying that we are beyond ordinary politics, I am not advocating violent revolution, or even a non-violent one. (Depending on how one defines “revolution.” I’d be all for a Vaclav Havel-style bloodless housecleaning.) The GOP can be stopped by democratic means. One only has to look at the way the courts, the intelligence community, some of the press, and other engaged private citizens are pushing back against Trump and succeeding in hampering him, as the law demands. But it’s a battle, and one that the Republicans are savvy enough to recognize and fight their corner with a vengeance.

Indeed, they have systemically attacked the resistance on each front. The right has tried to crack down on dissent by ordinary citizens, attempting restrict the freedom to assemble, to exercise free speech, and to protest. Trump’s constant and indefensible attacks on the free press — echoed more and more by other Republicans — shriek for themselves. And perhaps most crucially, the GOP is making an unapologetic attempt to pack the courts at every level, much as they packed the statehouses, given the key role of the judicial branch in hemming Trump in thus far. The most high profile of these efforts, of course, has been the importance they placed on the Supreme Court — as noted above, enough to mount an unconscionable anti-democratic campaign against Merrick Garland. And with Kennedy and Ginsburg both in their 80s, that battlefront is far from settled. Even short of the SCOTUS, with a record number of vacancies to be filled on the federal bench, the right wing is practically salivating at the possibility of gaining control of the judiciary for decades to come.

Opposing the despicable GOP agenda and getting Trump out of office remain twin imperatives of equal importance, intertwined goals that we must pursue simultaneously. But the long game will be fighting this insidious Republican attempt to subvert and destroy democracy in America, in which Trump is but a role player. It is no exaggeration to say that the very foundations of our democracy are being tested. Let’s not fool ourselves that the Republican Party’s efforts will end or even abate if and when we get this fake president out of office. They will not. They might even increase their efforts to compensate for the loss of such a useful tool. But we are on to their game. For they are the real architects of American autocracy.