When the authoritarian leader speaks, it is best to believe him.
Last Friday on Twitter, Donald Trump proclaimed that Democrats' attempts to defeat him would prove fruitless:
But it won’t work because I always find a way to win, especially for the people! The greatest political movement in the history of our Country will have another big win in 2020!
Such words are a promise and a threat. They are made even more ominous in the context of polls that show Trump trailing most of the likely Democratic nominees in the 2020 election, other surveys that show his support dropping to 36 percent, and clear evidence that the U.S. economy is now on the brink of a recession, which makes Trump even more vulnerable in the voting booth.
Past behavior is usually an indicator of future behavior.
Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened not to leave office in 2021. During the 2016 presidential campaign Trump also threatened that he would not respect the outcome of the election if Hillary Clinton won. This is part of a much larger pattern of contempt for American democracy, the rule of law, and the U.S. Constitution by Donald Trump and his allies. He has threatened leading Democrats and other "enemies" with prison, attempted to silence and intimidate journalists, and has declared individuals and groups to be "treasonous" if they do not submit to his will.
Trump and his allies are already moving to delegitimate the 2020 presidential election by claiming that "illegal aliens" and "voter fraud" are part of a larger conspiracy by the Democrats and the news media who want to cause a recession to prevent him from being re-elected.
As conclusively proven by Robert Mueller, as well as by other investigators and experts, Vladimir Putin's operatives interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of installing Donald Trump in the White House. Russia and other hostile foreign countries are continuing to subvert American democracy by engaging in online propaganda and other influence campaigns in support of Trump and the Republican Party. These efforts will increase as the 2020 presidential election approaches.
Last week featured a whirlwind of events which showed how Trump's authoritarian behavior and politics are being amplified and enabled by his apparent mental health issues.
Trump believes that he is “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” Trump also said that he is the "Chosen One" sent by god or preordained by Fate to rule. He claimed that Jewish Americans who support the Democratic Party are somehow disloyal to their faith. For Trump, his supporters and their media, "real" Jewish people only support him and the Republican Party.
As part of Trump and the Republican Party's feverish ongoing campaign of racism and white supremacy he has again suggested that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship — added to the Constitution after the Civil War to ensure the rights of black Americans — should be overturned.
There was the surreal: Trump proclaimed his desire to buy Greenland. Rebuffed by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, he then threw (another) public temper tantrum, calling her "nasty," an epithet he reserves for women who challenge him.
As part of his trade war, Trump ordered American companies not to do business with China. (This is well outside the normal range of presidential power.) He also raised tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods — a de facto tax increase on the American people. His actions caused panic among investors, causing the Dow Jones average to drop hundreds of points on Friday.
Trump also compared Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a leader whose government engages in ethnic cleansing, kills and imprisons political dissidents and other rivals, and is currently brutalizing the people of Hong Kong and other parts of China.
Writing for the Daily News, former Republican strategist Rick Wilson summarized last week's events in Trump's America this way:
Nothing about the week we just lived through is comforting. Nothing about it can be excused or ignored. Donald Trump is not a well man. Here in the dog days of August, Washington should be its usual sleepy self, the political class having wisely fled the humidity and misery of D.C. Instead, Trump’s performance left people both inside and out of the political class wondering about the president’s sanity and fitness for office.
Most states have some form of involuntary commitment law for people who are a danger to themselves and others.
With Donald Trump's election in 2016, America took more baby steps towards fascism and authoritarianism. Almost three years into Trump's regime, he and his movement are now running towards that ignoble destination. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans seem stuck in a state of learned helplessness, watching the disaster unfold but doing nothing to stop it.
Trump and his allies know that the 2020 presidential election is their opportunity to turn Trumpism from a fascistic aberration into America's new normal. They will steamroll the opposition to achieve that goal.
This will surely be one of the most important elections in American history. The American people have an opportunity to vote Donald Trump out of office. This is a critical moment where alternative possibilities and futures can be won or lost for the country.
There have been other such fulcrum points in American history: the premature end of Reconstruction, FDR's "Economic Bill of Rights," the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, Sept. 11, 2001, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and then the backlash-fueled election of Donald Trump.
In his new book "The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy," columnist and American Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner explains the perils of the upcoming presidential election:
If the Republicans win another election in 2020, the supposedly exceptional United States will become more like other nations that display the forms of democracy but little substance. In such nations the incumbent party is effectively the permanent government. The opposition gets to make noise but not to take power. A corrupt alliance between the governing party and its supporters in the corporate plutocracy sustains the incumbent regime. ...
We must believe that American democracy is not quite done for. America, in Lincoln's words, could enjoy a new birth of freedom in 2020. But that will not happen automatically or passively through the swing of some historical pendulum. It will take inspired radical leadership, mass organizing, and citizen mobilization of the kind that we see only in America's finest hours.
The 2020 presidential election and the Age of Trump also force another long overdue confrontation between the myths and realities of American democracy and the country's history.
America was founded as a democracy for white landowning men. Black people were deemed to be human property. Indigenous people were to be exterminated as part of the country's "manifest destiny." Nonwhites en masse were viewed by white society as not being fit for democracy. Women effectively had no voice in the polity — except through their husbands, fathers, brothers or other men. To improve, American democracy has required a lengthy ongoing struggle against those defects and the country's core character as a democracy structured around domination for some groups and subordination for others.
Is America really a democracy? And what would a real democracy actually look like? In the post-Trump era, what type of democracy should the American people be fighting to create?
In her new book "Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone," Astra Taylor signals to those difficult questions:
I don't believe democracy exists; indeed, it never has. Instead the ideal of self-rule is exactly that, an ideal, a principle that always occupies a distant and retreating horizon, something we must continue to reach toward yet fail to grasp. The promise of democracy is not the one made and betrayed by the powerful; it is a promise that can be kept only by regular people through vigilance, invention and struggle. ... Defining the contours of this still-unseen democracy is something we can do only collectively. Think and reason the mob must, including thinking through democracy's abiding paradoxes.
On Friday night Donald Trump left the White House to travel to France for the G-7 summit. Before boarding Air Force One, Trump paced about on the tarmac, like a professional wrestling villain, insulting his opponents, telling lies, boasting about his greatness and of course making threats as he spoke to reporters.
This was a national embarrassment — and an irresistible spectacle.
During his verbal fusillade, Trump cited an obscure law — the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act — and claimed he could use it to command American businesses to follow his orders. Many legal observers initially scoffed at Trump's claims to possess such power. In the coming days and weeks, they may well be proven wrong.
The would-be or actual dictator's threats must always be taken seriously. This is especially true in a failing democracy like the United States, whose political norms are based on assumptions that the president and the country's other elected officials are reasonable people with some respect for the rule of law and other democratic norms.
In a country where fascism has been so quickly normalized, many people have already forgotten that the United States is in a declared state of national emergency. As the Brennan Center's Elizabeth's Goitein warned last year, Trump could,
with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts. Other powers are available even without a declaration of emergency, including laws that allow the president to deploy troops inside the country to subdue domestic unrest.
This edifice of extraordinary powers has historically rested on the assumption that the president will act in the country’s best interest when using them. With a handful of noteworthy exceptions, this assumption has held up. But what if a president, backed into a corner and facing electoral defeat or impeachment, were to declare an emergency for the sake of holding on to power? In that scenario, our laws and institutions might not save us from a presidential power grab. They might be what takes us down.
No one person should have all that power; Nonetheless, Donald Trump does.
Donald Trump will likely, somehow, gets his way in his trade war with China through manipulating the law, bullying, intimidation or some combination of all three.
Once again American democracy and the rule of law (and the health of the world economy) will be further imperiled. The 2020 presidential election, now 14 months away, may be too late to save the United States from the harm done by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, their media and their voters.
Donald Trump and his movement are like slow-acting poison. The question is whether American democracy has received a lethal dose and will shamble on for a few more years or decades before succumbing.