What would America be like if Trump's coup had succeeded? Suppressing SNL is only the start

It's ludicrous that Donald Trump thought he could crack down on Jimmy Kimmel's jokes. But it's really not funny

By Chauncey DeVega
Published June 24, 2021 10:38AM (EDT)
Alec Baldwin as President Elect Donald J. Trump on SNL, and Donald Trump during the Presidential Debate (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Will Heath/NBC))
Alec Baldwin as President Elect Donald J. Trump on SNL, and Donald Trump during the Presidential Debate (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Will Heath/NBC))

None of this is funny.

The "revelations" continue about the Trump regime's abuse of power, lawbreaking, crimes, corruption, general disregard for democratic norms and institutions and overall perfidy. We now know that Donald Trump wanted to use the Department of Justice, the FCC and other federal agencies to silence dissent and criticism — specifically, to clamp down on the mockery of late-night TV hosts and the venerable "Saturday Night Live."

Trump was and is an authoritarian and a fascist who holds utter contempt for the Constitution and democracy.

On Tuesday, Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley of the Daily Beast reported that Trump had gone much further than "simply tweeting his displeasure with the late-night comedians and SNL writers' room," and "wanted to use the full weight and power of the U.S. government to punish his personal enemies." According to two anonymous sources, Trump asked his advisers in 2019 whether the FCC, the federal courts or the DOJ could do anything to suppress SNL, ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and others. He was apparently disappointed to learn that the "devastating retribution" he hoped for was not possible in a democracy, even an enfeebled one:

In early 2019, Trump had to be repeatedly advised that the "equal-time" rules to which he appeared to refer wouldn't even apply in this situation, given that late-night shows and NBC sketch comedy are clearly staged satire, and thus not bound by the same requirements of other forms of broadcast TV and radio.

[Another source] said that when they briefly discussed this with Trump more than two years ago, they made a point of saying that the Justice Department, in particular, doesn't handle these matters, anyway. Trump seemed disappointed to hear that there was no actual legal recourse or anything that the FCC or DOJ could do to punish late-night, anti-Trump comedy.

"Can something else be done about it?" Trump replied, according to this source, to which they responded with some version of "I'll look into it." (This person says that to this day, they have not, in fact, "looked into it.")

This new information about Trump's attempts to silence free speech coincides with recent "discoveries" that he and his allies literally tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election by ordering the Department of Justice to find ways of rejecting (or perhaps manufacturing) votes in key battleground states, and to seek a Supreme Court decision that would nullify the election of Joe Biden and return Trump to office.

Mercifully, Trump is no longer president. But the Jim Crow Republican Party's efforts to overthrow American democracy continue largely unabated.

Recent reporting has revealed that the Trump regime was spying on Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee who were investigating the Russia collusion scandal — and even on their family members. This abuse of power also extended to surveillance of journalists who were investigating the Russia collusion scandal and other matters Trump and his allies were eager to suppress.

The new book "Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History," by Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, shows that Trump and his inner circle did in fact commit acts of democide through their self-sabotage and negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 600,000 Americans.

Abutaleb and Paletta explain that Trump was far more concerned with winning the 2020 election and holding onto power than in ending or controlling the pandemic, even suggesting that people with COVID-19 infections should be exiled and quarantined at Guantánamo Bay or some other offshore U.S. territory.

In total, the Trump regime's crimes are so vast that they remain difficult for many political observers, or the American people as a whole, to comprehend.

At the Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein recently described the monumental task of investigating and revealing the full truth about the Trump regime's national crime scene:

The House Judiciary Committee announced this week that it would hold hearings on the administration's acquisition, during a leak investigation, of communications records of journalists and members of Congress. (The Justice Department's inspector general is also investigating.) And after Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, House Democrats appear likely to launch their own inquiry into the attack.

But it's an open question whether these disparate investigations, proceeding on multiple tracks and operating under divergent rules, will provide a comprehensive picture of all the ways in which Trump used, and potentially misused, his authority during his four years in office.

Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning nonprofit group that studies ethical abuses, says that a more systematic approach is needed to understand the breadth of Trump's impact on the federal government. "As best as we can tell, this was a co-opting of the entire federal government for the political and personal advancement of one person and those around him," he told me.

In a recent essay for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick warns that too many people in America's political class and the general public, have made the flawed and dangerous decision to "move along" from proper investigations and potential punishment for the Trump regime's many crimes:

They are now the folks arguing that everything that happened over the course of the Trump years was an aberration and a one-off, and that the best response to all of that is to ignore, ignore, ignore.

I don't have any prescription for how to reason with a radicalized GOP, a post-truth electorate, or a conspiracy-addled former president, nor do I harbor any illusions that tackling the problems of minority rule, racial violence, and weaponized law enforcement head on will allay the problems of creeping illiberalism. But gritting your way through it by pretending it's not happened or happening will continue to open a bigger and bigger chasm between what we know to be true and what we want to believe. With all due respect to those who would like to continue to lecture us about the mathematically correct ratio of concern to destabilizing danger, we've actually done a fairly decent job of understanding that ratio intuitively all along. This is a profoundly dangerous moment, and being told to get over it is just as jarring when it comes from inside the guardrails of democracy as it was when it came from the smirking authoritarians that have been replaced. That's why it doesn't feel any better. If anything, gaslighting about ongoing threats to democracy might be even scarier when it comes from the very people who were supposed to protect us.

Those who want to deny the reality of the Jim Crow Republican Party's persistent and escalating threats against American democracy are desperately avoiding a basic question: What if the Trump regime had succeeded with its coup? What would America be like now if Donald Trump were president-emperor for life?

The professional smart people, including those hope peddlers, stenographers of current events, professional centrists and others beholden to power and desperate to retain their influence (and affluence) are afraid to ask such questions, because they know they would not like the answers. The American public is largely afraid to ponder such things because they are traumatized and still believe (or hope) that denial will save them from the horrors of Trumpism. Here's a spoiler: It will not.

What do we see when we look into the abyss of that America which was so close to existing — and in many ways is still being born? People who dare to speak out against Donald Trump and his regime would be detained or perhaps "disappeared" in the interests of "national security." 

Freedom of the press would become de facto illegal. Millions more Americans would likely be dead from the coronavirus pandemic. The country's economy would be in ruins. Instead of undermining the Trump regime's power, such suffering and misery would make Trump even more popular among his followers. Why? Because the present-day Republican Party and larger neofascist movement is a death cult.

The Trump personality cult (including the overlapping conspiracy theories of the QAnon cult) would grow in influence and control. Those who do not pledge loyalty to it would be stigmatized at best, and at worst targeted for violence.

The United States would quickly transition into a "managed democracy" on the model of Vladimir Putin's Russia, where voting and elections continue but the system is rigged so that in important national elections only Republicans can "win."

Through a process that the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin described as "inverted totalitarianism," the U.S. would begin to fully devolve into a white supremacist, Christian-dominated plutocracy.

The civil and human rights of women, LGBTQ people, nonwhite people, the disabled and other targeted groups would be severely curtailed. The nation would experience widespread disruptions of public order and perhaps descend into a second civil war.

In a recent conversation with Salon, retired Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes issued this warning

Trump has already told us what he would do. When he was running against Hillary Clinton, he said that he wanted to "lock her up" in prison. That's what Trump would try to do if he were back in power. He seeks to be the same as the leader of North Korea, imprisoning or killing people if they dare to oppose him. With more power he is only going to get worse — more enraged, more paranoid, more psychotic, more violent and more dangerous. If he could, Donald Trump would turn America into a police state.

During the Age of Trump many Americans engaged in a compulsive behavior known as "doomscrolling" — constantly returning to their phones or other electronic devices to see just what new horrors had been unleashed that day by the Trump regime and its agents.

With Biden's election victory and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, many Americans were temporarily lulled into a feeling of relative normalcy and safety because Trump had been forced from power. Those feelings are premature, to say the least. Trumpism and American neofascism remain on the ascent, and the Jim Crow Republican Party has become even more aggressive in its assaults on the country's multiracial democracy.

Doomscrolling has been replaced by the feeling that we are living in the eye of a hurricane. We may experience a few moments of peace amid the rubble, but we also know that the rest of the storm is all around us — and there is no escape.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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