His strongman threats are scary. But don’t forget that he’s weak.
Living under a president who daily defiles his office and glories in transgressing the norms holding democracy together is numbing and enervating. It’s not emotionally or physiologically possible to maintain appropriate levels of shock and fury indefinitely; eventually exhaustion and cynical despair kick in.
But every once in a while Donald Trump outpaces the baseline of corruption, disloyalty and sadism we’ve been forced to get used to. Outrage builds and the weary political world stirs. Sometimes even a few Republican officeholders feel the need to distance themselves from things the president says or does.
Child separation caused this kind of clarifying horror. There was a moment of it when Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color should go back to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” And now, thanks to Trump’s latest attack on democracy, we’re seeing it again.
At a Wednesday evening news conference, Trump was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” said the president. He then complained about “the ballots,” apparently meaning mail-in ballots, which he’s been trying to discredit: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
His words — the demand to discard ballots, the dismissal of a possible transfer — were a naked declaration of autocratic intent. Looking at the BBC’s website, where a blaring headline said, “Trump Won’t Commit to Peaceful Transfer of Power,” you could see America being covered like a failing state.
Trump’s words were all the scarier for coming on the same day as Barton Gellman’s blockbuster Atlantic article about how Trump could subvert the election. The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party told Gellman, on the record, that he’d spoken to the campaign about bypassing a messy vote count and having the Republican-controlled legislature appoint its own slate of electors. A legal adviser to the Trump campaign said, “There will be a count on election night, that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent — pick your word.”
As terrifying as all this is, it’s important to remember that Trump and his campaign are trying to undermine the election because right now they appear to be losing it.
Trump is down in most swing state polls, tied in Georgia and barely ahead in Texas. His most sycophantic enabler, Lindsey Graham, is neck-and-neck in South Carolina. The president is counting on his new Supreme Court nominee to save his presidency, and she may, if the vote count gets to the Supreme Court. But a rushed confirmation is unlikely to help Trump electorally, because in polls a majority of Americans say the winner of the election should make the appointment.
Trump may be behaving like a strongman, but he is weaker than he’d like us all to believe. Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote. It’s crucial that Trump’s opponents emphasize this, because unlike rage, excessive fear can be demobilizing. There’s a reason TV villains like to say, “Resistance is futile.”
“We cannot allow Trump’s constant threats to undermine voters’ confidence that their ballots will be counted or discredit the outcome in advance,” Michael Podhorzer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. recently wrote in a memo to allies. Podhorzer said that the organization’s polling suggests that “this close to the election, we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”
This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alarmed. I’m alarmed every minute of every day. Trump is an aspiring fascist who would burn democracy to the ground to salve his diseased ego. His willingness to break the rules that bind others gives him power out of proportion to his dismal approval ratings. He blithely incites violence by his supporters, some of whom have already tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.
Yet part of the reason he won in 2016 is that so few of his opponents thought it possible. That is no longer a problem. Since then, when voters have had the chance to render a verdict on Trump and his allies, they’ve often rejected them overwhelmingly. Under Trump, Democrats have made inroads into Texas, Arizona, even Oklahoma. They won a Senate seat in Alabama. (Granted, the Republican was accused of being a child molester.) Much attention is paid to Trump’s fanatical supporters, but far more people hate him than love him.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, many people had the same fears they have now. Analyzing its survey results, Pew found that “voters approached the 2018 midterm elections with some trepidation about the voting process and many had concerns that U.S. election systems may be hacked.” After 2016 it was hard to believe polls showing Democrats with a lead of more than eight points. But the polls were right.
Certainly, things are different now than they were even two years ago. A pandemic is disrupting normal campaigning and changing the way a lot of people vote. Trump has much more at stake. Investigations in New York mean that if he’s not re-elected, he could be arrested.
It’s also true that by floating the idea of refusing to concede, Trump begins to normalize the notion. The nationwide uproar over family separation has worn off, even though family separations continue. A House resolution condemned Trump’s initial racist attack on Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now he says similar things at his rallies and it barely makes news.
One of the most oft-used metaphors for the Trump years has been that of the slowly boiling frog. (The frog, in this case, being democracy.) By threatening what is essentially a coup, Trump may have turned the heat up too quickly, forcing some elected Republicans to implicitly rebuke him by restating their fealty to a constitutional transfer of power.
But if history is any guide, those Republicans will adjust to the temperature. The next time Trump says something equally outrageous, expect them to make excuses for him, or play some insulting game of whataboutism by likening Biden’s determination to count ballots past Nov. 3 to Trump’s refusal to recognize the possibility of defeat.
Still, Trump can be defeated, along with the rotten and squalid party that is enabling him. Doing so will require being cleareyed about the danger Trump poses, but also hopeful about the fact that we could soon be rid of him.
Trump would like to turn America into a dictatorship, but he hasn’t yet. For over four years he has waged a sort of psychological warfare on the populace, colonizing our consciousness so thoroughly that it can be hard to imagine him gone. That’s part of the reason he says he won’t leave if he’s beaten in November, or even after 2024. It’s to make us forget that it’s not up to him.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen published an important essay called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Gessen laid out six such rules, each incredibly prescient. The one I most often hear repeated is the first, “Believe the autocrat,” which said, “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.”
Right now, though, I find myself thinking about the last of Gessen’s rules: “Remember the future.” There is a world after Trump. A plurality of Americans, if not an outright majority, want that world to start in January. And whatever he says, if enough of us stand up to him, it can.
Both the Christian religion and American psyche need deep cleansing and healing from our many unhealed wounds. Only a contemplative mind can hold our fear, confusion, vulnerability, and anger and guide us toward love.
Contemplative Christians can model a way of building a collaborative, compassionate politics. I suggest we start by reclaiming the wisdom of Trinity, a circle dance of mutuality and communion. Humans—especially the powerful, the wealthy, and supporters of the patriarchal system—are more comfortable with a divine monarch at the top of pyramidal reality. So Christians made Jesus into a distant, imperial God rather than a living member of divine-human relationship.
.. Isaiah tried to teach such servanthood to Israel in the classic four “servant songs.”  But Hebrew history preceded what Christianity repeated: both traditions preferred kings, wars, and empires instead of suffering servanthood or leveling love.
.. We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. . . .
We reject any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. . . . Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority. 
.. We already have all the power (dynamis) we need both within us and between us—in fact, Jesus assures us that we are already “clothed” in it “from on high” (see Luke 24:49)!
It wasn’t always like this. In his 36 years as a diplomat and politician, Mr. Netanyahu has been reprimanded by the Reagan administration, nearly barred from entering the White House, and banned from the State Department during George H. W. Bush’s administration because of his criticism of its policies. He has been at loggerheads with President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, both of whom could barely conceal their disdain for him. Now he has an administration that shares his positions almost instinctively.
The simplest explanation for this reversal of fortune is that the Trump administration is dominated by the two types of ideologues with whom Mr. Netanyahu has always gotten along best: foreign policy hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser, John Bolton, and Christian evangelicals like Vice President Mike Pence. And presiding over it all is Mr. Trump, a man who has known and admired Mr. Netanyahu since they first met in New York in the 1980s.
.. On May 9, the morning after the announcement on the Iran deal, Mr. Netanyahu was in Moscow as guest of honor at Russia’s Victory Day, standing beside President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin still supports the Iran deal, and is in tacit alliance with Iran, Israel’s deadly adversary. And yet the Russian president presented the Israeli prime minister as his country’s close ally. He has also allowed Israel to attack Iranian bases and weapons depots in Syria, and even to bomb Russian-built antiaircraft batteries.
.. Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump are not alone. Mr. Netanyahu has recently been feted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, President Xi Jinping of China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, as well as a host of leaders of smaller countries — including those with far-right governments like Hungary, Poland and Austria. No less significantly, he has maintained close contacts with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and behind the scenes with the Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Netanyahu is the toast of the new wave of right-wing, populist and autocrat-like (if not outright autocratic) leaders. They see in him a kindred spirit, even a mentor. He is the leader of a small country who has taken on American presidents and outlasted them. He has successfully defied the Western liberal human rights agenda, focusing instead on trade and security. Israel’s success as a regional economic and military power is proof in their eyes that the illiberal approach can prevail.
He has spent more time than any of them on the geopolitical stage, winning election after election. In many ways, Mr. Netanyahu is the precursor to this new age of “strongmen” who have come to power in different parts of the world. It is the age of Bibi.
.. He has identified a trend: The world is tiring of the Palestinian issue.
.. Mr. Netanyahu has hastened this trend by expanding Israeli diplomacy with Asian and African countries, which have shown little interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but are eager to acquire Israeli technology, both civilian and military.
.. Mr. Netanyahu believes he has won the argument. He has proved that the world, not even the Arab nations, doesn’t really care about the Palestinian issue. That Israel can continue enjoying economic growth, regional military dominance and improving foreign relations despite its military control over the lives of millions of stateless Palestinians.
Several men urged caution. But Viktor Orban, the prime minister-elect, disagreed. The voting result, Mr. Orban continued, had given him the right to carry out a radical overhaul of the country’s Constitution.
.. Nearly eight years later, Mr. Orban has remade Hungary’s political system into what one critic calls “a new thing under the sun.” Once praised by watchdog groups as a leading democracy of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Hungary is now considered a democracy in sharp, worrisome decline.
.. Through legislative fiat and force of will, Mr. Orban has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.
.. He is arguing that Europe’s postwar liberal consensus “is now at an end” — and his vision is being emulated in Poland
.. Mr. Orban is emblematic of a strongman age. He has courted President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and praised President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In 2016, he became the first Western leader to endorse the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.
.. “Orban has pioneered a new model of single-party rule that has spread through Eastern Europe
.. defended Mr. Orban’s actions as a determined effort “to get rid of the remnants of communism that are still with us, not only in terms of institutions but in terms of mentality.”
.. Mr. Orban is undeniably popular with many Hungarians
.. he also has positioned himself as a buffer against what he portrays as modern-day threats: such as European Union bureaucrats; or George Soros, the liberal Hungarian-American philanthropist; or, above all, migrants who seek to settle in the country.
.. Migration fits into a wider agenda about the protection of the Hungarian people,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, a politics lecturer at Corvinus University of Budapest. “He’s protecting us from everything.”
.. Weeks later, Mr. Orban and his lieutenants began a legislative assault on the Hungarian Constitution, curbing civil society and, to less fanfare, diverting billions of euros in European Union and federal money toward loyal allies.
.. First, he moved simultaneously to curb the Hungarian media and the judiciary. Next came the erosion of the country’s checks and balances, which has helped Mr. Orban share the spoils of power with close friends and important businessmen.
.. And then, came the electoral process. The restructuring of Hungary’s election system, including a redrawing the electoral map
.. During the next five years, Fidesz used its two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass more than 1,000 laws, many of them enacted after a few hours of debate — and often presented by low-ranking lawmakers who had neither written nor read them.
.. The laws allowed Mr. Orban to appoint his own candidates to lead the country’s two main media regulators, while simultaneously giving those regulators more power to fine and punish independent news outlets. (Most of those outlets have subsequently been bought by allies of Mr. Orban.)
.. Mr. Orban put ex-Fidesz politicians in charge at several institutions, including the State Audit Office, which monitors government expenditures, and the State Prosecution Service, which oversees criminal prosecutions. His supporters also now control the board overseeing the National Fiscal Council, an independent body scrutinizing economic policy.
.. Yet it is Hungary’s judiciary that has perhaps been most affected.
.. Judges had to be nominated by a committee staffed by representatives of all the parties in Parliament — ensuring that all judges were chosen by consensus.
.. But Fidesz voted to give itself complete power in choosing the candidates. Eight years later, the court is made up entirely of judges appointed during Fidesz’s tenure.
.. Homelessness is once again a crime in Hungary.
.. “It’s not a totalitarian system,” Judge Szepeshazi said. “But it’s very autocratic.”
.. Mr. Orban has been able to accrue so much power in Budapest partly because he met little effective opposition from Brussels
.. The main problem was that the founders of the European Union never considered the possibility that a member state would backslide, and did not create procedures to deal conclusively with such an event, Ms. Reding said.
.. Mr. Orban has subsequently claimed to have tricked European officials into believing that he had made substantive changes, even though they were largely cosmetic, a tactic he has publicly described as the “dance of the peacock.”
.. Voting districts that had historically leaned to the left were reshaped to include around 5,000 more voters than districts that traditionally leaned right, according to an analysis by polling specialists at Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank. This meant that leftist parties needed more votes to win a seat than Fidesz did.
.. “All the characteristics and features on the surface are of democracy,” he added. “But behind it there is only one party and only one truth.”
Of all the errors made today by liberals—I use the term broadly—our most fundamental has been our underestimation of Trumpism as a philosophical movement.
We have no trouble loathing Donald Trump the man. His temperament and political impulses are self-evidently those of an authoritarian, straight from the pages of Adorno or Hayek. Likewise, our criticism of his administration’s misguided policies has been ever at the ready.
.. Trumpism is well on the road to becoming a systematic program of ideas that will carefully refine its views through praxis and—allied with anti-liberal movements elsewhere in the world, especially in Russia—articulate a new, fundamental challenge to liberal thought for the twenty-first century.
.. History as
- heritage and nostalgia—#MAGA. History as
- reverence and fidelity—Straussianism and constitutional originalism. History as a
- philosophy of action—embodied in the novels of Trump’s intellectual precursor, Newt Gingrich. History as
- racial melancholy—Charlottesville. History as a resource of trans-historical Germanic mythology—the masculinist branches of the alt-right. History as
- conspiracy—Infowars, #fakenews, and the “rigged” political system. History as
- providence and decay—the implicit revival of Jacksonian-era romantic nationalism, with its narrative scaffolding of dwindling popular sovereignty.
.. Stephen Bannon’s philosophy of generational change, about which I’ve written elsewhere,
- a toxic blend of Toynbee and Jung—history as
- a cycle of apocalypse and renewal.
.. climate change denial grows logically from the core metaphysical commitments of contemporary populist nationalism in its confrontation with trans-Atlantic, cosmopolitan, individualist liberalism.
.. one might thus regard it as the distinctive form of anti-liberal historical thinking of our era.
.. it’s helpful to turn to the work of a thinker whose writings, it’s been suggested (and here), underwrite the movement’s “intellectual source code”: the German constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).
.. On Schmitt’s view, liberal states are weak and vulnerable, subject to corrosion from within—through capture by private interest groups—and conquest from abroad.
.. a political community arises when its members coalesce around some aspect of their common existence. On this basis, they distinguish between their “friends” and “enemies,” the latter of whom they are ultimately prepared to fight and kill to defend their way of life.
.. A political community, that is, is created through an animating sense of common identity and existential threat
.. Schmitt believes that this pugilistic view of politics rings true as a conceptual matter, but he also regards drawing the friend-enemy distinction as a quasi-theological duty and part of what it means to be fully human.
.. Without the friend-enemy distinction, he argues, political life would vanish, and without it something essential to humanity would vanish
.. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia
.. Enemies are regularly portrayed as ugly, for instance—a practice at which Trump personally excels.
.. But the object of a community’s political dissociation is made on the basis of criteria independent from judgments about good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or profit and loss.
.. the liberal effort to circumscribe national sovereignty within universalist legal and moral criteria increases the possibility of total war.
.. Trump acts in full accord with Schmitt in this respect by praising Vladimir Putin and embracing autocratic Russia as a potential friend while snubbing liberal nations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
.. at the heart of Trump’s campaign was the promise to territorialize the friend-enemy distinction, namely to build a “great wall” along the border between the United States and Mexico
.. That spirit is one not simply of xenophobia or ethnocentrism, but also, and perhaps most of all, of shared laughter and good humor—a spirit, it’s essential for liberals to acknowledge, of warm community.
.. As Stephen Miller bracingly put the matter, in a statement nearly incomprehensible on liberal terms, “We’re going to build that wall, and we’re going to build it out of love.”
.. on Schmitt’s view, those nations that are strong enough to impose their own internal political homogeneity ought to ally with each other against nations and groups that undermine the territorialization of the friend-enemy distinction.
By this logic, it’s not Russia so much as violent Islamic extremism and cosmopolitan trans-Atlanticism that represent America’s true enemies—and, in fact, Russia can be an important ally against both.
.. Much like extreme conservative positions on gun control, climate change denial is based above all in anti-liberal metaphysical and identity commitments.
.. Although scientists have a forty-year track record of accurately predicting rising global temperatures, climate change deniers insist that such findings are the product of self-serving business elites and cunning foreign economic competitors who stand to gain if America reduces carbon emissions.
This sociological critique of scientific knowledge is a position not of evidentiary skepticism but rather of radical epistemological relativism. Deniers essentially challenge the Enlightenment position that the past is subject to objective understanding and that the world is amenable to rational human control.
This lends the popular culture of climate change denial a palpable spirit of historical fatalism.
.. climate change denial is animated by a vision of the future that, at bottom, is that of neo-tribalism.
.. It is destabilizing the territorial boundaries of the world through rising sea levels, altering the very land from which, in Schmitt’s view, the nomos of a people originally grows
.. it is undermining the spatial boundaries that Schmitt deems essential to sovereignty by putting the export of negative externalities at the center of global concern
.. Deniers interpret climate history in a way that obscures the existence of a global political community
.. In doing so, they not only embrace what I’ve called “the rule of the clan” at the level of the modern state, they also reject sotto voce the liberal ideals of universalism and individualism.
.. Trumpism draws together for our own time the core ideals of politics and the state that Carl Schmitt placed at the center of his philosophical vision. These include
- an animating community spirit that combines pugilism with love,
- an existential embrace of the friend-enemy distinction,
- a conception of state sovereignty as inviolable,
- the need to territorialize and homogenize the political community, and the rejection of the liberalist international order
—all in the service of a unified, common people.
The Constitution gives the president nearly unlimited power to grant clemency to people convicted of federal offenses, so Mr. Trump can pardon Mr. Arpaio. But Mr. Arpaio was an elected official who defied a federal court’s order that he stop violating people’s constitutional rights. He was found in contempt of that court. By pardoning him, Mr. Trump would show his contempt for the American court system and its only means of enforcing the law, since he would be sending a message to other officials that they may flout court orders also... (Both also spent years promoting the lie that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States.).. Both men built their brands by exploiting racial resentments of white Americans. While Mr. Trump was beginning his revanchist run for the White House on the backs of Mexican “rapists,” Mr. Arpaio was terrorizing brown-skinned people across southern Arizona, sweeping them up in “saturation patrols” and holding them in what he referred to as a “concentration camp” for months at a time... It was this behavior that a federal judge in 2011 found to be unconstitutional and ordered Mr. Arpaio to stop. He refused, placing himself above the law and the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold... would also go against longstanding Justice Department policy, which calls for a waiting period of at least five years before the consideration of a pardon application and some expression of regret or remorse by the applicant. Mr. Arpaio shows no sign of remorse; to the contrary, he sees himself as the victim. “If they can go after me, they can go after anyone in this country,” he told Fox News on Wednesday. He’s right — in a nation based on the rule of law, anyone who ignores a court order, or otherwise breaks the law, may be prosecuted and convicted... What’s remarkable here is that Mr. Trump is weighing mercy for a public official who did not just violate the law, but who remains proud of doing so. The law-and-order president is cheering on an unrepentant lawbreaker. Perhaps that’s because Mr. Arpaio has always represented what Mr. Trump aspires to be: a thuggish autocrat who enforces the law as he pleases, without accountability or personal consequence.
Less obvious, but more important, is how any Russian meddling in the American presidential-election season—whatever form it may have taken—fits into a much larger tale. This is the tale of a systematic Russian effort to disrupt democratic and capitalist systems internationally, using an updated version of tactics Mr. Putin learned in the bad old days of the Soviet KGB... The Playbook is an in-depth study of Russian efforts to use overt and covert tactics over a period of a decade to expand its economic and political influence in five Central and East European nations. A group of regional leaders from such nations warned President Barack Obama in a 2009 letter—which also looks prescient now—that Russia was conducting “overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests….”..The Russian strategy, the study finds, isn’t ad hoc. Rather, it is the implementation of a doctrine developed by Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov called “new generation warfare.” One European analyst called that “primarily a strategy of influence, not of brute force” aimed at “breaking the internal coherence of the enemy system.”
.. 1) The first track is economic. Russia seeks to find business partners and investments that allow it to establish an economic foothold, which in turn produces economically influential patrons and partners who have a vested interest in policies friendly to the Kremlin. That is a particularly fruitful endeavor in Europe, where many nations depend on Russian energy supplies.The goal on this track is to cultivate “a network of local affiliates and power-brokers who are capable of advocating on Russia’s behalf.”
2) The second track, perhaps more relevant to the U.S., is designed to disrupt prevailing democratic political patterns. The goal, the Playbook says, is “to corrode democracy from within by deepening political divides and cultivating relationships with aspiring autocrats, political parties (notably nationalists, populists and Euroskeptic groups), and Russian sympathizers.”.. “an acceleration” of Russian influence-seeking, ranging from a plot against the prime minister of Montenegro to interference in the French election to cyberattacks in Ukraine.