U.S. President Donald Trump is deploying irregularly uniformed armed federal agents in unmarked government vehicles to cities like Portland, Ore., and Chicago to seize unarmed protesters off the street without legal reason.
Historian Timothy Snyder’s wise warning at the opening of the Trump era was prescient: “When men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and the picture of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”
From the riots in Charlottesville, Va., three summers ago to right now, Snyder has described Trump’s America. The authoritarian threshold has now been decisively crossed. Democracy and the rule of law, to the extent they were ever more than noble aspirations, are now receding into the rear-view mirror.
Think that is alarmist? Then why are millions of Americans, and probably billions of people worldwide, dreading a second Trump term?
We can all intuit that the cult of the personality surrounding Trump is powerful and will be difficult to dislodge, whatever the outcome of the election in November.
Steven Hassan, a leading U.S. expert on cult formation and mind control, has made the compelling, book-length case that Trump’s base behaves and acts more like a suicide cult than a traditional political partisan group. The recent politicization of masking during the COVID-19 pandemic by Trump supporters suggests that Hasan may be on to something.
With his references to good people on both sides in Charlottesville and his insistence in a recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News that whites are the victims of more police violence than Blacks, Trump remains the gaslighter-in-chief.
His abuse of the presidential bully pulpit has unabashedly unleashed the demons of hate and conspiracy into America’s public spaces.
No one should be surprised. This dark vision was presented to the world in all its dystopic horror in Trump’s inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.
Civil rights declining in the U.S.
Now, Trumpism has spread globally, including into some the world’s leading democratic states with the most long-standing commitments to the rule of law. It is no coincidence that international human rights watchdog Freedom House described 2017, the year Trump took office, as the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom as measured by net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 71 states, with only 35 registering gains.
The pace of decline has continued in subsequent years. The 2020 Human Rights Watch World Report delves into rights violations in the United States in areas that include racial inequality in the criminal justice system, rising poverty and inequality in health-care outcomes.
All of this was documented before COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matters movement following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in May.
As the U.S. heads into its statutorily scheduled election on “the first Tuesday after Nov. 1” (and in case you are curious, it is almost impossible for Trump to actually cancel the election), the depth of the president’s disdain for democracy and the rule of law is on full display.
In the Wallace interview, Trump — with his habit of proudly revealing his inner authoritarian dialogue — offered a racist and patently false riff on how more whites are killed by police than Blacks, contrary to the evidence.
Trump also falsely claimed that Joe Biden’s campaign was promising to abolish or defund police. And he offered another unprovoked outburst against the New York Times 1619 project that tells the story of America from the arrival of the first European slave ship in the British colony of Virginia rather that starting at the country’s founding in 1776.
Trump also revealed hostility to the removal of the Confederate flag, Confederate statues or any other symbolic move to acknowledge the obvious current cultural and historical watershed moment in America.
And after three and a half years in office, Trump still shocks. This time, the moment came when Wallace asked the president whether he would accept defeat in an election. His response: “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
From there, Trump went on to explain how Hillary Clinton never accepted her loss to him in 2016, which is also false.
Wallace, to his credit, was dogged and pushed Trump, asking again. Trump responded, just as he had to a similar question in 2016 from Wallace: “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”
The difference last time, however, was that Trump was not the White House incumbent. This is why he’s raised serious concerns about overstaying his welcome and difficulties around the peaceful handover of power.
Term in office ends on Jan. 20
The 20th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifies that a president’s term in office “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January” after an election.
This peaceful transfer of power in accordance with the 20th Amendment has, from 1787 to 2017, permitted the American experiment to continue bound by democratic principles and rule of law.
Granted, it’s not always been easy and there have been blips. In the 1876 election at the end of the Reconstruction era, the outcome between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was so close that Congress appointed a special Electoral Commission to resolve the matter.
More recently in the Bush vs. Gore case, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the breach and tipped the scale for Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.
Every historical blip in the peaceful transition of power between presidents in American history has revolved around divergent Electoral College and popular vote counts. Many of the most recent elections have had this type of divergence, including 2016.
In 2000, Gore stepped aside and obeyed the ruling of the Supreme Court despite the misgivings of some of his supporters.
If Trump loses the electoral college in the fall, which is by no means certain or even likely, he may refuse to concede. Were this to happen, either a military or civilian response or a co-ordinated military and civilian response to remove him from office might be required.
To decisively end the Trump presidency, a large mandate with clear margins in key swing states will be necessary. Of course, if he wins re-election or there is electoral interference again, the next few years could be much worse. In the meantime, buckle up.
Jeffrey B. Meyers is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Thompson Rivers University.