Former Bush speechwriter David “Axis of Evil” Frum, having lately had the scales fall from his eyes, has written an article about how America can transition, and likely already is transitioning, to authoritarianism under Trump, and what that might look like.
Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical [than any previous president]. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.
He arrives at his prediction via a speculative 2020 re-election win by Trump whose basis assumes facts not in evidence (e.g., growing real domestic wages), but that’s less important than his plausible scenario for what America becomes under Trump. Given Trump’s already-demonstrated penchant for using the power of the presidency to enrich himself and his family — and to hurt his enemies financially, as he did with a single tweet — Frum thinks Hungary’s ongoing slide into kleptocracy is a likely model for what we can expect:
The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
He provides more detail on what he expects:
It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuela, a stable democracy from the late 1950s through the 1990s, was corrupted by a politics of personal favoritism, as Hugo Chávez used state resources to bestow gifts on supporters. …
Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor. He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. If the public cannot be induced to care, the power of the investigators serving at Trump’s pleasure will be diminished all the more. …
A mistaken belief that crime is spiraling out of control—that terrorists roam at large in America and that police are regularly gunned down—represents a considerable political asset for Donald Trump. Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters believed that crime had worsened during the Obama years.
In true police states, surveillance and repression sustain the power of the authorities. But that’s not how power is gained and sustained in backsliding democracies. Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime.
By guile or by instinct, Trump understands this.
As it happens, I have been thinking along a separate but related line: What happens if Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression cannot be stopped? I think that’s a real possibility. Here’s why.
For starters, earlier today Trump demanded that Senate Republicans “go nuclear” if Democrats oppose his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, meaning end the filibuster. Aside from the hypocrisy — the filibuster, which appears nowhere in the Constitution, was the Republicans’ main tool of opposition during the eight years of the Obama administration — that means that Republicans can put anyone they want on the Supreme Court. And given the ages of Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg, he might be able to do that real soon. That means we can expect, fairly soon, a Supreme Court overwhelmingly against advancing voting rights and willing to tolerate vote-suppression measures many federal judges do not now find constitutional.
Because lower courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions, that means we can expect judicial defeat of all efforts to expand and protect voting rights and likely all efforts to end gerrymandering for partisan political purposes. (It *might* remain possible to toss out gerrymandered districts based on rights, but I doubt it. Chief Justice John Roberts once clerked for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, whose antipathy to minority voting concerns dated back to his early political days in Arizona, and his work in the Justice Department during the Reagan years offers little encouragement.)
I think, then, that America will become a de facto one-party country. There will be no remaining checks and balances, because there will be no one in power in the White House, Congress or the Supreme Court who believes in them. As Frum describes above, business leaders will pledge fealty to, if not Trump himself, then at least the GOP, either out of hope for goodies or fear of retribution. Sure, some people will remain Democrats, and some Democrats will continue to get elected, almost exclusively to local office, but as a national party, and as statewide parties in most states, they’ll be done.
And once America becomes a one-party country, we’re screwed. If the Affordable Care Act hasn’t already been repealed, it will be, with all the deaths and other human suffering appurtaining thereunto. Wage-and-hour regulations, meant in many cases to protect worker health and safety, will be destroyed. As for equal rights, the Republican Party already has demonstrated that it doesn’t believe in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and several sitting justices already have ruled in ways that make clear that they are disregarding it, a trend that will only grow worse as Trump or a GOP successor appoints more justices.
An assault on individual rights will almost certainly commence, because that is what has happened everywhere else. Speaking publicly and critically about the government might not become a crime, but it likely will have serious effects on one’s career.
Our economy will become a kleptocracy. Wealth will no longer be created by ingenuity and entrepreneurship, but by getting a piece of Trump’s Big Grift.
And the pie will grow smaller, not least because the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs, engineers, software developers, and other talent, put off by the U.S.’s xenophobic immigration policies, will choose to go elsewhere, so that wealth creation in the U.S. slows. Our store of intellectual capital will diminish as the world’s best and brightest students choose to study in other countries, while more and more of our own students will be unable to afford college because of declining real wages, rising costs, and cuts in federal aid.
And so we will enter a whirlpool of declining economic activity and personal freedom. It won’t be an apocalyptic hellscape, at least at first, but in many ways the U.S. will become what we once referred to with smug superiority as a Third World country.
Can any of this be stopped? Maybe. If the Democratic Party finally finds its spine, some of the worst might be avoided. But I have no confidence at all that 1) the Dems will find their spines, and 2) it’s not already too late.
I’d love to be wrong about this. I hope I am. But current facts certainly point in this direction, and hope is not a plan.