Sarah Kendzior’s most recent book is Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America.
On election night 2016, I wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail titled “A fascist’s win, America’s moral loss.” The premise of the piece was deemed provocative by those still clinging to the illusion of American exceptionalism. Surely the land of the free could not succumb to fascism. Surely checks and balances will hold. Surely more than 200 years of constitutional law could not be upended by the former host of The Celebrity Apprentice.
But Donald Trump was always an aspiring autocrat: one who spelled out his brutal policies during his campaign and put them into practice in office. He followed the dictator’s playbook: packing courts, purging agencies, profiting off the presidency, installing his family members into power, demonizing minorities and dismantling the institutions that could hold him accountable.
Mr. Trump is a historic president: the first president to say his political opponent (Joe Biden), his opponent’s family (Hunter Biden), his predecessor (Barack Obama) and his former opponent (Hillary Clinton) should all be jailed. He is the first president to be named as “Individual-1” in a federal criminal probe. He is the first president whose former campaign managers were all arrested for different crimes. He is the first president to be impeached for soliciting aid from a foreign state (Ukraine), the first to win an election with help from illicit foreign aid (in 2016 from Russia), and the first to pressure foreign leaders for dirt on the rival he baselessly thought should be imprisoned.
One should view these dubious milestones with profound unease. Mr. Trump never set out to govern, but to rule – and to profit. Mr. Trump’s backers are a mix of corrupt plutocrats, theocrats, oligarchs, and other bad actors who seek to strip my country down and sell it off for parts. They view the American people are disposable, as their response to the COVID-19 crisis has made abundantly clear. They will let us die, and they do so with brazen indifference, because they understand that in this system ordinary people have little leverage and even less protection. America is not yet a fully fascist country, but it is run like a mafia state.
Where does that leave Joe Biden? He is as vulnerable as the rest of us, running in an election whose basic legitimacy was in question before he even became the candidate. Domestic voter suppression, foreign interference, unsecure voting machines, and, more recently, the attacks on the U,S. Postal Service threatened election integrity. Failure to address these dangers led to voter disenfranchisement and, in terms of the destruction of postal infrastructure, sabotage by the Trump camp. And even if Mr. Biden is revealed to have won despite these obstacles, Mr. Trump, as we saw in the early hours of Wednesday morning, will likely refuse to concede or will claim the election results are invalid.
The current American crisis is in part due to those officials who refused to curb Mr. Trump’s worst behaviour. When organized crime hijacks government, officials must act aggressively, transparently, and immediately. They cannot waste time like Robert Mueller did with his plodding, placating probe. They cannot “impeach at the ballot box,” which Nancy Pelosi – a staunch opponent of impeachment until she buckled to pressure from her colleagues and the public – suggested throughout 2019. They cannot go by the book when the book is burning.
Regardless who is deemed president, Tuesday’s results were again, as I wrote in 2016, a moral loss for the United States. Mr. Trump still got millions to vote for him. Unlike 2016, they were not voting for a hypothetical president, the strongman savior he advertised himself to be. They voted for a known kleptocrat who let hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens die.
The United States is a broken country and a heartbreaking place to live. Dangerous times are coming, full of disease, violence and instability – regardless who wins. A second Trump term will likely lead to entrenched authoritarianism. A Biden term will likely bring chaos as the country attempts to rebuild. In either case, we will live under a pandemic in a decimated economy. I wouldn’t wish the pain of the next few months on anyone, including those who voted for Mr. Trump. We will live, and die, as Americans, one nation, united in fear – of each other, of our government, of our future. Pundits focus on the partisanship, but there are worse things to lose than an election. Americans learned that the hard way.
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