The day before Tuesday’s presidential debate, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a joint statement warning of “foreign actors” spreading “false and inconsistent information” in an attempt to “discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in US democratic institutions.”
The previous week, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting director, Chad Wolf, told a Senate committee that white supremacists pose “the most persistent and lethal threat” to American security. Earlier, the FBI had issued a bulletin warning the election would likely be the target of violence by extremist groups.
Foreign actors? White supremacists? Violent extremists? Maybe it would be better to say Donald Trump’s base. As we saw during the debate, the President of the United States is doing his best to deliver for them – and hopes they will deliver for him in turn.
In one chaotic evening, Mr. Trump refused to guarantee that he would accept defeat in the election, which he denounced as “rigged”; refused to condemn the white-supremacist groups that are increasingly roaming the streets, often with weapons drawn, but told them to “stand by”; and refused to call for calm among his supporters on Election Day, urging them instead to descend upon polling stations as “watchers.”
That he also did everything in his power to lay waste to the debate itself, yelling over his opponent, Joe Biden, and even the moderator, Chris Wallace, non-stop, throughout, is more or less an afterthought. His conduct was mortifying, yes. But his message was terrifying.
That he has said or done each of these things before – refusing to endorse a “peaceful transition of power” as recently as last week; claiming, against all evidence, that mail-in ballots, long a feature of U.S. elections and likely to be used by tens of millions of voters this time out, are subject to massive fraud; raising an “Army for Trump” online to combat alleged Democratic attempts to steal the election – does not alter the force and shock of seeing him deploy all of them together, on national television.
The President, put plain, is seeking to delegitimize the election. Trailing badly in the polls, he is signalling he will hold onto power by any means necessary should the vote go against him – including, as The Atlantic has reported, not just legal challenges but by flooding the Electoral College with rival slates of electors, chosen by state legislatures rather than the voters, in a bid to have Congress decide the election. To that we can now add voter intimidation and street violence.
It’s no use pretending that is not what he means. Mr. Trump’s every word and every act through the last four years has been dedicated to the proposition that he is not bound by any limit or norm – not of civility, not of ethics or law, not of basic human decency. The President who has mired his country in division, debt and disease, who has undermined its allies and truckled to its enemies, now has his sights set on a new target: democracy itself.
Whether it is that, like many of the dictators he admires, he simply cannot conceive of himself out of power – as if to relinquish it would amount to a kind of self-annihilation – or whether, more prosaically, he fears being exposed at last, stripped of the defences and immunities a president enjoys, to the legal consequences of a lifetime of fraud, sexual predation and other crimes, who can say?
But the grifter who sold steaks by mail and enrolled dupes in the fraudulent Trump University has hit upon the ultimate grift, grander even than the one with which he conned his way into the Oval Office: staying in it after he’s been voted out. That he is unlikely to succeed does not mean he will not try, or that the United States will not suffer grievous harm – months of political deadlock at the least, possibly attended by violence, civil disorder and other ills too ghastly to contemplate – in the attempt.
The question is not how far Mr. Trump is prepared to go. It is how far his Republican enablers are, and beyond them the GOP base, without whose support the plan would surely fail. Thus far there has been nothing, literally nothing, Mr. Trump could do that either group would not stomach, if not actively support. Would that include surrendering American democracy to a sociopath and his retinue of crooks, xenophobes and assorted hangers-on, backed by a coalition of domestic militias and Russian disinfonauts? In a sense, they already have.
Mr. Trump is as much the consequence as the cause of a society that, in large numbers, has lost its ability to think. To be sure, the constant barrage of lies from the President and his retainers has numbed people to the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong – or even to the idea that the difference matters.
But a society that has been taught to believe that no one knows anything, least of all experts, or that everyone is an expert, based on what they heard on talk radio or saw on Fox or read on Facebook, is one that has been primed for autocracy. Conspiracy theories of the wildest kind are flourishing as never before, no longer passed in whispers from one loon to another, but repeated and amplified and legitimized by social media.
And of all the conspiracy theories, the greatest is the conspiracy against Mr. Trump’s supporters – the conspiracy to make them look dumb, to make it seem as if they were taken in, to suggest that the “elites” were right after all: that electing an ignorant race-baiter with multiple personality disorders, a history of failure and a strange fondness for America’s adversaries was maybe a bad idea.
How hard can it be to make the election seem like just another part of the conspiracy, the votes of tens of millions of their fellow Americans a product of some offshore Sorosian printing press? As Mr. Trump warned (threatened? vowed?) Tuesday night, “this is not going to end well.”
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