We have 30 days to go, and I’m getting spooked. Donald Trump’s been awfully quiet. Well, not on Twitter, but in life. Publicly. And I’m wondering if this is one of those calm-before-the-storm situations, like, it’s too quiet.
And over the weekend we learned Trump has been anything but quiet in private. If a White House meeting descended to a level of sleaze and deviousness where even Rudy Giuliani—there proposing someone impound America’s voting machines—was getting skittish, it had to break the demento-meter. Martial law?! Sidney Powell as a special counsel looking into electoral “fraud”?!
We think that evil people are evil because they have no conscience, and while that’s certainly true, it becomes clearer and clearer to me as the years pass that the most significant trait that evil people have that the rest of us don’t is that they think of stuff that would never occur to a person of normal conscience in five lifetimes. In the early 1960s, Papa Doc Duvalier had a political enemy who was said to have transformed himself into a black dog. Duvalier promptly had every black dog in Haiti killed. See, like, that never would have occurred to me. This is how I know I’m not evil.
So, is something cooking in Donald’s brain? Is he really going to declare martial law? You think, as Sinclair Lewis put it, it can’t happen here, right? Think again! It can—and it has. According to this fascinating essay on the website of the Brennan Center by Joseph Nunn, martial law has been declared 68 times in U.S. history. Martial law, Nunn writes, “describes a power that, in an emergency, allows the military to push aside civilian authorities and exercise jurisdiction over the population of a particular area. Laws are enforced by soldiers rather than local police. Policy decisions are made by military officers rather than elected officials. People accused of crimes are brought before military tribunals rather than ordinary civilian courts. In short, the military is in charge.”
So how could this have been imposed 68 times in our history? Doesn’t that seem like something we’d all know? Well, typically, it hasn’t been declared on the whole country. For example, Andrew Jackson imposed it on New Orleans in 1814. (Donald Trump’s favorite president; hmm.) In the 1840s, the Rhode Island General Assembly declared martial law to thwart an uprising led by a certain Thomas Dorr. The Supreme Court, in a move that may prove to be unfortunate, upheld the declaration.
And on and on and on. In other words, there is ample precedent. But for what Le Grand Orange has in mind, no, of course, there is no precedent whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine what it would even involve. Ordering the military to prevent the inauguration of Joe Biden, one supposes. One presumes the military would disobey any order to do that, but that we’re even thinking about it in the first place, as the president openly muses on Twitter about what he might do, is chilling.
The president is a madman, yes, but civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of these United States. The idea of the military having to disobey a mad president’s order is, itself, terrifying, another sign of how many fractures are running through our bedrock now.
A 2016 essay on the website of the National Constitution Center weighs the matter and concludes, ambiguously but rather ominously: “If Donald Trump in the White House were to set out to lead the country down a path toward authoritarian Executive Branch leadership, then either the existing constitutional order will work to restrain that impulse, or the country will be on its way toward self-destruction.”
Or both. That is, the military might well refuse to carry out an order that the brass finds unconstitutional, so the existing order will have restrained Trump, albeit by doing needed damage to the principle of civilian control. But remember that meanwhile, you’ll have Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones and Mike Flynn and Roger Stone and these other fascists encouraging insurrection. And the people who listen to those nutcases have a lot of guns.
Finally, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I always remember this New York Times op-ed written by two Brennan Center experts that ran last spring. Elizabeth Goitien and Andrew Boyle wrote that the president, any president, has vast emergency powers that we don’t even know about. They are set forth in classified documents that anticipate various emergencies and that “can be quickly deployed to assert broad presidential authority in a range of worst-case scenarios.”
It’s a chilling piece of writing. I didn’t know about these secret powers earlier, but even if I had, I would not have been especially worried that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or even George W. Bush would invoke them. But Donald Trump?
Trump, Giuliani, Powell, and Flynn (who were all present at that bonkers weekend White House meeting) are unhinged, immoral, and lawless. Thankfully there are a few people around, Mark Meadows and Pat Cipollone, who are arguing forcefully against thinking of ways to undo the election. Awful humans though they may be for working for this lunatic in the first place, God bless them for these efforts, at least.
But they aren’t the president. Trump is. If they won’t carry out his unconstitutional orders, he’ll just fire them and hire someone who will. White House Chief of Staff Roger Stone, anyone? Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Flynn? After admitting—twice—that he lied to the FBI?
Those may be exaggerations. But one doubts Trump is going quietly into that good night. He and his hooligans will try something. His parting gift to America will be one last constitutional crisis. Let’s just pray that enough people say no.