Last week, President Donald Trump assured the nation that he will leave office if he loses in November. “Certainly, if I don't win, I don't win,” he told Fox News. He continued, “You go on, do other things.”
Call me crazy, but I don’t believe him.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, just revealed in his forthcoming book that President Trump told Xi Jinping, the authoritarian leader of China, that the two-term constitutional limit should be repealed for him, and asked his Chinese counterpart to interfere in our 2020 election to help him win. This isn’t the first time that Trump has entertained staying in office beyond his term limits, or tried to enlist foreign help to do that.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has shown more love for authoritarian leaders including Xi, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and MBS than he has for his own Black and Brown citizens, who he says come from “shithole countries.” He was impeached for abusing his power to extort Ukraine to harm his political opponent.
Last year, I tweeted, “Y’all still think Trump will leave if he loses the 2020 election? You’re not paying attention…I hope I’m proven wrong, I’ll gladly eat halal crow.”
I can add Joe Biden to my growing tribe of skeptical citizens. “I promise you, I am absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch,” he said last week.
“The strongest evidence of worry,” said Professor Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, is that the Trump administration “looks like a mob organization.” He said when you look at the history of fascism, “their biggest comparison is to mob bosses.”
Unfortunately, the world is witnessing the worst remake of Goodfellas. It’s as if all the mobsters were lazy, incompetent, and addicted to reality TV, and the soundtrack replaced the Rolling Stones with Ted Nugent.
Based on his behavior the past four years, this is how Trump very well could subvert, incite, conspire, bully and cheat to maintain power.
He will continue to politicize the previously independent Justice Department as his blunt weapon to punish and eliminate his critics and reward his loyal friends. Trump used mafia-speak to label his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, a “rat” for cooperating with law enforcement.
Trump has a loyal enforcer, Attorney General Bill Barr, an ideological extremist who auditioned for the role by writing an 19-page, single-letter, unsolicited memorandum that criticized the Mueller investigation. Trump ridiculed and fired his previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation. Even Sessions, whose shameful sycophancy defined his relationship with Trump, had his limits. Over to The Godfather, Barr now serves both as Trump’s Luca Brasi and his Tom Hagen.
“Authoritarianism depends on loyalty,” Stanley told me. “Ultimately the goal is that democracy itself makes no sense. It’s just a power struggle.”
“History is written by the winners,” Barr said in a recent interview justifying his litany of impeachable offenses. This includes mischaracterizing the Mueller Report’s results to exonerate Trump, opening investigations to help Trump, promoting conspiracy theories to taint the Russia investigation, and trying to help Trump’s criminal friends, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, avoid jail time.
It was Barr who promised to “flood the zone” and unleashed military police against protesters so Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church and take an awkward photo op with a Bible. Barr who promoted a disinformation campaign, later disproved by the FBI, that said the protests were plotted by antifa, paving the way for Trump to declare, without any authority, antifa as a “domestic terror group.” The agitators in fact included right-wing extremists, such as boogaloo bois.
What’s to keep Barr and Trump from labeling legitimate critics and protesters as “terrorists” who should be prosecuted?
Along with Barr, Trump’s cult of conservatives in politics and media help enable and indulge his authoritarian tendencies. Trump falsely tweeted that Buffalo protester Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old who was assaulted by the police, was an antifa provocateur. As evidence, he cited his favorite new channel, One America News Network, which employs Kremlin-paid journalists and spouts conspiracy theories cooked up in Russia.
Fox News personalities compete with OANN to see which cable news channel can emerge as State TV. The right-wing media ecosystem now serves as a contained propaganda outlet to give cover for Trump’s follies, soothe his ego and promote his conspiracy theories.
“Authoritarians are deeply insecure people who need to be adored at all times. He lives in fear of ratings and popularity going down,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar on fascism and author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fail, told me. TV personalities also have more influence on his policy than military generals. Sean Hannity regularly counsels the Trump administration on the phone and Tucker Carlon told Trump to de-escalate tensions with Iran. A reality TV star president feels most comfortable with his own tribe.
Meanwhile, “The GOP are partners-in-crime with Trump,” said Ben-Ghiat. They have become the Party of Reek, the character from Game of Thrones who was tortured and belittled to the point he abandoned all dignity and became a loyal servant. One must only look to Senator Ted Cruz, a modern Igor in boots, who praises Trump even after the man mocked his wife and said his father helped assassinate President Kennedy. Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican who voted to impeach Trump for abusing his power to force an ally to interfere in our free and fair elections. The alleged Republicans moderates, such as Senator Susan Collins, express their “concerns” here and there but somehow never get around to holding Trump accountable.
Thanks to these complicit Republicans, Trump never covers up his actions,Sarah Kendzior, author of Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, told me. Instead he flaunts them, because “he’s confident he won't be punished.”
“I don't think he will leave office,” Kendzior continued. “He uses the presidency to shield him from all the crimes he and his family have committed. Why would you give that up?”
Just like he discredits the press, Ben-Ghiat predicts Trump is “going to increase the rhetoric to discredit the democratic process,” with the GOP working with him to “delegitmize the bedrock of democracy.” Republicans and their house media are promoting the false claim that mail-in voting is somehow illegal, despite the fact Trump himself has done it. He has alleged that the 2020 presidential election will be “rigged,” just like he did ahead of the 2016 election. After winning that election, but losing the popular vote, Trump promoted the lie of 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants fraudulently voting for Hilary Clinton.
The man lies about elections he wins. Just imagine what he will do if he loses.
Stanley added that if Trump and Republicans can represent the electoral system itself as being rigged, then “being a norm-breaker makes Trump seem authentic. That’s the authentic appeal of a lying demagogue—people think your brash, norm-breaking behavior is a sign of authenticity.”
The Supreme Court, with its five conservative justices, has normalized Trump’s abnormalities by frequently rubber-stamping his policies, which bypass Congress and are brought to the court under the veneer of “emergency.” Trump’s investment in Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with his expansive view of executive power, has paid off handsomely. Trump has temporarily won a reprieve from the court to keep secret grand jury materials from the Russia investigation away from House Democrats. Trump hopes the court will protect him from disclosing his taxes and financial records, as well as quash a lawsuit alleging Trump is illegally profiting from his D.C. hotel.
Stanley sees parallels with Hungary, where a compromised judiciary in part helped elevate Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an ally and supporter of Donald Trump, into his current status as a near-dictator. As an example, Stanley cites the court’s recent 5-4 decision to force Wisconsin residents to vote in person during a full-blown pandemic, which helped suppress the vote and attempted to help Republican candidates.
If the election is close and comes down to a contested state, say Wisconsin or Florida, what confidence does anyone have in this Supreme Court to be impartial?
And if he is declared the loser, who knows what the limits are for a commander in chief who’s already exhorted his followers to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" He sent similar messages about Minnesota and Michigan, and weeks later an armed militia shut down the Michigan state house and forced lawmakers to work from home.
“That was to show he controls these people,” said Ben-Ghiat. “That those people can be trotted out to make trouble... he has planned that very carefully.”
Thankfully, it seems the military is one institution that is balking and standing up to Trump as he’s threatened to use them to quash the protesters he’s exhorted governors to “dominate.” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, apologized for taking part in Trump’s photo op walk through Lafayette Park after tear gas and rubber bullets were unleashed on protesters. General James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, lacerated Trump’s leadership in a recent essay and accused him of dividing the nation and being a threat to the Constitution. Military support for Trump has also waned, with a majority currently disapproving of the president.
“The core of cult people unfortunately do not give up on their leader until truly dire things happen,” said Ben-Ghiat. “It has usually been a matter of life and death.”
I’ve always predicted a part of Trump’s cult will erode only when its members suffer from immense personal pain. I assumed that would happen during a recession, but Trump is also failing to lead during a pandemic that has killed over 115,000 people and he is fueling further racial divides as the nation protests the murder of George Floyd.
The people’s rage, desire for change and disgust for Trump’s corrupt and corrosive presidency have spilled out onto the streets in demonstrations across the nation. The midterm rout, plummeting poll numbers for Trump and Republicans, and military pushback give a glimmer of hope that any attempt by Trump to subvert the will of the people will be met with the Security Service escorting him out of the Oval Office and back to Mar-a-Lago.
Or perhaps he’ll simply take his loss and leave. I would like nothing more in November than to be eating halal crow.