PARIS—“We are rapidly approaching the moment when we should stop referring to the American government and start referring to the Trump regime.” That single sentence posted on Twitter last Thursday resonated far and wide.
Propelled by the first shock wave after the announced resignation of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, it was liked and retweeted thousands of times, with hundreds and hundreds of replies. Most of them were of the “sad but true” and “we’re long past that” variety. One French friend reminded me that “regime” is the word Americans use to describe a foreign government they are about to overthrow. That’s something to think about.
In any case, since I wrote that line I should probably explain a bit more about what I meant. In fact, as of this moment we still have a system of government that might save us from the increasingly dangerous trends of the Trump era. But the moment is fast approaching when that will no longer be possible.
Right now, there are effectively no checks or balances remaining in the carefully constructed edifice of the American Republic. Donald J. Trump, his family and his cronies have absolute control over the executive branch of government. The Supreme Court will soon be the Supine Court, bending to Trump’s will on every important issue. The feckless Republican Congress has proved itself to be wildly hypocritical and deeply venal, with no moral compass whatsoever.
In its fundamental drive to make the rich richer, the GOP has embraced and enabled Trump’s fascist-style fear mongering. It has excused, even applauded, when he’s insulted allies and been suckered by tyrants. It ignores his unctuous dictator envy, whether he is talking about Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Rodrigo Duterte, or the Salmans of Saudi Arabia.
We’ve seen many times the way fragile democratic institutions can be used to destroy democracy. History is full of precedents. Both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini first came to power through the electoral process. But we don’t have to grasp at such old and extreme examples. There are cautionary ones all around us in the present. From Venezuela and Nicaragua to Turkey and Egypt to Russia and the Philippines we’ve seen presidents use their initial popularity to tear apart the institutions that might have checked their power. Already we see concerted efforts to disenfranchise Trump’s likely political opponents, and his own direct attack on due process of law.
Obviously the American republic is more mature and durable than the Russian or Venezuelan versions, and as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independe on July 4 approaches,we’d do well to remember that. But what we’ve learned by default under Trump is that the real strength of the United States for most of these last 242 years lay in certain common assumptions, truths that the authors of the declaration held to be self-evident and Trump essentially disregards.
The nation was not built on “blood and soil,” but on immigrants attracted by the unique idea of a country devoted to the possibilities of the future, what was called "the pursuit of happiness." That same ideal was summed up brilliantly 87 years later by President Abraham Lincoln in his address memorializing the dead at the Battle of Gettysburg.Unlike the monarchies of Europe, the United States was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln said, and that was what the Union soldiers fought and died to defend.
That same core ideal was advocated passionately by Barack Obama. One might even say that America’s first black president was its incarnation. As Joshua Yaffa wrote last week in The New Yorker, Obama was driven by a belief in the “universal virtue of the American system,” and its value to societies all over the world, while Trump sees “politics as business,” and “with values out of the way, everything is tradable.”
The rule of law, the importance of empirically proven facts, the protection of minority rights, all those powerful ideas dating back to the Federalist Papers and long before are norms that Trump quite obviously finds contemptible. The real estate shyster in him does not believe in a nation of laws, but of lawyers who, if you pay them enough, will allow you to do just about anything. The messianic huckster that he’s become just makes up “facts,” then finds to his amusement that his faithful followers believe them. The innate bigot in him believes minorities should remain minorities, and preferably powerless ones, forever. And, perversely, as a “reality” television star he discovered he could stitch all those elements together and people would find them, yes, entertaining. He would be “disrupting."
Add to all that the sugar high of a tax cut that is designed to benefit the non-rich up to a point—even if only until a little after the 2022 elections—and Trump may well be with us for a second term. By then the bills will all begin coming due like balloon mortgages, and many of his supporters will be the first to find themselves under water. The ever-less-regulated stock market that is making many people feel good about their savings will crash as badly as it did in 2008, or worse. But it’s going to be an uphill battle to convince any of the Trump core that’s the case until it is far too late.
So, what is one to do?
For starters, it’s vital for the anti-Trumpsters to get out of their echo chambers and listen to what’s going on outside among people who disagree with them on some points or many, but who are willing to have rational discussions. The Trump core, for now, is unreachable. But the Trump core is not a majority, and several elections have shown Trump magic doesn’t work reliably for anybody but him.
One good way out of the echo chamber is to put down your smartphone, at least for a while, and go out on the street. Form activist communities, and enlist other people face to face. Register yourself to vote. Register others to vote. Reason is on your side, don’t be afraid to use it. Show Trump’s uneasy constituents that he’s a fraud, that they’ve been suckered once—but you know they are too smart to let that happen again—and perhaps mention in passing that Trump himself is being suckered around the world. Being suckered by a sucker is not very entertaining.
But that’s just a beginning, and yes the clock is ticking. Above all, register yourself and others to vote. The best chance to change the disastrous course that Trump is setting for the United States and the world is, indeed, in the midterm elections, barely four months away. To be sure, the Democratic leadership is divided and weak, but in some respects that’s an advantage. At this juncture the party does not need to choose between a Hillary or a Bernie, it needs to find the candidates who can win in their districts, whether a Conor Lamb to the right of the party’s center in Pennsylvania or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the far left in New York City.
It’s a mistake to proclaim that either is the future of the party. They just need to be the future of their districts. But it is critically important to understand that if the Democrats fail to win enough races across the country in November to take control of Congress, there very likely will be no future for the party, and then the American government really will have become the Trump regime.
Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg summed up the situation perfectly in a brilliant, very brief sentence on Twitter: “Treat every election,” he wrote, “like it’s the last one you’ll ever have.”