Here we are in July 2019. The country is wracked by violence, hatred, and economic despair. President Hillary Clinton just declared martial law. And rumors are swirling that the 2020 presidential election might need to be suspended.
How did it come to this?
In retrospect, the country's direction should have been clear since before the 2016 election. All of Donald Trump's (widely believed) talk of the election being rigged, the mischief-making by WikiLeaks, the sporadic left-wing violence against the right. As Trump careened toward defeat, I think most of us naively hoped that he'd back away from his inflammatory rhetoric and the political unrest would die down once the results of the vote were clear and overwhelming.
But of course it didn't happen. Certainly nothing about Trump's behavior up to that point gave us any reason to think he'd suddenly become civically responsible. And besides, he needed to stoke the anger and resentment of his followers to ensure maximum ratings for the launch of Trump TV. People had been speculating about Trump's possible media ambitions throughout the summer and fall of 2016, but few understood at the time that the presidential campaign itself made such a venture absolutely essential for Trump. All of the bad press had decimated his brand. By Election Day, the Trump hotels and golf courses were empty and losing a fortune. He needed another revenue stream, and populist politics was his only option.
Hence Trump's poisonous rant of a "concession" speech after the votes were counted. It was all a marketing ploy — and boy did it work. Sure, it was ridiculous. A nine-point landslide loss a result of election fraud? It was utterly implausible, but that didn't keep millions of Trump voters from believing it — and from vowing to remain loyal to the cause of opposing president-elect Hillary Clinton and the "cuckservatives" who supposedly worked in secret with the media to ensure her victory. Most of the rest of the country (all the Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin voters) hoped that the ad hoc groups of armed white men (who, at Trump's urging, had patrolled minority neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Chicago, and other cities on Election Day) would disband. But Trump's Election Night speech — and then the launch of his network in mid-December — ensured that they stuck around and expanded.
Throughout the South, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt, hundreds of these groups gathered at bars, union halls, and private homes for "watching parties" on the night Trump TV went on the air. It was pretty rough at first, with some technical glitches and on-air awkwardness, but I've got to hand it to them: Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner really knew what they were doing.
The model, of course, was Fox News, with several of its biggest stars defecting to Trump's new network right after the election. Ann Coulter's 8 p.m. show was popular right from the start, but it was Trump's show with Sean Hannity, at 9 p.m. four nights a week, that formed the backbone of (and ratings juggernaut for) the new channel. It was a work of perverse genius. Trump had already shown that the media couldn't resist covering his every incendiary pronouncement. Now he had a massive platform that he could promote all day long with provocative tweets, which led to an hour-long diatribe aimed directly at President Clinton and congressional Republicans. It was vulgar and rude and ill-informed … and utterly devastating to the new president.
Clinton was always going to have a tough time governing. Yes, the 2016 election gave her a narrow three-seat Democratic majority in the Senate, but the GOP held the House — and once Paul Ryan was deposed as speaker in a post-election coup and replaced by pro-Trump firebrand Dana Rohrabacher, there was no chance the incoming president would get anything done. Still, few predicted that people would look back at the inside-the-beltway dysfunction of the Obama years as a golden age of governing.
With three federal government shutdowns and a (failed) presidential impeachment trial in the last two and a half years, there has been no time to address the nation's problems — above all the slow-motion collapse of the Affordable Care Act. With Trump and his on-air talent railing nightly against President Clinton and her Republican "lap dogs" for trying to fix HillaryCare (nee ObamaCare) rather than letting it die, Congress did nothing as hundreds of thousands and then millions were dropped from health insurance or faced a choice of devastating rate hikes or tax penalties for failing to maintain coverage.
It's been appalling but also unsurprising. Republicans first experienced this kind of thing back in the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh began to use his radio show to motivate thousands of listeners to barrage their representatives in Congress with phone calls and faxes, keeping them in line and ensuring they never compromised with Democrats. With Trump TV leading the charge every night of the week (with ratings double what the now-flagging Fox News once brought in), congressional Republicans have felt their feet held to a white-hot roaring fire. No wonder no one has dared to break from the lockstep march to bring down Crooked Hillary. And indeed, between the health care debacle, the stagnant economy, continuing terrorist attacks in Europe and occasionally here, several close calls with the Russian military in Syria and the Baltics, and the constant stream of dirt dug up by WikiLeaks and Judicial Watch (with their latest press releases invariably read and promoted non-stop on Trump TV), the House was simply consumed by constantly roiling Hillary hatred.
But that's nothing compared to what we've seen since the midterm elections of 2018. With both houses of Congress now firmly in Republican hands, America has devolved into complete chaos.
First there was the shock retirements of Justices Ginsburg and Thomas within 10 days of each other in mid-March. The country had gotten used to the Supreme Court hobbling along with just eight Justices. But now we were down to six. Some suggested that President Clinton might be able to work out a deal with the Republican majority in the Senate to get at least two Justices confirmed — one liberal and one conservative. But with Trump TV throwing around accusations of "Republican treason" and Democrats livid at the prospect of any concession to the right, all hope for compromise was snuffed out almost immediately.
Then came the riots.
Who knows why the late May death of a black motorist at the hands of two white police officers in the St. Louis suburbs sparked so much violence across the nation when so many sadly similar deaths over the past two years had merely led to localized protests (along with promises from President Clinton, largely unfulfilled, to address the underlying injustices). I suspect it had to do with mounting racial tension, as police unions had become more and more explicit in aligning themselves with Trump and the militias. Whatever the cause, East St. Louis erupted as soon as the video of the shooting made it online and quickly spread throughout the country.
Within two days, dozens of cities and suburbs were burning nightly. That's when the militias that had been growing since the 2016 election began to mobilize again. Every night for the first four days after the riots began, Trump and his son Donald Trump, Jr. had joined with Hannity in calling for viewers to back up the cops in their struggle with the "lawless thugs." And that's what happened: For several evenings in a row, groups of mostly white men across the country gathered to watch the hour-long summons to action by the former Republican nominee and his increasingly popular and charismatic son and then head out into the night to make trouble in the name of restoring "order."
The rest is just a blur. There was so much violence in so many places across the country.
Then the stock market crashed. Trillions of dollars were lost, mutual funds tanked, and Occupy Wall Street was instantly revived — in New York City, most spectacularly (the day after the crash, 75,000 people effectively shut down the city south of Chambers Street), but also in other cities and on college campuses across the country.
The violence escalated from there over the following weeks. And then came martial law.
President Clinton made clear that she intends to lift the nationwide curfew and withdraw the National Guard as soon as possible. But there is no evidence that the unrest is receding. Trump TV now mixes attacks on the rioters and defenses of the cops with equally venomous denunciations of "lawless Hillary." Donald Trump, Jr. speaks openly of running for president as the champion of "the people" against the "tyrants and thugs" who are ruining America. Though he also warns in ominous tones that the president will do anything and everything in her power to stop him — including calling off the election altogether. Which only stirs up the militias, which only prolongs the period of martial law.
None of us knows precisely what will come next. But we have ample reason to suspect it's not going to be good.