The dangerous fantasy of toppling the Trump regime
This is a dangerous moment in American democracy.
A pandemic has killed more than 110,000 people in three months. The economy is in recession with tens of millions out of work. Protests against racial injustice in policing have broken out in hundreds of cities and towns across the country, with some of them culminating in looting, others provoking outrageous acts of police brutality, and all of them running the risk of contributing to a resurgence of the coronavirus. And, of course, at the center of the maelstrom is the incompetent and malicious president who cares about nothing besides looking tough, protecting himself, and dividing the country as much as he possibly can in order to secure his re-election five months from now.
Because Trump barely managed to win the presidency four years ago, because he did so while losing the popular vote by millions, and because Russian intelligence helped at the margins to bring about this outcome, a number of the president's most vociferous critics have long treated him as a tyrant lacking in democratic legitimacy. Early on in Trump's presidency, these critics began to go by the name of "the resistance," a moniker meant to suggest that they were more like dissidents standing against a despot than mere critics of an office holder facing an election in the not-so-distant future.
Today this tendency to conflate the Trump administration with a "regime" that needs to be toppled through extra-constitutional means is becoming a commonplace, especially at the leading resistance publications. And that is something that has the potential to do even more harm to the long-term civic health of the country than all of Trump's authoritarian cosplaying.
At its worst — on MSNBC, in the opinion pages of some of the country's leading newspapers, and on Twitter — the resistance has often been faintly ridiculous, mixing absurd self-importance with political impotence and a weakness for grand Russia-focused conspiracies. But at its best — in The Atlantic and at The Bulwark (where I contribute to a weekly podcast) — it has helped to illuminate the distinctive dangers that President Trump and his enablers pose to American democracy.
Though even these valuable contributions to public understanding sometimes go too far. Over the past week The Atlantic has published several essays and an interview that make assumptions about the character of the Trump presidency, or raise hopes and expectations for bringing it to an end, that are unwarranted by American reality. If readers took those claims seriously and acted on them, they would be contributing to making our political situation far worse than it is.
The most ambitious and accomplished of these essays is Anne Applebaum's "History Will Judge the Complicit," a historically and psychologically rich exploration of political motivation that looks to answer why some figures seek to ingratiate themselves to bad leaders while others refuse to do so. I highly recommend it. But readers also need to beware of buying too fully into the essay's central conceit, which is that Trump enablers like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Trump opponents like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney can be usefully analogized to collaborators and dissidents within totalitarian regimes. Applebaum acknowledges the inappropriateness of making such parallels, and yet the essay relies on them throughout.
At one level, this is understandable. Trump does talk (and tweet) like an authoritarian strongman, he clearly admires and seeks to emulate dictators more than he does democratically elected heads of state, and his instincts in times of crisis all run toward autocratic atmospherics. As George Packer puts it in another first-rate Atlantic essay that touches on the president's appalling actions last week in Lafayette Park:
Trump's short walk from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church had all the trappings of a strongman trying to show that he was still master of the country amid reports that he'd taken refuge in a bunker: the phalanx of armored guards surrounding him as he strutted out of the presidential palace; the tear gas and beatings that cleared his path of demonstrators and journalists; the presence of his daughter, who had come up with the idea, and his top general, wearing combat fatigues as if to signal that the army would defend the regime against the people, and his top justice official, who had given the order to raid the square. [The Atlantic]
That's very finely observed. But it's also deceptive if it's taken to be a literal description of American political reality. It might feel like Trump is the leader of a junta. But the United States isn't really an autocracy. The White House isn't a presidential palace. The actions Packer describes came in for widespread and severe criticism. No one who took the president to task was harassed or thrown in jail. The top general wearing combat fatigues (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley) expressed regret about his role in the photo op. (More on Milley's remarks in a moment.)
The problem with allowing ourselves to lose sight of the distinction between appearance and reality is that it will tempt us to begin thinking that our situation is far more desperate than it is. One form of that desperation can be seen in the swooning among center-right and center-left pundits over James Mattis' recent interview, also in The Atlantic, in which the former Marine Corps general and defense secretary laid into the president, accusing him of intentionally dividing the country and showing insufficient deference to the Constitution. In the wake of Mattis' remarks, several other active and retired military leaders have made similarly critical statements about Trump's response to the nationwide protests.
It's a free country, so these military men are welcome to share their opinions. Yet there is something more than a little unnerving about numerous members of the nation's armed forces speaking out against the elected civilian commander in chief, regardless of his manifest defects. This is especially so when the critics include the currently-serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. True, Milley said only that members of the armed forces must remain true to their oath to "the idea of America," implying that Trump's stunt in Lafayette Park may have diverged from that idea. Still, this opens the possibility of military commanders looking to principles other than the Constitution, and its placement of military control in the hands of civilians, in interpreting their orders. Down that path lies potential military defiance of presidential directives — and even, in a moment of crisis, a military coup.
Such a coup would obviously countermand the letter of the Constitution. But one could imagine it being justified in terms of the spirit of the nation's fundamental law — and certain passionately anti-Trump centrists cheering it on. But of course such an event would be a disastrous development in the political history of the United States. Once countries cross over into extra-constitutional means of transferring power, such transgressions usually get repeated. It's far, far better to maintain faith in the integrity of democratic elections — very much including the one coming up in November.
The same holds for the scenario sketched out in Franklin Foer's own Atlantic essay, "The Trump Regime is Beginning to Topple," which also portrays the current administration as some kind of autocracy being challenged by protests that Foer explicitly likens to demonstrations that have overthrown authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe. The implication is obvious: It would be glorious thing if Trump were driven from power by the throngs massing on the streets of the nation's capital.
In fact, such an event wouldn't be a glorious revolution at all. As corrupt and malign as it is, the Trump administration isn't a "regime," and no American should want to see it "toppled" when it can be lawfully voted out of office on Nov. 3. Getting rid of Trump in any other way would bypass the rule of law for the rule of the mob. When a writer who would normally be counted on to defend the rule of law begins to pine for an extra-constitutional method of getting rid of the president, it's a very bad sign about the nation's civic health.
Trump is bad. But he's not the tyrant he plays on Twitter. The "resistance" needs to remember that and stop indulging in fantasies of making him disappear through extra-constitutional means.
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