Over many years, I’ve been preoccupied with the various shades of totalitarianism, examining the very worst and most depraved regimes in history, from Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist racial paradise, Joseph Stalin’s frozen communist Gulag, Mao’s governance by famine, and Pol Pot’s agrarian death trap, among others. For me, it’s something of an obsession, as I’ve tried to understand the logic of governments that murder their own citizens, rather than protecting them.
Usually, it’s incomprehensible horror. In these cases, the darkest parts of human nature are writ large, and projected onto entire helpless populations. But one thing is very clear: these nightmares do not happen in functioning democracies. Perhaps the primary value of democracy, then, is the assurance that your government almost certainly won’t kill you.
That’s more important than you might think.
Approximately 170 million people were slaughtered by their own governments in the 20th century, giving rise to the term democide: the killing of members of a country’s civilian population as a result of its government’s policy, whether deliberately or by neglect. Add to this toll genocide and the wars dictators frequently start, and you begin to appreciate the scale and severity of the suffering caused by the few bloodthirstiest illiberal regimes. It’s immense.
It can happen here.
As an American living in a more or less healthy democracy, there was always an emotional and political distance separating me from these human catastrophes, as if such things only happened elsewhere, to other people in other places. But as America slides further into democratic decline and disrepair, it’s no longer the case that we’re permanently immune to such horrors, particularly amid the second iteration of Trumpism, in what will surely be a crueler, deadlier, and altogether more cataclysmic term, should he secure one.
“It can’t happen here,” is no longer a credible response. It can. And this is exactly how it starts: dictatorship. The prerequisites for genocide and democide are the extinguishing of democracy, and the flowering of despotism. Somewhat ironically, a primary feature of democracy is its capacity for self-destruction, or democratic suicide; the classic case being Weimar Germany. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent voters from voting themselves into oblivion without destroying democracy first, paradoxically.
And we’re on the verge of exactly such a moment in America.
As Donald Trump sets the stage for a nakedly authoritarian right-wing regime, he’s unleashing his inner dictator for all the world to see, escalating his violent rhetoric to match some of history’s vilest criminals.
In recent days, he’s called his political opponents “vermin” that must be “rooted out,” echoing the dehumanization of victims frequently heard from dictators on both the ideological right and left, often as a prelude to their murder. He’s described immigrants as diseased terrorists who are “poisoning the blood of our country,” alluding to what is a distinctly Hitlerian concept of racial pollution.
He’s called for the execution of his own former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, baselessly accusing him of “treason.” He’s vowed that he’ll deploy the American military on domestic soil to clean up “Democrat-run” cities, and to lock down the southern border. Likewise, he’s said his administration would bomb drug cartels in Mexico, with or without the Mexican government’s blessing, in what would be a blatant shattering of international law, and the beginning of an international crisis with little parallel in North America.
Obviously, there’s no precedent for any of this rhetoric from an American president or presidential candidate. But Donald Trump is a unique figure, an example of a charismatic demagogue that has reshaped an entire political system around his mangled personality. He continues to plumb new depths, and America continues to sink into them like quicksand.
The former president has elevated violent political rhetoric into an art form, and the Republican Party continues lapping it up, after only the briefest wavering in the aftermath of January 6 and Trump’s failed coup d’etat. Since then, though, Trump has reconsolidated his grip on the party, and appears to be all but unstoppable in the ongoing primary.
Indeed, the GOP’s poised to nominate him a third time, despite his losing the last three national elections, in what is a telling sign of the GOP’s transformation into one man’s cult of personality. As for Trump’s criminal trials, in four different jurisdictions, they only seem to be further radicalizing him and his supporters in the GOP, and weakening whatever restraint he might once have had. And Trump is likely only to face a single trial prior to the election; if he wins, it’s clear he’ll dispense with the remaining charges with the powers of the presidency.
Clearly, Trump’s running for president both to sate his own unquenchable lust for power, but more importantly, to escape a lengthy prison sentence for the 91 felonies he’s currently charged with. Those cases include his hoarding and gross mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago; paying hush money to a pornstar prior to the 2016 election; and conspiring to obstruct the 2020 election in both federal court and Fulton County, Georgia in a separate sprawling RICO indictment.
Thus for him, 2024 is truly existential, as it is for our democracy.
Regardless of all this, Trump’s currently experiencing a resurgence in the Republican Party, and is on the verge of locking down the nomination, consistently beating both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, his nearest challengers, by more than 50 points in primary polls. More to the point, Trump’s basically tied with Biden in polling of a general election match up.
While there’s still some time before voting takes place, on the basis of polling, Trump looks to be a lock. With the nomination in hand, Trump would then be only a very short distance from beating a politically weak and aging President Joe Biden in another lopsided electoral college victory-popular vote loss, one that would spell the end of American democracy for good.
It’s time for America to wake up, and appraise the grave threat we’re all facing to our democracy. Sadly, it feels like we’re too numb, too politically fatigued, or just indifferent, to comprehend the danger we’re all facing. Our complacency is Trump’s pathway to installing a dictatorship over the ruins of what was once our democracy, if we let him.
Trump has described his own political enemies as America’s gravest threat, and has threatened a fire and brimstone campaign of “retribution” against his many domestic enemies. To that end, he has said he would engage in a wide-ranging political purge of the federal bureaucracy, military, and administration, or what he refers to as the “deep-state.” In other words, he promises to begin his next administration with a classically authoritarian purge unlike anything seen in American history.
From there, it only gets worse.
As the New York Times illustrated yesterday in a headline article, Donald Trump’s second term would be an altogether different beast. If America barely survived his first term, it’s difficult to imagine emerging from his second intact. His radical agenda paints a bleak picture of ruthlessness and incompetence merging into a continuous national meltdown for the country at large, one that would unfold on a global stage, as America’s adversaries abroad revel in our dysfunction, and as our friends seek new allies and security elsewhere.
In the foreign policy arena, he would likely try to pull the United States out of NATO, the oldest and most successful military alliance in history, setting off a cascading global security crisis, and a collapse of American influence abroad, and a vacuum for Beijing and Moscow to immediately exploit. In other words, Trump would abandon our oldest allies and friends, coddling up to dictators and strongmen like himself, and dismantling the postwar security architecture America herself constructed. Likewise, he would almost certainly hand Ukraine to Vladimir Putin on a silver platter, encouraging the Kremlin’s murderous adventurism in Eastern Europe and beyond.
At home, he would begin aggressively deporting millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States, ending asylum claims and unleashing ICE agents into American cities to conduct sweeping raids. He’s promised to set up massive concentration camps to hold detainees on American soil prior to their deportation, something straight out of Children of Men, or a Margaret Atwood novel. It would make his first term’s family separation policy look tame by comparison.
More to the point, Trump says he would deploy American military assets and troops in American cities, to enforce public order in left-leaning cities he deems out of control, with or without the permission of those governors and mayors. New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco immediately come to mind, as Trump plays out his endless political vendettas with U.S. Marines clutching M4’s in American cities.
Worse, he would try to put down the widespread protests and massive unrest that would almost certainly erupt as a result of his reelection, using the Insurrection Act to brutally beat back resistance to his new regime. It’s only a very brief interval between that and a full-blown civil war, another distinct possibility of a Trump presidency.
Once in office, he plans to expand presidential power ad infinitum, asserting executive control over independent agencies, and undertaking political purges over every single part of the federal government, asserting his personal control over the entire sprawling machine. Chillingly, he has vowed to bend the Justice Department to his will, unleashing American law enforcement agents against his domestic political opponents, a la Gestapo/NKVD, in yet another classically authoritarian method.
And there won’t be anyone around to check or stop these authoritarian impulses once he’s in office, and nobody left in his second administration capable of pushing back or moderating his worst tendencies. He long ago purged such independent-minded people from his political movement, ridding his orbit of all dissenting voices. Instead, he’s surrounded by the purely opportunistic lackeys and sycophants he craves, along with the radicalized ideologues and true believers, the Steve Bannons, Mike Flynns, and Stephen Millers, who would presumably all have starring roles as architects of his second administration.
Certainly, any “adults in the room” will be long gone, replaced by those deemed sufficiently obedient, loyal, and complicit, and who will understand serving in government to mean serving Donald Trump personally and unswervingly. Don’t expect any heroes to emerge.
In short, Donald Trump is planning his dictatorship in plain sight. It’s a level of arrogance and venality that can be hard to grasp; clearly, he feels invulnerable, believing his political career affords him total impunity, and he’s pursuing the presidency in the belief that it will protect him from prison, and elevate him into a position above and beyond the rule of law.
Prosecutors are likely to get one crack at him before the election, though anything can happen in a jury trial. For people banking on a guilty verdict to protect our democracy, I’d remind them that in a jury of 12 people, the likelihood of a political protest resulting in Trump’s acquittal is not insignificant.
I have a feeling it’s going to end up with the voters. After everything Trump has said and done, it’s going to be a crystal clear question: democracy or dictatorship. Everything else is simply peripheral: abortion, taxes, guns, immigration. None of it matters in the least, without a democracy.
And our democracy will be on the ballot in 2024. That much is clear.
Trump did a town hall yesterday with Fox News, and Sean Hannity pressed him about whether or not he’d be a dictator after returning to office. His answer? He said he wouldn’t be a dictator “except for Day One.” That should tell you everything you need to know about his intentions.
As I wrote earlier in this article, nightmares like Gulags and concentration camps and genocides don’t happen in democracies, and yet much of America appears to be taking lightly the possibility of our own democracy vanishing into thin air. But once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
Who can say what comes after? The possibilities are endless.
One thing is clear: the American people won’t decide. If they elect Trump in 2024, they’ll have given away the most precious thing in the world: the right to determine their own future.