With the U.S. president’s repeated declaration that he will not accept the results of the 2020 presidential election if they are not in his favor, and various practical steps by his tame Justice Department and the hollow shell of the Republican Party to nullify the popular vote and steal the electoral college slates in key states if they don’t go his way, we have a more-or-less official proclamation of an American dictatorship, complete with a president-for-life and dynastic future dictators within the tyrant’s family. It is therefore not too early to limn the outline of near-future events and speculate on the further development of a brand-new political entity that of course has many forerunners in both U.S. and world history.
The Transition Integrity Project in June 2020 engaged in a series of “war games” that provide a valuable guide to the impending election and its immediate aftermath. Though participants have tried to frame their findings in a pragmatic, optimistic spirit of “here’s what state election officials can do now to prevent the more catastrophic scenarios,” it is obvious that none of these steps will be taken while Republicans dominate a majority of state legislatures and governorships. The project’s findings can therefore be summarized in a sentence: the election will not be settled by the traditional methods of the American republic, but through a naked and brutal power struggle that will include significant and probably widespread violence.
In such a struggle, the results are virtually foreordained. The dictator starts out with more than four-in-ten members of the public who have proven they will stick with him no matter what he says or does. Not only are they not fazed by his deliberate sabotage of the efforts to control the COVID pandemic, which has led to a confirmed U.S. death toll over 200,000 at this writing and an actual death toll that must be some multiple of that (that is, a million or more); they are delighted by it, gloating in their refusal to follow medical advice and their denigration of medical professionals. The accompanying economic collapse, to the extent that it bothers them, can always be blamed on efforts by those nefarious scientists and opposition politicians to control the pandemic. The endless search for something so repulsive in the dictator’s speech or conduct that his supporters will have an epiphany and “turn on him” has long since proven futile. If his sneering racism and misogyny in speech and action, bragging about sexual assault on tape, praising torch-wielding neo-Nazis, openly enriching himself and his family and hangers-on at the public expense, extorting foreign governments for personal political gain, collaborating with other dictators and traditional enemies of the United States, insulting military veterans and the war dead, and on and on didn’t disturb them, nothing he does ever will.
To these of the dictator’s assets we can add virtually every Republican officeholder and office seeker in the country, solid majorities in the Senate and Supreme Court, huge swaths of the rest of the federal judiciary, more than half the governors, and a majority of state legislatures; in short, firm control of two-and-a-half of the three branches of the federal government and most state governments as well. Crucially, all of the U.S. military and federal law enforcement (including state National Guard detachments if he federalizes them) are directly subject to his orders, and large numbers of local law enforcement officers have expressed open devotion to his cause. Although military and federal law enforcement’s actual degree of loyalty in a civil conflict has yet to be put to the test, the early signs are not promising, to say the least. One may cite the appearance of federal law enforcement without identifying marks who have detained protesters in Portland, Oregon and possibly elsewhere without arrest or charge, and the use of active-duty U.S. military to suppress protests in the capital with tear gas and other use of force. Last but not least among the dictator’s assets are completely unaccountable “militia” paramilitaries and ad hoc armed gangs that have shown up at protests around the country to violently defend the dictator’s cause, in many cases apparently voluntarily and spontaneously, at times with the dictator’s explicit post hoc encouragement. A direct order from the great man to mobilize, which he has already threatened to do, would undoubtedly meet with an enthusiastic response.
Against this, what can the opposition muster? A slim majority of public opinion, a modest majority in the House of Representatives, and however many professional members of the federal judiciary remain. This is not a promising scorecard.
What kind of resistance can we expect to the imposition of the dictatorship? Unfortunately the opposition is divided and confused, with many focusing on issues of secondary or lesser importance, running the gamut from “health care” to the environment to income inequality. Whether by design or happenstance, the regime has been slow and haphazard in its cruelty and authoritarianism, with the crucial exception of the packing of the federal judiciary with far-right zealots. This has allowed many people to develop a certain level of numbness, if not complacency, in the face of each new outrage.
Apart from the massive gathering in the capital the day after the regime’s inception (the so-called “Women’s March” that may have drawn as many as 750,000 people), street protests didn’t really catch on until the pandemic summer of 2020. The frenzied response by the dictator and his cronies seems to show that this tactic really does frighten them. It’s just barely conceivable that a massive, spontaneous popular uprising could avert the dictator’s seizing full power following his successful subversion of the 2020 elections—but this would require millions of people in the streets, not tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Failing that, the regime can be counted on to continue tarring all protests as violent subversion, and to step up the tactics of militarized law enforcement we began to see this past summer. Mass arrests may be necessary to break the protest movement in the coming months; if so, the regime will have its choice of “legal” authorities to draw on under the rubric of the “war on terrorism” (such as the USA PATRIOT Act), not to mention the practical experience it has already gained in “outsourcing” the construction and staffing of concentration camps for “illegal immigrants” and refugees to unaccountable private prison companies. Interning tens or hundreds of thousands of American citizens rather than stateless persons is at another level, legally and practically speaking, but as we have seen the federal judiciary has been thoroughly staffed with people who won’t hesitate to declare such actions legal. Quite a few of the political prisoners will die of neglect in the shambolic scramble to expand the camp system, which is already bursting at the seams from the influx of despised foreigners.
On the other hand, we can expect the regime to allow a neutered and powerless formal opposition to continue to exist legally in Congress and the statehouses, although informal online and in-person harassment of opposition figures will increase over time. The “trolls” and other thugs responsible will of course be anonymous individuals, and any ties to the regime difficult or impossible to trace. A free press outside the government’s control will likewise continue to be permitted in theory, although it will increasingly be subject to the same kinds of harassment as well as selective enforcement of antitrust, tax, espionage, and protectionist laws, as well as outright buyouts by wealthy individuals and corporations connected to the regime. Other so-called postmodern twenty-first century dictatorships for which the president has often expressed admiration have found it convenient to work along these lines. This stops well short of full-blown totalitarianism by allowing the disgruntled to blow off steam without posing any threat to the regime. The regime also benefits by using the powerless opposition as a convenient target, while at the same time it can continue to pretend to be democratic to throw off domestic and foreign critics.
Also helpful to the regime in this regard will be its continued adherence to traditional American republican forms, although the substance will become unrecognizable. In other words, do not expect the dictator to start calling himself “Leader” instead of president. Congress will continue to hold pretend deliberations and may perhaps rubber-stamp selected regime measures, like the ancient Roman Senate under the emperors—who called themselves by that word, instead of “king,” because the shorter word held bad historical memories for the Romans.
While pretending that nothing has changed from the old, republican regime and tolerating a shrinking level of liberty may lull some opponents, it will leave open the large question of how to pacify the majority of the populace, which has opposed the dictator from the beginning. Unfortunately for the regime, appeasing them or buying them off is a necessity the dictator seems temperamentally unable even to understand, much less to put into practice. “Playing to his base,” in other words delighting the minority that brought him to power and has proven willing to follow him anywhere, is where the dictator’s strengths lie. For those who are not with him, there is only the mailed fist, though this has so far consisted mainly of tax penalties for “unfriendly” states and denial of federal aid to hostile states and localities. Expect the harshness of the regime’s retaliation to grow over time. Perhaps one of his successors will rediscover the benefits of offering bribes rather than only the whip.
Which of course raises the ultimate question for regime continuation. As is well known, the dictator’s son is already being groomed to take over when he dies, but it is not at all clear that the “base” will attach the same intensity of devotion to his person that they have to his father’s. Watch closely the kind of attention this “Baby Doc” gets from friendly right-wing media and “conservative” political formations after the subverted election. If he fails, there are not a few waiting in the wings to play the role of Augustus Caesar and put the regime established by the dictator on firmer foundations. If they are wise, powerful figures who would be exposed to retaliation should the regime disintegrate after the “charismatic founder” is gone will do whatever they can to ensure that a power vacuum does not develop at the top.
Our crystal ball becomes yet cloudier the further we attempt to peer into the future and the more extreme the scenarios we contemplate. For reasons we have already outlined, the regime seems unlikely to descend into full-blown totalitarianism. In addition, we may note that the unrivaled greed of the dictator and his circle, while it has already produced examples of corruption to match any in history, has also distracted them from the task of efficiently consolidating power. Then too, the dictator lacks any systematic ideology of the kind that made his twentieth-century forerunners so destructive of human life. His hatreds, while extremely dangerous, are also unfocused, probably because the people in America who do not fit his white, Protestant ideal are too many and too diverse. Nevertheless, his persecution of “illegal immigrants” and refugees has been sustained enough to called systematic. It has already gone on for so long, and his propaganda has been so successful, that most Americans have become numb to the idea that there are “children in cages.” This leaves open the horrifying possibility that, once his “reelection” is no longer in question, the dictator may see no further value in maintaining this group immiserated in concentration camps, and may order their mass murder to “save the taxpayer money.” He and his regime have already placed them beyond the law and out of public view in desert camps, such that anything may be done to them, and have systematically demonized and dehumanized them (“animals,” “rapists,” etc.) Recently we learned that some inmate immigrant women have been forced to undergo hysterectomies—and preventing births in a target group is part of the UN’s definition of genocide. The conditions are therefore ripe for full-blown slaughter; and the historical record shows that regimes that will commit this massive crime against an arbitrarily defined group of people, will soon find reasons to target other groups.
This becomes much more likely if the election subversion and the repression of the protests to follow do not go as smoothly as outlined above. If the dictator faces a serious threat, his temperament and the logic of the situation will push him deeper into paranoia and may drive him to attempt to annihilate groups he hates and deems hostile to him anyway. As hinted above and as actually hoped by some in the opposition, the unquestioning personal loyalty the dictator has demanded from the military and federal law enforcement has been difficult to extract and may not be guaranteed in the event of nationwide chaos. But those who salivate at this prospect should bear two things in mind. First, in the words of the wicked old British imperialist Rudyard Kipling, “we’ve proved it again and again / That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld / You never get rid of the Dane.” That is, once the U.S. military’s taboo against intervening in politics is broken, it will never be restored, and we will enter an endless cycle of military coups d’etat followed by restored civilian rule just like the “banana republics” of Latin America that Americans used to sneer at (though in truth, of course, we bore a great deal of responsibility for their troubles). And second, history really doesn’t ever repeat itself precisely, and a second American Civil War would not be a relatively neat and geographically circumscribed (if horrifically bloody) affair of “North against South.” The present political divisions don’t fall along such lines, and we are far likelier to see the country splinter into many pieces, like the Balkans of historical lore or present-day Syria.