Donald Trump is a “wrecking ball” aimed at constitutional governance, Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said earlier this week in response to revelations that losing presidential candidate Trump urged national security and military agencies to seize voting machines in 2020.
This past week has shown the clear and present danger that Trump represents to the survival of United States democracy. As the committee investigating the January 6 attempted putsch has revealed, Trump and his inner circle were willing to do just about anything to maintain their hold on power. Trump himself has, this week, shown just how politically depraved he is: In a statement that he released online, he berated former Vice President Mike Pence for having not “overturned the election.” And at a pep rally in Texas, Trump all but promised that he would pardon those who participated in the January 6 storming of the Capitol.
Trump also urged his followers, many of whom have come to protests armed in recent years, to flood the streets of U.S. cities should prosecutors in Atlanta, Georgia, or in New York City indict Trump on criminal charges — some relating to his business practices and tax filings, some relating to his efforts to intimidate election officials — as is quite possible over the coming months. In the wake of this clear effort to derail the judicial process, the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia asked the FBI to conduct a threat assessment and to identify potential vulnerabilities in the courthouse that would be targeted by the MAGA mob.
This is all so far down the lawless, fascist, paramilitary rabbit hole that even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has spent the past six years enabling Trump’s every attack on democracy, mildly pushed back, saying that he was “not in favor” of pardons being issued for the January 6 coup-plotters. Sen. Lindsey Graham, perhaps Trump’s most odious and opportunistic of cheerleaders, also chimed in, saying that the ex-president’s promise was “inappropriate.”
But these are milquetoast criticisms, equivalent to trying to put out a five-alarm fire with teacups full of tepid water. And even those criticisms are a rarity. Over the past year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly huddled with the ex-president at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and talked over strategies to retake the House in 2022, despite the fact McCarthy initially held Trump responsible for the coup attempt of January 6. After Trump’s latest outrageous comments, there was nary a peep of discontent or discomfort from McCarthy.
There are tools to bar Trump, as an instigator of efforts to trigger an insurrection, from ever running for public office again. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, passed in the wake of the Civil War, which specifically bars insurrectionists from office, is tailor-made for the Trump situation; yet the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress, including Senators McConnell and Graham, wouldn’t in a million years dream of alienating their base by using this mechanism against Trump.
It is, once again, a stunning example of political cowardice in the face of this concerted and escalating effort to destroy U.S. democratic norms and institutions.
As correspondent John Nichols, my colleague at The Nation, has pointed out, Trump’s promise to pardon those who take up arms on his behalf is redolent of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s behavior in the run-up to his seizing absolute power and declaring the Italian Fascist Party to be above, and outside of, the law. It is also reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s behavior — both in the 1920s when he helped instigate a putsch attempt against the Weimar Republic, and in the 1930s when, as chancellor, he used the pretext of the Reichstag Fire to destroy the remnants of democratic governance in Germany and to replace it with explicit dictatorship, the rule of the Führer.
When powerful, charismatic leaders, whose words and gestures sway tens of millions of people, embrace paramilitarism and tell their followers who pick up guns and throw bombs on their behalf that they are misunderstood heroes, they set the stage for a historical catastrophe.
An increasing number of democracy scholars, both in the U.S. and abroad, believe that the U.S. is currently so polarized, and its democratic binding principles so frayed, that there is a real risk of civil unrest, or even conflict, surrounding the 2024 elections. And Trump is actively stoking this risk, apparently having calculated that his personal interests are best served by once again cranking up the rage machine, by once more pandering to and encouraging his own personal storm troopers. In a country as heavily armed as is the U.S., this is a diabolically dangerous calculus.
Trump isn’t just looking in the rearview mirror. He’s not simply chewing the cud about what happened in the dying days of 2020 and the opening weeks of 2021. Instead, he is showing every sign of looking forward. In his endorsements of conspiracist candidates, Trump is seeding the ground for “Stop-the-Steal” true believers to take control of state elections apparatuses in 2022, and for increasingly extreme, and anti-democratic GOP candidates to be elected to Congress and the Senate. In his building up of a vast financial war chest, he is laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run, supported, he hopes, by the newly elected Stop-the-Steal gang. And in his embrace of the January 6 plotters, Trump is giving a clear signal that, over the coming years, he is likely to support paramilitary groups, to condone political violence aimed at his opponents, and to cheer on those who have no moral or political limits when it comes to aiding and abetting his efforts to return to power.
Yes, Senator Graham, I’d say all of that is indeed “inappropriate.” But I’d also say it’s fascistic, both in the means it uses and in the ends that it seeks to secure. I’d say it’s treasonous — a personal power grab obscenely wrapped in the fluttering flags of a strongman’s deluded followers. And I’d say it’s blood-thirsty — a gambit that knowingly puts lives at risk by encouraging militias and paramilitary groups to go after those who stand in the way of their vision and their political priorities.
There can’t be a middle ground of compromise with a man like Trump. He is, now, quite explicitly waging war on the country’s constitutional system. It’s long past time to trigger Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, and to banish, forever, this vicious gargoyle from public office.