The Signal this week is the extraordinary, chilling attack on democracy that the Trumpified Republican Party is now perpetuating.
Since the election was called, on November 7, Trump has repeatedly asserted, despite all evidence being to the contrary, that he won the election; that “legal votes” were cast for him and fraudulent ones for his opponent; and that he has no intention of conceding to President-elect Joe Biden—even though Biden has 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232. Trump’s attorneys have launched numerous lawsuits, ostensibly intended to nullify the counting and certification of votes in key states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, but more realistically intended simply to muddy the waters in the run-up to the official certification of the vote count in each state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and trade adviser Peter Navarro have all said they are working on the assumption that there will be a second Trump term. Attorney General Bill Barr has given the go-ahead to federal prosecutors to go off on fishing expeditions looking for election fraud. Government agencies are being told to prepare a budget for next year that assumes Trump is still president and that his political priorities will still be dictating government policy. The General Services Administration has refused to set in motion the process needed to begin a presidential transition. Biden has been frozen out of National Security briefings and Covid-19 planning sessions. And White House staff have reportedly been told they will be fired if they so much as look at job advertisements that might be useful to them for a post-Trump era.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, Trump has thoroughly purged the Defense Department’s civilian leadership in the past week, has also begun purging intelligence agencies, and is reputed to be thinking of firing the CIA and FBI chiefs. In each instance, the replacements for the purged men and women are extreme Trump loyalists, installed by John McEntee, the 30-year-old head of White House personnel (and the same official reportedly threatening White House personnel for seeking post–Trump administration jobs).
McEntee’s key selection criterion seems to be nothing more or less than absolute, unquestioning loyalty to Trump-the-person rather than to the Constitution; as a byproduct of seeking people so morally malleable, one recent appointment has a long, unsavory track record of spouting conspiracy theories and racial and religious bigotries. Given Trump’s very public efforts to invoke the Insurrection Act back in June and unleash the US military against domestic protesters, these personnel changes should set alarm bells ringing throughout government and among the general populace.
It doesn’t stop there. The post-election putsches and institutional vandalism have extended to scientific agencies. Last week the White House removed the chief scientist overseeing the National Climate Assessment, paving the way for installing a climate change skeptic in his place.
This past weekend, thousands of extremists—many of them wearing Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenter, and other militia and street-fighting insignia—descended on Washington to decry the election results. Trump fanned the flames by organizing a coy drive-by, allowing him to wave at his MAGA brigades from his car without actually mingling with them. Hours later, as night fell, street fights broke out between these gangs and their opponents. Again, Trump seemed to revel in stoking civil discord, tweeting about “ANTIFA SCUM” and urging the D.C. police to wade into the fray and to show no mercy (to the antifa activists, of course).
This is all foul stuff, intended to undermine every pillar of American democracy in a way that will be difficult to recover from. And it is ensuring that tens of millions of Trump voters will assume that the Biden presidency is the illegitimate product of an intricate web of conspiracies and electoral malfeasance.
In bygone times, Democrats and Republicans would have come together to denounce such nonsense, to protect the well-being of the country. In these debased political days, the GOP is incapable of maintaining even the pretense of adherence to democratic standards. And so we continue the lurch toward Trumpian nihilism, with a power-crazed president refusing to concede electoral defeat, and an opportunistic, pliant, GOP Senate majority and House minority aiding and abetting him in his assault on the continued existence of American democracy. Trump likely won’t win, in the sense of staying in power after January 20, but he is showing that he can further divide the country even in defeat, and that he has every desire to pit American against American in the coming weeks and months.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis hasn’t vanished, as Trump kept asserting it would during the final days of the campaign. Instead, it has now morphed into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, with more than 150,000 new infections per day, a situation that threatens to swamp hospital systems in dozens of states and unleash a winter of death that will see many tens of thousands of Americans die of this ghastly disease. The president’s response? Apart from cheerleading a vaccine that won’t be available to most Americans for several months, and threatening to withhold that vaccine from New Yorkers once it is, silence. His advisers’ response? Trump’s newfound favorite, Dr. Scott Atlas—who, it should be emphasized, is not an infectious disease specialist—urges Michigan residents to “rise up” against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s new public health orders.
This is insanity on a nation-busting scale. America has survived plagues in the past. It has survived civil war and political upheaval. It has survived mediocre and corrupt leaders. And it has survived federal-state tensions. But today, in late 2020, it is facing multiple and escalating crises simultaneously: It is being led by a narcissistic, power-hungry president with, at best, a tenuous grip on reality; is being held hostage by a political party that has abandoned even the appearance of respect for the formal trappings of democracy; has a White House that has either gone AWOL when it comes to tackling a lethal pandemic or decided that it serves its political interests to let the disease run rampant; and is witnessing a coordinated effort to sabotage the results of a national election and purge the government of officials with the stature to stand up to this treachery.
Of course, some of this is just the usual Trumpian Noise, the usual undignified rantings of a deeply damaged man. But at this point, Noise and Signal overlap so thoroughly they’re almost a perfect fit.
There are nine weeks to go until the inauguration. Trump has made it clear he will fill these nine weeks with chaos, rage, violence, and vengeance. He is doing everything he can to undermine public confidence in the election, and everything he can to bend the agencies of government to his will as he offers one nebulous reason after the next for why he should remain in power.
To call these times “perilous” is as banal as calling Einstein a scientist. The viability of American democracy, the ability of the system to navigate peaceful transfers of power after elections, the positive image of America in the eyes of the world, are all under threat right now. As the assault on democracy intensifies, the question for today, for tomorrow, and for every day between now and January 20 is, as the old union fight song goes, Which side are you on? Which side are you on?