The Question Isn’t Whether Trump Will Go Full Authoritarian—It’s How We’ll Respond

The Question Isn’t Whether Trump Will Go Full Authoritarian—It’s How We’ll Respond

The Question Isn’t Whether Trump Will Go Full Authoritarian—It’s How We’ll Respond

We know that no one is coming to save us from Trump. So how will we save ourselves?


Yesterday evening, President Donald Trump ordered mounted units of the National Guard and US Park Police to march on a peaceful gathering of his fellow citizens. Those units, unprovoked, launched tear gas at the retreating protesters. The assault was carried out live on television. As we learned shortly after, the constitutional rights of the citizens and press were violated so the president could pose for a picture while waving a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Before the photo opportunity (it does not appear that Trump actually opened the Bible), the president gave a speech in the Rose Garden. Trump, who was impeached for abuse of power and has ignored multiple congressional subpoenas, falsely declared himself a “law-and-order president.” He then threatened violence against Americans and protesters—and threatened to deploy the military on American soil to conduct local police actions over the objection of state and local authorities. Instead of trying to heal the country, Trump threatened to use the military against the country. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said.

In fact, Trump has already deployed heavily armed federal personnel to Washington, D.C. The town handles protests more professionally than most in the country, but Trump is easily frightened, and D.C. residents were long ago robbed of their civil rights. The district isn’t even allowed a governor to try to protect them.

As has become customary after each grotesque, new low plumbed by this administration, media outlets and commentators scrambled to find legal justifications for Trump’s actions since he did not bother to provide them himself. Perhaps, they theorized, the Insurrection Act gives Trump the power to deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” over the objection of state governors. Right-wing pundits posited that peaceful protesters should have listened to warnings before Trump sent troops galloping toward them in a hail of tear gas and fireworks. It’s like we’re being robbed at gunpoint and we’re trying to haggle over how much money we owe the mugger.

There is only one truth left to wrestle with: It does not matter if what Trump is doing is legal. It does not matter if what he’s doing is constitutional. It doesn’t matter, because nobody is going to stop him.

We had our chance to prosecute him, but Robert Mueller decided that the Office of Legal Counsel’s suggestion that the president could not be prosecuted while in office was an ironclad principle. Remember that? Remember when Mueller testified that he’d found 10 instances of obstruction of justice, and nobody did anything because Mueller looked really old on television?

We had our chance to remove Trump from office, but 52 Republican senators refused to convict him or even call witnesses during their “trial.” Remember how the media has let every day since February 5 pass without asking people like Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski to justify their craven decision to place Trump beyond accountability?

Trump has been told that he can’t be prosecuted and won’t be removed. He’s been shown that the media will repeat and amplify his message, even when his messages are filled with demonstrable lies that contribute to the deaths of over 100,000 Americans. He straight-up refuses to acknowledge the authority of the other branches of government that are meant to check his power. He’s turned former critics, like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, into mewling sycophants. And he’s convinced the opposition party to pin its hopes on a future election that might never happen—and, if it does, certainly won’t happen without foreign interference and industrial-strength voter suppression.

And nobody has stopped him. Nobody is even really trying to stop him anymore. Those who want him stopped are just kind of waiting and hoping he goes away. Maybe on January 20, 2021, he’ll just leave, and we can get back to having a society.

He won’t just leave. He won’t leave unless the men with guns—the armed agents of the federal government—make him leave. And this upcoming week of protests is going to tell us if there is any hope of those men doing the right thing.

Right now, it sure looks like the men with guns will fold to Trump’s will just as cravenly and pathetically as everybody else. The only thing that could have stopped Trump from ordering those national guardsmen to ride down peaceful protesters and shoot them with tear gas would have been the guardsmen themselves. They could have refused to carry out the order. Instead, they marched on a peaceful, unarmed crowd.

I expect other military units will act the same. I expect the military will choose the strong man over the right one every time. If the military is told to occupy New York City or Los Angeles, they’ll go. If they’re told to secure the streets, in violation of the constitutional right to peaceable assembly, they’ll do it. If they’re told to round up and arrest protesters, or members of the press, they’ll do it. They won’t even have to open fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians—the threat that one of them might is more than enough to vitiate any pretense of constitutional democracy.

Trump is beyond the rule of law now. Republicans have placed him there, and armed men keep him there. People have to think through what that means, about how to stop a man who is above the law, using all the peaceful tools (always the peaceful tools) available to us.

If history is any guide, there’s no simple option. The only way to stop a brutish demagogue like Trump, the only way men like that have ever been stopped, is by people who are willing to lay down their lives to do so. Who is going to be our Hero of Tiananmen, our Unknown Rebel who stands in front of the tanks when they come rolling through Times Square? Who is going to be our John Lewis and get their skull fractured as Trump Troopers hurl projectiles at peace? Who wants to be Thich Quang Duc? Lots of people are willing to fight this administration; how many are willing to sacrifice their lives opposing it?

Not me. Not yet. I think I could stay in jail just long enough to get a really cool-looking tattoo, but then I’d be ready to go home. I don’t know that I can give what Abraham Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion” to my cause. And, more than that, I’m afraid that even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Lots of martyrs have died in vain.

Nobody has stopped Trump. I don’t think any single person can. But the question is no longer whether Trump “can” do something; the only relevant question is what we are prepared to do when he does it. How much of ourselves are we willing to give?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s the one authoritarians always get around to asking. It is the question Trump keeps asking the country.

He assumes we’ll continue to flub the answer.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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