Inauguration Day is only seven weeks away. In “normal” times, the outgoing president and his team would at this point be facilitating a smooth transfer of power—tying up a few policy loose ends, but generally making way for the new president and acknowledging the new political priorities of that president.
None of that is happening with Donald Trump. In fact, quite the reverse. Day by day, reports emerge of new efforts to lock into place Trump’s extremist agenda. That’s the Signal.
Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration is ramping up deportations of asylum seekers from Africa and Haiti, in an apparent effort to keep Black people from obtaining residency. The newspaper revealed that in recent weeks more than 100 such men and women have been coerced onto deportation flights, often after being physically assaulted by ICE officers. Many of these individuals have family in the United States, and many had open asylum cases still wending their way through the court system when they were deported. Some of the men were, apparently, put onto the planes with bags over their heads—a brutal image, and one reminiscent of how US forces transported captured Al Qaeda suspects at the height of the War on Terror.
Not content with these egregious rights violations against asylum seekers already in the country, the administration is also dramatically accelerating border wall construction, aiming to lock out undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers alike. Mile upon mile of new wall is going up in these final weeks of Trump’s presidency, at a staggering environmental and financial cost. In some remote canyons in Arizona, the wall is now costing US taxpayers $41 million per mile, and environmental habitats vital to the well-being of numerous animal species are being dynamited and mined into devastation. The aim, apparently, is to present the wall as a fait accompli, thus making it politically impossible for Joe Biden to dismantle it.
Meanwhile, the administration is moving ahead with an extraordinary regulatory change that effectively shreds civil service employment protections for thousands of government employees—including hundreds of Office of Management and Budget workers—who are being reclassified as at-will political appointees, and who can thus be fired by the president if they are not politically loyal. This change is an assault on the professionalized, apolitical civil service, which was put in place in the decades following the Civil War to stamp out rampant corruption. And it kicks in literally the day before the inauguration, so it’s possible that Trump’s final Fuck you not just to Biden but to the American system of governance itself will be a wholesale purge of the civil service in the waning hours of his presidency.
Internationally, last week saw the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. It was a suitably macabre bookend to a year that began with Washington’s assassination of a top Iranian general, which almost triggered yet another regional war in the Middle East. Now the final weeks of 2020 are likely to be equally tense, thanks to an extrajudicial killing that was likely carried out either by Israeli or US operatives. The effect could well be to ratchet up tensions between Iran and the United States so much that Biden will be boxed in after assuming the presidency, and thus unable to reenter the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a week in Trumpland without a massive cacophony of conspiratorial, lie-fueled Noise. On Sunday, Trump gave an “interview” to Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, in which he spun yet more fantasies about machines flipping his votes to Biden, along with a nationwide conspiracy by big-city politicians to defraud him of electoral victory. He accused the Justice Department of deliberately ignoring election fraud claims and again insisted that he had won an election that, in reality, he lost by well over 6 million votes and 74 Electoral College electors.
While Trump was spouting this conspiracist nonsense, Wisconsin was completing its recount—and confirming that Biden had indeed beaten Trump in that state, and by a slightly larger margin than the initial count showed. This came a couple days after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court shut down the Trump team’s efforts to overturn the election result in that state as well. Instead of pulling back, however, Trump’s team is now pledging to take the Pennsylvania case to the US Supreme Court, even as it continues to challenge the legality of thousands of votes cast in Wisconsin.
Trump’s Fox News charade wasn’t really surprising. Nor was the decision to continue with the lawsuits and other efforts to undermine election results in six key swing states. But these weekend actions have shown, in full Technicolor derangement, just how far Trump is willing to go to blow up the principle of government of, by, and for the people that he has already so badly damaged these past four years. And, because of that, they show just how vital it is that Trump, in all his malignancy, be prosecuted when he leaves office.
Given how the post-election period has developed, it’s not enough to remove this man from power. His authoritarian presence on the political stage, the cancer that he represents on the American body politic, must be obliterated, leaving absolutely no possibility of a second act. For he has in this past month declared total war on American democracy. And in this struggle, there can be no middle ground.
There is a lot of talk of “healing” and “moving on,” of ignoring Trump’s myriad crimes in order to somehow nurture the greater good. But healing involves, at the very least, acknowledgment of culpability on the part of the guilty—that was, after all, the foundational principle of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Trump is not only not admitting any culpability, but his rampage against the legal, political, and cultural pillars of American democracy is actually intensifying as his term in office draws to a close.
Without even a nod to truth, there certainly can be no reconciliation. Trump’s disgraceful, dangerous behavior, from his self-dealing while in government to his last-ditch efforts to subvert the popular will, is cratering trust in American democracy. For this, he must be made to face a legal reckoning.