The domestic political Signal this week is an unfettered presidency—a would-be dictator given carte blanche by the Senate to break the law however he chooses.
Students of history may recall Germany’s 1933 Enabling Act, when the country’s parliamentarians neutered themselves in the face of Adolf Hitler’s demands for unfettered power, allowing the new chancellor to bypass the legislative body in drawing up laws. In so doing, they signed the death warrant for the Weimar Republic and ushered in dictatorship.
This week Trump has shown every sign of wanting unlimited powers. His State of the Union speech was a foul smorgasbord of authoritarian promises and rhetoric; and his response to the Senate’s entirely predictable vote to acquit him has been not humility but an assertion of raw power. Within minutes of the vote, he was tweeting out a video depicting him winning not just in 2020 but every election for the next several thousand years. It ended with the logo “Trump 4EVA.” There’s a terrifying message here: Trump wants lifelong power, and for him it’s no longer simply a joke, a way to gin up his crowd.
Trump’s acolytes in the Senate are actively pushing for purges. After the acquittal vote, Rand Paul outed the whistle-blower on the Senate floor. Senate Judiciary chair Lindsey Graham, who voted against calling witnesses at Trump’s trial, has repeatedly demanded that those who informed on Trump’s malfeasance be subpoenaed and forced to testify. Over the coming days and weeks, this administration will almost certainly take vengeance against those who testified, spoke out, or voted against Trump over the past few months.
But it’s not just on the impeachment front that Trumpism is morphing ever more explicitly into a fascist creed. Witness the order, the language of which is now reportedly being drawn up, that would force architects to conform to a classical style when designing federal buildings. Ponder the similarities with orders to enforce architectural and artistic conformity by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, with their sterile but grandiose public buildings and stadiums. If you can ban certain architectural styles, why not certain books or schools of art or kinds of music?
Of course, the other Signal this week is the growing global public health emergency around the coronavirus. A lethal pandemic would challenge the most thoughtful and scrupulous of administrations in designing effective responses; this administration is neither of those things. Public health experts have long warned that the more government demonizes immigrants, the harder it will be to get vulnerable groups, suspicious of contact with government agencies, to comply voluntarily with quarantines and other preventative measures during an epidemic emergency.
This administration may resort to increasingly coercive tactics to make up for the shortfall in public trust caused by its xenophobic and racist policies. If the economy takes a serious hit, Trump’s only chance of winning reelection would be whipping up the fear factor as much as possible; after all, during times of plague, it has always been all too easy to demonize outsiders as vectors of disease, death, and economic disintegration.