As I write, Joe Biden seems to be doddering to an excruciatingly close victory in the US election. That result, if it comes about, will be litigated furiously by Donald Trump and – depending on the success of his litigation – it could well be fought in the streets.
Having been liberated from the shackles of democracy by the words and actions of their leader, the Proud Boys and other simple-minded jingoists are unlikely to accept the authority of judges any more than that of vote counters and assessors. If things are looking ugly now, they could soon get a whole lot worse.
What seems to be unfolding is a well-planned strategy, rather than post-election tactics. Trump’s plan – as detailed so presciently by Bernie Sanders – has been in play for months now. He lured the Democrats into the mail-in ballot trap he set for them – playing on their pandemic concerns – and is now reeling them in. Things are going to plan.
Not being a conspiracy theorist, I won’t attribute the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Trump – though the timing was uncanny, wasn’t it? – but he has appointed almost a quarter of all federal judges during his single term. Now, some of them may well be called on to decide between their benefactor and an electoral system that everyone knows is far from perfect.
We liberals like to believe that no American judge, however dubious, could rule against the basic tenets of democracy – free elections, unhindered ballot counting and the like. I suspect that we underestimate the degree to which Trumpism has taken hold in America and the depth of the well of grievance from which it draws.
Every coercive regime finds a judiciary willing to do its bidding. That was true of the USSR under Stalin, Germany under Hitler and apartheid South Africa. In a climate in which a sitting president can argue that vote-counting is a fraudulent activity, there is good reason to believe that he will find like-thinkers on the bench – particularly those who are beholden to him.
That said, litigation is unlikely to be the only course of action in Trump’s plan. The tyrant-in-waiting may be repulsive, but he’s not stupid. Resorting to the courts is likely to be his opening skirmish, not his endgame. Unlike Bernie Sanders, I don’t know what he has up his sleeve, though making the country ungovernable is probably part of it. He didn’t tell the Proud Boys to “stand by” for no reason.
Trump has abettors – lots of them – and he will deploy them as necessary. If those in the judiciary don’t get the job done, he’ll unleash the unruly mob – those who tried to push a Biden bus off the road. And if that’s not enough, he’ll turn to the militia and his supporters in sheriff’s offices around the country and the immigration thugs he let loose in Portland.
Trumpism has been more contagious than the pandemic. Trump clones are everywhere – and, like the boss – they have no shame. He has taught them how to free themselves of the burdens of values, moral qualms and consideration for others. They love him because he liberated them to indulge their grievances, their envy and their racism.
As Judith Butler wrote in a brilliant article in the Guardian yesterday, “The excited fantasy of his supporters was that, with Trump, shame could be overcome, and there would be a ‘freedom’ from the left and its punitive restrictions on speech and conduct, a permission finally to destroy environmental regulations, international accords, spew racist bile and openly affirm persistent forms of misogyny.”
In a WhatsApp exchange a few months ago, my friend Alan Kaufman (author of Jewboy and The Berlin Woman) predicted that Trump would not be America’s Hitler but that he would plant the seeds for the Hitler to come. At the time, I thought he was way over the top. Trump was bad, I replied, but outright fascism…?
Now, I’m a lot less sure.