This video blog ran on Twitter from November 7, 2020, to January 18, 2021. In Strongmen and in the Washington Post, I had forecast that Trump would not leave office quietly. When Trump refused to accept the results of the presidential election, a state of exception opened in America. I decided to document his actions during this period.
January 18, 2021 – Trump’s Next Journey
December 19, 2020 – Why Do People Believe Liars?
December 15, 2020 – GOP’s Coming War On Biden
December 8, 2020 – Shock Events
November 20, 2020 – Beware of False Saviors
November 19, 2020 – Authoritarian Time And Our Own State Of Exception
Today I’m going to get a bit philosophical and talk about time. As I write in Strongmen, authoritarian propaganda often combines three timeframes: utopia, nostalgia, and crisis. Utopia traffics in desire for a better future and more perfect community that only the leader can bring – think fascist fantasies of racial purity. Nostalgia looks back at mythical “better times” – the leader vows to make the country great again. Mussolini evoked the Roman Empire, Erdogan talks about reviving the Ottoman Empire, and Trump’s is a mythical age when white male authority was secure because women and people of color knew their places.
Crisis time is the authoritarian’s favorite time, because it often means the start of states of exception, when a window opens for out of the ordinary legal and other maneuvers that help the ruler to secure his hold on government. Think of the Reichstag Fire in 1933 Germany or the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 Turkey.
We’re now in a version of crisis time. As soon as the election was called for Biden, and Trump and the GOP decided not to accept the results as final, the country entered into uncharted territory. We are now 12 days into this twilight zone, and while Trump’s electoral tricks are being defeated at the state level, each day that passes creates more opportunity for instability. Even without a pandemic factored in, crisis time is exhausting. So conserve your strength. You may need it in the weeks to come.
November 18, 2020 – Lawfare, Or How Democracies Die Today
How does democracy die in the 21st century? Less all at once, by military coup, and more often slowly, by paperwork generated by bespoke-suited lawyers and bankers and by bureaucrats. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and elsewhere, they have served the leader by finding loopholes in laws and tax regulations, fabricating criminal charges, or framing people through sham audits that can be used to punish opposition media or political organization. To succeed at this game, you have to staff the judiciary and state agencies with loyalists, including any positions to do with elections. When there are complaints about irregularities in elections, they can be buried or rejected.
This is known as “lawfare”: weaponizing the law to silence or neutralize the opposition, subvert constitutional constraints on term limits, or throw election results into doubt, forcing recounts. This is Trump’s natural field of battle. For his entire career, he has surrounded himself with lawyers, accountants, and advisors whose job is to find workarounds and challenge results that he doesn’t like – one reason he hardly paid any taxes for so many years. Trump’s been involved in over 3000 legal cases, 1900 as a plaintiff.
Trump’s losing his biggest lawfare battle – stealing the election – since judges have refused his attempts to invalidate results. But that doesn’t mean he won’t keep on trying. As I write in the conclusion to Strongmen, never underestimate his tenacity or his willingness to do anything it takes to stay in power.
November 17, 2020 – Male Force
November 16, 2020 – Trump Is Nothing Without His Enablers
Authoritarians are nothing with their enablers. The GOP has played classic role of elites who bring the insurgent into the political system, thinking that he can be controlled. I call this the pivot delusion – as soon as we give him power, he will “act normally.” Over and over in history, such elites have struck “authoritarian bargains”: they are loyal to the leader, and he supports their causes. For many in the GOP leadership, he is an agent for the defense of white Christian hegemony, as with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Michael Pence, and Attorney General William Barr.
For 100 years, one sad truth holds: those who sign on tend to stick with the leader to the bitter end, no matter what he says or does. Even gross mismanagement of a health crisis that kills their constituents. The behavior of the GOP in backing Trump’s attempt to remain in office, despite having been defeated, is dangerous – illiberal leaders like Modi and Erdogan have congratulated Biden, but not Trump’s lackeys. It’s not surprising that comparative politics studies show the GOP lined up with far-right parties around the world, and not with traditional conservative parties. The GOP had already moved in an authoritarian direction when Trump arrived to complete its transformation. This is among the hard truths we have to face in 2021.
For the full argument, and documentation, see Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
November 12, 2020 – Keeping Trump’s Secrets
November 11, 2020 – Trump’s Authoritarian Moves to Stay in Power
November 10, 2020 – Watch Out for Psychological Warfare
November 9, 2020 – End-Stage Follies
You may have heard that Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. This is the start of what I call “end-stage follies,” crazy things that autocrats and autocrat-wannabees do when they feel control has been taken from them, when they feel humiliated because of defeats and have to save face in the ways they most prefer, which is to humiliate others, and fire others. So you are going to see a lot more of this behavior, as well as propaganda machine telling you that Trump is a victim, this is an old theme of the Trump cult, but it will be elevated, and in general anything that will soothe the ego of Trump in this period will be practiced on a large scale.
And you may have read news reports that his aides are practically rolling the dice to see who is going to have to break the news to him, and the fact that no one feels comfortable doing this tells you everything you need to know about the dysfunction of the Trump administration, which is typical dysfunction of authoritarian rule.
Although authoritarians like us to believe that their law and order governments are productive, efficient (as in Mussolini making the trains run on time) in reality they are chaotic and destructive environments. And we have definitely dodged a bullet in not re-electing this one. Until next time, stay safe and stay well.
November 8, 2020 – Personality Cults
I want to talk more about personality cults since Trump has been extraordinarily successful at building his and it is likely to continue after he leaves office. Such cults tell us that the leader is a man of the people, a man who embodies the nation, but also a man above all other men. He’s a man who rules by divine benediction. He claims to tell us what to think, and he acts on our behalf, and tells us he will speak for us. “I am your voice,” Trump said in 2016. This was a red flag for me. Everything they do is designed to make people dependent on them and their version of reality, and divided from each other. They aim to rob us of our critical discernment, of our ability to know the truth, and deplete our confidence in ourselves and our institutions.
You can be sure that the Trumps are regrouping for 2024, and that the founding myth of Trumpism, that Trump is the victim of the “deep state,” of the mainstream media, of “fake news,” and of a fraudulent electoral system, will continue. So will the bond between him and his followers. History shows that once such bonds are forged, they can be difficult to break. I do believe that in January, when he has to physically leave office, the spell will be broken for some.
In the meantime, some argue that we can just forget about Trump, we don’t need to take him seriously, he was a weak authoritarian, he didn’t do much, he was lazy and incompetent. I see it differently. I believe we have barely begun to assess the damage that Trump did to our institutions and our society. And until we do that, it will be hard to move ahead and protect our democracy in the future. Until next time, stay well and stay safe.
November 7, 2020 – A Time for Celebration, A Time for Caution
I want to celebrate a moment with you but also to tell you to be careful as you celebrate, be cautious. They are still in power for some time and they can be very vindictive. When a leader has constructed a cult of personality, like Trump succeeded in doing, his followers can be very shocked at the bubble of his power may be bursting, and they can act in unpredictable ways, in violent ways, because it is a precarious time for them.
As for the leader, whereas democratic presidents leaving office start thinking about their presidential libraries and legacies, a man of authoritarian temperament like Trump who is used to exercising power and being adulated 24/7 and being in a position to humiliate others will live the prospect of an exit from office as a kind of psychological annihilation. And will be all too happy to drag others down with him. So as you celebrate, think about being cautious and what will come in the next weeks, days, and months. Congratulations to everybody and just be safe out there.