These accounts indicate the emergence of two distinct factions within Trump’s inner circle. On one side are the lunatics — among them Giuliani, Powell and Flynn — who want Trump to violate laws and assume authoritarian powers. On the other side are sycophants who supported Trump’s spurious legal challenges to the election result but apparently draw the line at treason. By most accounts, Trump’s sympathies lie with the lunatics.
Some respond, as usual, by suggesting that these provocations are merely the sad, silly reactions of a cornered narcissist. And it is indeed ludicrous to believe that the military would ever consider torching the Constitution, particularly in service to a draft-dodging coward who views their honored dead as “suckers.” Even on the rumor of a coup, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy and Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, issued a joint statement saying there “is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
But the code-red level of worry within Trump’s staff does seem unprecedented. “People who are concerned and nervous aren’t the weak-kneed bureaucrats that we loathe,” said a senior administration official to Axios. “These are people who have endured arguably more insanity and mayhem than any administration officials in history.” At the very least, these freely leaking White House staffers are determined to distance themselves from outright subversion. It is nice to find there are still some limits to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s servility.
It is most important to consider these events not in the context of an unlikely 2020 coup, but in light of the inevitable 2024 election. The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is clearly not committed to democratic self-government. He is willing, even eager, to overturn the constitutional process if it serves his interests. No ethical second thoughts restrain him. Selfishness is not the violation of his standards; it is the fulfillment of his creed. For Trump, self-sacrifice is the true sin.
This time around, Trump’s lawless ambitions have been limited by unamused courts, by courageous state and local officials, by a vigilant mainstream press, by a Democratic House, by his own buffoonish leadership and by an ideologically moderate Democratic candidate who won a reasonably large electoral victory. Only the Republican Party utterly failed in checking Trump’s incipient authoritarianism.
But these conditions are hardly permanent. Could Trump win reelection in 2024 against a more ideologically extreme Democratic candidate? Of course he could. Would any Republican official, at any level of government, stand up against a vengeful authoritarian with electoral mandate? It is not likely. Would Trump expand executive power at every turn? He would, particularly if both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. Would Trump openly intimidate journalists and political opponents with willing, armed militias? I don’t doubt it. Would he simply ignore court rulings that limit him? I bet he would try. Would he try to manufacture a crisis to justify remaining in power past his term? No scruple would prevent it.
This is not some exaggerated dystopian vision. These hypotheticals are extensions of Trump’s existing views and tendencies. He would do these things, if he could. And how do we know this? Because Trump is the leader of Trumpism’s lunatic fringe. He is in fundamental sympathy with Giuliani, Powell and Flynn. Even out of power, he will remain the main threat to American democracy. If he wins again, the constitutional order may never be the same.
In the Trump presidency, the worst days are always the most authentic days. And each day now seems more revealing than the last. Desperation has shown Trump’s instincts and nature as never before. He is an authoritarian wannabe. Those who love our system of government must now share one, overriding goal: to ensure that Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s St. Helena, not his Elba.