The silhouette of yet another potential catastrophe is beginning to take shape. To add to the dissolution of the post war global order, global warming, mass species extinction, and great power conflict, there seems now the prospect of a post-Trump Presidency American civil war. Maybe. Not really?
If Trump loses the 2020 election and refuses to accept the result would there be widespread civil violence? Normally this would be the territory of fiction writers, far right fantasists, conspiracy bloggers, or the disgruntled old bloke drinking by himself in the corner!
I cannot believe that behind Trump’s narcissistic, incoherent, and inarticulate public persona dwells a calculating machiavellian Richelieu, Metternich, or a Lenin. No revolutionary totalitarian political genius here. But let’s imagine for a moment we are developing a credible plot for a post-Trump era novel.
What would someone planning to hold on to power do to prepare the ground? An obvious initial step would be to get the military on side. While Trump’s strategic decision making has been highly questionable, his constant praise of US troops for their sacrifice, their professionalism, and their patriotism has been effusive. He has boosted Defense spending and derided the value his predecessors accorded the military and veterans. We might assume for plot purposes this would secure the neutrality of the military in a contested election outcome.
In the US that would not be enough given the number of assault and other military-style weapons in the general populace and the militarised police forces. So aligning with those who are strong advocates for an untrammelled right to bear arms under the Constitution would be a logical step. Particularly groups already inimical to the central government or liberal democratic norms. A not so veiled sympathy for citizen militias or organised right wing groups could potentially bring armed support. As possibly would siding with police by defending the use of excess violence in performance of their duties. Resolute support for the National Rifle Association would be a given.
In a political crisis caused by Trump’s refusal to relinquish the presidency following an adverse election outcome, it would be a huge advantage for him to have the judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular, on side. As partisan politics ramps up, filling vacant judgeships on the basis of a significant degree by ideological compatibility would be useful.
But none of these things would be sufficient for a would-be autocrat to retain power. It would also be necessary to undermine the robustness and credibility of the institutions that support and maintain democratic processes in the eyes of a large portion of the US population. A president reluctant to peacefully transfer power would need to have many people as possible to believe his ousting was illegitimate.
He would need to construct a narrative about a secret conspiracy among shadowy individuals in powerful positions determined to pull the strings in government. And paint himself as the heroic resister of these dark forces. Pushing the idea of a deep state would be one way.
He would need to portray opposition political parties as unpatriotic and treacherous; as either tied to foreign powers, or not really American, or holders of an ideology antithetical to American values. Members of Congress who undertake legitimate scrutiny of the Executive would need to be painted as unjustifiably harassing the President.
To protect the narrative, it would be essential to discredit institutions and agencies that could disprove or counter such accusations. Perhaps this could be done by destroying the reputation for objectivity, and for defending genuine American interests, of the FBI and the intelligence community. Publicly belittling them, disregarding their views in favour of intuitive judgements or declarations of foreign leaders, and decapitating the leadership could form part of the strategy. Claiming they are driven by partisan political motivations or pursuing witch-hunts to cover up their own corruption (or even deep state activities) could deflect opposition from fundamental institutions like the Justice Department.
To build a justification for the belief amongst supporters that an electoral loss in itself was clear proof of vote rigging and theft it would be helpful for the incumbent to exaggerate the extent of the of his current popularity, the size of his last victory, and the joy with which it was universally received. A miraculous triumph over the entrenched elites would be the theme.
He could concoct a story of dark forces deliberately downplaying the strength of this initial victory against the odds from the very beginning. Discrediting factual reporting in the mainstream media that contradicted claims of great popularity and magnificent achievements in office would be crucial. Perhaps by regularly riffing off the fake news tune would be one way.
Of course it is unlikely such a coordinated and strategic preparation for a takeover of the US government could be orchestrated by one man. In the tales he would have to be surrounded by a cabal subservient and willing acolytes. Surely the democracy of the US has sufficient built-in checks and balances to resist a grasp for power by an incumbent refusing to accept defeat in an election that was certified by respected federal and state electoral commissions.
This would be an absorbing plot for a novel. However, the denouement would be bleak. Violence in the streets would emerge as rival sides contended. The electoral lines and passionate partisan differences that already divide much of America into blue and red states might become battle fronts as states line up for or against the incumbent. Perhaps the tale would end as the fatal steps toward civil war over the fate of the Union and the defence of the Constitution are taken.
Crazy! But, not a bad yarn.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.