This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two — What can we do to survive Trump’s coup? — will be published in late February or early March, 2020.

By Philip S. Wenz

“Indeed, given my experience working for Mr. Trump I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today.” — Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, during his closing remarks to the House Oversight Committee, February 27, 2019

There are two possible results of the 2020 presidential election: Donald Trump will win reelection, or the Democratic candidate will defeat him in what polls show will be a close race. 

But regardless of the election’s outcome, Trump, barring some major unforeseen development, will almost certainly remain in the White House — and he will feel empowered by his Republican sycophants to do whatever he wants. This would complete the Republican coup against America’s democracy that began decades ago, under Ronald Reagan, and could more or less permanently establish minority rule in the United States.

If this seems like a bit of an overstatement, let’s break it down a piece at a time. 

To begin with, all future developments must be considered in the context of the Senate’s recent acquittal of Trump in his impeachment trial. The acquittal itself had always been a given — even without Mitch McConnell’s rigging of the trial and the Republican’s refusal to hear testimony from witnesses or subpoena documents, it would have been almost impossible to garner the 20 or so Republican votes needed to find Trump guilty and remove him from office. 

But the truly damaging results of the trial were the precedents set by the White House counselors’ arguments in the President’s defense, which were echoed by Republican Senators after the acquittal. Essentially his defense team argued that there should be no restraints on presidential power, or at least Trump’s power, although they didn’t quite put it that way. Here’s his defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz: “And if a president does something he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” In other words, a president can do whatever he (or she) wants if he believes, or claims to believe it is in the public interest. 

Using similar rationalizations, others in Trump’s orbit have come up with ‘legal theories’ justifying his refusal to turn over documents or allow testimony from witnesses subpoenaed by Congress, as well as justifying extorting a foreign government and a number of other clearly illegal behaviors involving redirecting funds allocated by Congress. All of these behaviors have now been approved by Senate Republicans, who refused to convict Trump of any of the crimes he committed, thereby placing him above the law and enabling him, in reality encouraging him, to break it.  

There are only two ways to check a president’s abuse of power: through impeachment or criminal indictment by the Justice Department. The Senate has eliminated the impeachment option, and the Justice Department has an internal rule against criminally indicting a sitting president — a rule which Attorney General William Barr certainly will not overturn while Trump is his boss. All of the legal restraints on Trump’s behavior are gone; he is now free to do whatever he wants.

One thing he wants is to stay in office for at least one more term. Most presidents want a second term, but Trump has motives that go beyond the usual enticements of power — which in Trump’s case include his insatiable financial corruption — and the chance to build a legacy. He is motivated by fear — deep, uncontrollable fear. 

There are two intertwined aspects of his terror. The first is pragmatic. If he no longer enjoys his above-the-law status, he would likely be imprisoned for at least some of the many crimes he committed before and during his presidency. That alone would motivate him to do virtually anything to remain in the White House. 

Second, Trump has an intense fear of being exposed as a fraud. A narcissist addicted to self-aggrandizement, and a man of total moral and spiritual vacuity, he needs his public image and his base’s adoration as a substitute for his lack of inner substance. 

For Trump, this fear is existential. Look inside him, and you’ll find no there, there. But he can project an image of an actual man. Like a psychic vampire, he lives vicariously, desperately sucking the energy his supporters lavish upon his persona to validate his tenuous ego. Clinging to that persona is his raison d’être; without it, he ceases to exist. For him, leaving the White House would be a form of psychological death. 

So, driven by back-against-the-wall fear, Trump will do anything to remain in office. Obviously if he wins the election — probably with a little help from his foreign friends — he’s in. But if he loses? Sadly, he doesn’t have to do much to stay put. 

In fact, all he has to do is claim that he won. He can “support” his claim, in the eyes of his base and almost all Republicans currently in Congress, by asserting that millions of illegal aliens voted in the election, and/or the vote counts were rigged, the voting machines were hacked and so on. Then he can get Bill Barr’s Justice Department to investigate said assertions, at their own pace. Meanwhile, he would remain office. 

If none of that seemed to be selling, Trump could declare a national emergency, based on “massive voter fraud,” and invalidate the election — calling for a redo at some unspecified time in the future after the “illegal voter problem” was cleared up. Clearing it up could involve deporting millions of undocumented aliens which, of course, would take years and require the supervision of the current Commander-in-Chief.

If Trump did this, who would stop him? The Senate? Would McConnell and Lindsey Graham go have a chat with him, as Republican Senate leaders did with Nixon, and tell him it was time to leave? Uh……nah. 

Would the Supreme Court step in? Possibly, but how hard would it be for SCOTUS to rationalize a nuanced position such an announce that the matter should be settled after the Justice Department concluded its investigation in, say, 18 months. (Which would give Barr’s minions plenty of time to “trump up” some kind of “evidence” of voter fraud that would muddle the situation for at least another year.) 

Might the military take over? Engineer a coup of its own? Again, possibly. But you can bet a great many service members and brass are already loyal to the President, including his acting (not congressionally vetted) Secretary of Defense, and Trump’s working hard behind the scenes to get them to back him if he declares a bogus “national emergency.” 

So, what’s left? Mass protests? People taking to the streets? Since when has a sitting president cared about protests — unless he thought they indicated trouble for his reelection? To paraphrase the bandit “Gold Hat” from the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, “Elections? Elections? We don’t need no stinking elections.”

Trump has a long history of “joking” about refusing to accept the results of an election he loses. In his run against Hillary Clinton, he stated that he would accept the election results — “if I win.” After he won in the Electoral College, he claimed that he only lost the popular vote because millions of illegals voted for Clinton. (Perhaps he actually believed that; perhaps not. You can never tell with a paranoid prone to believing and spouting conspiracy theories. Recall that he formed a special election commission to investigate voter fraud and prove his assertion that illegal aliens voted — and only dropped the investigation when it proved that there wasn’t a problem and began to embarrass him. Still, the investigation had propaganda value, appealing to his base.) 

Michael Cohen, whose quote begins this article, is far from alone in his concerns that Trump could simply refuse to recognize the 2020 election results if he loses. His speculation has been shared by Hillary Clinton, Bill MaherNancy Pelosi and numerous pundits and political analysts. But while their concerns, expressed before Trump’s acquittal by the Senate, were that Trump could refuse to honor legitimate election results, his recent “unleashing,” combined with his existential fears, makes it virtually certain that he would.

Then what would happen? 

“Then, I have an Article II [of the Constitution], where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president,” Trump told an audience at a Turning Point USA Teen Action Summit in Washington. (He’s made the same untrue assertion elsewhere.)

Trump has already told us that what he wants to do, which is to pursue his existing policies to their logical extreme and take revenge on the many people and groups he considers to be his enemies. His policy initiatives could include, but not be limited to gutting the social safety net, selling our public lands, making illicit business deals with foreign governments while robbing the treasury and so on. His vengeance might include using the Justice Department to censor or shut down any media outlets critical of him — and even arresting journalists, whistleblowers and others for treason; “locking up” his political enemies; kicking out the Dreamers and setting up an apartheid state. Finally, he could follow in the footsteps of many of the global autocrats he so admires by declaring parts of the Constitution null and void while giving himself a lifetime appointment to the Presidency. 

If this list seems like a paranoid fantasy, consider that many of these initiatives are already underway, already have been enacted to a greater or lesser extent before Trump was anointed as “the Chosen One” who is above the law. 

Consider, too, that Mike Pence recently said he had a “strong feeling” that Nancy Pelosi will be “the last Speaker of the House to sit in that chair [the Speaker’s chair] for a long time.” When asked by reporters what he meant, Pence refused to elaborate. 

What did he mean? Has there been talk within Trump’s inner circle of eliminating the Speaker’s position? Of dissolving the House of Representatives? Such things happen regularly in autocratic regimes. 

But, of course we all know it can’t happen here. 

This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two — What can we do to survive Trump’s coup? — will be published in late February or early March, 2020.

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