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Friday, May 10, 2019


I would like to talk realistically for a while about the prospects for the rule of law in America.  Trump may be impeached by the House, but he will not be convicted by the Senate.  Either then he will or he will not be defeated in 2020.  If he is not defeated, I think it is an open question whether democracy, such as we now know it in America, will survive.

If he is defeated, he will gin up conspiracy theories to the effect that the vote was rigged.  There are, by my count, 83 days between the election and the inauguration of the president.  He will spend all of that time claiming that he was cheated out of a victory, and declaring that he will not accept the results of the election as announced.  He will persuade some millions of people that he is right, and he will encouraged armed insurrection.

Will he succeed in seizing control of the state?  It depends on two things:  the behavior of the Secret Service and the behavior of the troops stationed in and around Washington DC.  If the Secret Service and the Army refuse to obey his unlawful orders, he is cooked.  His supporters may have lots of guns, but they are unorganized and untrained, and many if not most of them are blowhards who will collapse in the face of organized military force. 

The power of a modern president consists entirely in his or her ability to get very large numbers of people to accept his or her commands.  It depends, if I may borrow a phrase from myself, on the president’s possession of de facto, not de jure, legitimate authority.  To put it crudely, it depends on whether when he says “fire!” they fire.

Trump has done virtually nothing to cultivate loyalty to himself personally among either the members of the Secret Service or the military at the colonel/general level.  It helps us in this matter that he is personally a coward.

So everything depends on defeating him sufficiently decisively so that the matter does not go to the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000.  It is too early to tell which Democratic hopeful has the best chance.  That should become clearer by the late fall.  If it is the despicable Biden, so be it.  If it is Warren or Sanders or Harris, all the better.  There is a progressive movement afoot in the country, and it can survive a Biden presidency.  It may not survive a Trump second term.

Does this sound like a counsel of desperation?  Damn right.


s. wallerstein said...

Trump is much more pragmatic and more shrewd than you give him credit for.

If he loses the election, obviously he will claim that the vote was rigged, etc., but he won't call for armed insurrection because he's politically astute enough to know that it won't work. As you point out, he doesn't have the loyalty of the Pentagon, the FBI, or the Secret Service.

What does Trump want if he lose the election? First, to assure that he doesn't end up in jail and calling for an armed insurrection (which will be suppressed as he realizes) will end him in jail. Second, to accumulate more money and that means that far from pushing the country (and the stock market) toward chaos, he has to use those 83 days to make deals all other the world, for hotels, for Trump golf courses, for Trump steaks and wines, which is easier when he is in the White House.

Trump isn't a fascist. He isn't Hitler, he doesn't want to go down in Gotterdammerung.
He's a mobster, a crook. He wants to stay out of jail and to get rich.

Howie said...

How do you predict the release of Trump's tax returns will damage his legitimacy and charisma?

S. Wallerstein- he is shrewd, but a bloated narcissist- he is not exactly a rational actor and is rather like a wild animal desperately fighting to survive. It's been a while since I've watched wildlife on TV- the Bible said the snake in the Garden of Eden had cunning- so that's what I'll provisionally pick. His shrewdness is not exactly rational- it is more an animal cunning

Howie said...

Plus, after he leaves the White House he will play the firebrand amidst calls for him to be canned in Alcatraz

Dean said...

I wouldn't worry so much about a Trump second term. On the other hand, a Trump third term...

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

If Trump loses--and if the rest of the world believes it is legitimate--he won't have the cachet to make lucrative deals. They Saudis and the rest will no longer be booking rooms in Trump's hotels or playing at his golf courses. They'll be looking for ways to kiss the fanny of whoever beat him.

David Palmeter said...

Prof. Wolff's worry is my worry. I don't care who the Democrat is; I just want to beat Trump. All else is farther away than secondary, and my nightmare is that the Democrat will find a way to lose.

Things like Medicare for All and Free College could kill them with the middle class suburban voters they picked up in 2018. Neither is going to happen, even if the Democrats elect a president, hold the House, and win the Senate. They should be talking not about Medicare for All but Affordable Health Care for All. That can be done in many ways, such as a Medicare buy-in as a public option. Despite the gains from Obamacare there are still millions without insurance. And while I realize many House committees have their hands full right now with Mueller, Russia etc. there must be room for whatever committee has jurisdiction over education, to investigate why college costs in recent decades have gone up twice as much as health care costs. That's a scandal that both parties, for reasons I don't understand, are avoiding like the plague.

Anonymous II said...

I guess I’m a bit taken aback by what seems to me overly alarmist. I say that in part because I’ve encountered the identical apprehension that Trump will “seize control of the state” several times in the past few weeks, which leads me to think that there may be a kind of future-oriented conspiracy mongering going on.

But that aside, I’m also taken aback because the alarm doesn’t seem to be linked to any sort of analysis of the political situation in the USA or to any analysis of the sort of political system the USA is.

On the first point, it’s by now one of the standard observations, I believe, that the support for Trump has been at a steady level hovering around 40 percent almost since the day he took office, while the disapproval has maintained a fairly steady level of about 52-53 percent. I know this doesn’t translate directly into electoral outcomes. But there’s no indication that the majority who disapprove of him is going to diminish, much less abjectly surrender. And it seems to me that the evidence is that there are a great many in positions of some political power who mirror that general opposition.

What also seems to be missing among the alarmists is a recognition that the USA is a federal, not a unitary state. It isn’t just what the armed forces might or might not do, or the secret service, it’s surely what the states might do that has to be considered too. Do you really think the western states or the north eastern ones would roll over and play dead in the face of a Trump coup? Aren’t there state militias in California, New York, etc. etc under the control of their state governments? And lest it be thought that I’m making too much of the federal aspect, remember that one of the responses to Nazism in Germany was to make post-war Germany a non-unitary system in order to make it much more difficult for anyone to impose a state of emergency over the entire country as Hiler had done.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Dr. Wolff,
With a militia operating openly in Southern New Mexico, I am less sanguine about the what role they may have, and how much damage they can do. The historical examples are not good. In Germany, W.W.I vets were hired to suppress left-wing coup attempts and break general strikes.

In Ireland, the Brits created an auxiliary force, called the Black and Tans by the Irish, to assist in suppressing the Independence movement. The Black and Tans were responsible for a reign of terror including burning down the center of Cork and driving an armored vehicle into the Dublin soccer stadium mid-match and opening up on the crowd with a machine gun.

Our militias need not be organized on a national level - an uncoordinated, decentralized series of independent actions is a possibility and encrypted apps make it easier to create the kind of cell structure that the Irish resistance used.

I think the question is, "Am I getting paranoid or being appropriately analytical?"

talha said...

If one were to seek a definitive "jump the shark" moment for this blog, this would be it.

Charles Pigden said...

In response ot Anonymous II
I am not sure that federal structures are proof against fascistic seizures of power. Germany is a federal republic now and you may be right that it was deliberately designed to be coup-proof, but it was also a federal republic in 1933 and the federal structure did not stop the Nazis then. (Though they had to adopt a dual strategy seizing control fo BOTH the federal government AND the leading state governments, particularly Prussia.)

Anonymous said...

"Will he succeed in seizing control of the state?"

Seriously? You vastly overrate Trump intellectually and strategically, and in terms of his wickedness. You've created a comic-book antihero out of a ridiculous human.

Paul said...

Post 1 of 3

Professor Wolff: there are three claims in this post, claims that make frequent appearance in your posts these days, that I want to call into question.

(1) You claim that Trump poses a grave threat to “democracy as we know it” in America. Specifically, you claim that if he’s elected in 2020, American democracy stands a reasonable chance of being left in tatters. And should he lose, he will attempt to engineer a coup to invalidate the election.

(2) You claim that the American left will survive a Biden presidency. More to the point: we shouldn’t be too terrible worried about a Biden presidency compared to a Trump one, because in the former case, we stand a much better chance of regrouping to take power eventually. Therefore, if Biden appears to have the best shot at beating Trump—I assume you mean if pre-nomination polls bear out that he does best head-to-head with Trump—then we should support him.

(3) You contrast Biden with “Warren or Sanders or Harris.” I take it that you mean this latter group to be the group of real lefties, or real progressives, in the race. Therefore, you take Kamala Harris to be a progressive or lefty on par with Sanders and Warren.

Against (1).
The argument here is not that you’re being “too pessimistic” or otherwise “too cautious” or something else of the like—that is, I’m not saying that you’ve basically gotten Trump right (in kind) but have overstated things (in degree). Rather, I think you’ve just got Trump flat wrong in kind. Moreover, the mistaken conception has bad consequences. It leads us to think of the sort of political action we should be doing in misguided terms. Here’s how you’ve gotten Trump wrong: he does not fit the model of an authoritarian would-be dictator bent on seizing total control of the state. He lacks both the specific ideological vision and the tenacity required for that. Instead, Trump is better thought of as a more-or-less standard Reaganesque Republican president prone to self-aggrandizement and petty arguments, but reticent to engage in deep-cutting, long-term struggles for power. How do we know this? Well, note that the Republican congress and leadership has pretty much stymied all of his signature (that is: non-standard) promises. They’ve refused to fund his wall, failed to repeal Obamacare, refused to fund a major infrastructure program, and refused many of his budget requests. On each of these occasions, Trump has (occasionally) lashed out with insults on Twitter or at a press conference, only to ultimately drop the issue. Furthermore, with an ongoing investigation that threatened to potentially impeach him carried out by his own justice department(!), he couldn’t even pull a Richard Nixon and fire everyone. In short, the actual record simply doesn’t support your framing of Trump. I think your framing of Trump is a significant mistake because it fails to understand the actual political moment we’re in, and what our best options are. For instance, it leads you to your claim (2).

Paul said...

Post 2 of 3

Against (2)
A Biden presidency would be disastrous—and not simply because of the opportunity cost of a lost Sanders or Warren presidency. No, a Biden presidency would be disastrous because if we properly understand our current political moment, we can see it would lead to potentially devastating consequences. Therefore, Biden should be seen as our political enemy too. Why? Well, if you have an understanding of the Trump presidency that doesn’t view him as an out-of-nowhere aberration but instead conceives of his appeal in the history of American political economy, we can see that Biden just represents a further step down the disastrous neoliberal trajectory we’ve been on. Trump’s appeal in large part derives from the bankruptcy the public feels—the sense of a bitter, repressed outrage—toward standard US politics post-Reagan. That standard politics (let’s call it “neoliberalism”) is embodied best by politicians like the Bushes and Clintons whose agenda was oriented around foreign imperialism, the curtailment (or even retrenchment) of gains by the civil rights and labor movements, a belief in the market and skepticism/demonization of government “welfare” programs, and big, big money all around. It’s the bankruptcy of *that* politics that leads to our situation, where people above all just want something different, want to flip the bird to standard politicians. This means that there are political openings for both more leftist and more revanchist styles of politics. Trump represents the first step of the latter—though as I discussed above in (1), he represents *merely the first step*. But if we elect a stupid standard politician like Biden *again*, and the public becomes even *more* disenchanted than they were under Obama, the natural next step is for a more genuinely revanchist, more scarily competent and tenacious politician, than Trump to take power. Then we really will be in the sort of situation you seem to think Trump’s put us in. But a Biden (or Beto, or anyone-but-Sanders-or-Warren) presidency will take us further down that path. So even if polls bear out that vs. Sanders they have a better shot at beating Trump, we should not devote our energies toward nominating these people—*if* they’re nominated, then we have a different conversation. But we should strive to avoid that catastrophe at all costs. (Also: let’s *please not overstate the value of polls conducted before head-to-head campaigning has even started.* C’mon. Hillary was slated to wallop Trump by every poll conducted before the election, and the failure of her politics to bring the Dem base out to the polls proved her downfall.) Anyhow, we should not downplay the threat that those neoliberal Democrats pose. And now for one of those neoliberal Dems.

Paul said...

Post 3 of 3

Against (3)
Harris is a complete fraud. It’s disconcerting that you can’t see this--or at least, haven't yet seen it--given that there was a small news cycle several months ago focusing on her disgraceful record. She’s bragged about being—and initially positioned herself as being—tough on crime, running to unseat an *actually* progressive DA. And she followed through on her promises. She still brags about instituting a policy that threatened parents of truants with prison—a policy that, as you know, effectively just criminalizes being poor, and disproportionately targets Black women. She refused to prosecute Steve Mnuchin even when her staff at the DA’s office thought they had a good case and wanted to go ahead with the charges. She continually gives cover to Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, even meeting with AIPAC this year (amidst growing calls for Dems to distance themselves from AIPAC, for reasons I’m sure you don’t need any reminder of). She bungled restitution funds for displaced former homeowners after the 2008 crash, but continues to lie and misrepresent her record. She argued to keep the death penalty in California. She tried to keep a former-convict who was proven innocent in prison because—ready now—he filed his paperwork too late(!!!) And more and more and more. (She’s now backtracking on medicare for all too). In short, she is one of the worst candidates running in this cycle. Sanders and Warren each have their flaws. But their flaws are nothing like Harris’s. They are the only two real candidates.

(Here’s a slew of articles on Harris’s record.;;;

Professor Wolff: I have learned a great deal about politics and political economy from you. Really, intellectuals on the left are lucky for your work and owe you a debt of gratitude. But I fear you’ve lost something of your grip when it comes to actually applying that leftist analysis to our concrete political situation. Leave MSNBC behind and come back home!

Anonymous said...

My 1960's high school civics teacher said, "People see what they want to see, then spend all their energy railing against their own blindness."

He should have taught philosophy.