How Trump Threw Away His Shot.

A destroyed home with an American flag still standing. Image Description: A destroyed home with an American flag still standing.

Summary: Is he gone yet? I mean really gone? Okay. Wow. So that happened. Holy shit, what a four years. This essay of Unf*cking the Republic® briefly encapsulates the utter shit show that was the Trump administration while pointing out that we ultimately dodged a massive bullet precisely because it was a shit show. But while Trump’s stupidity is ultimately what saved the republic, he left behind a playbook for a more capable authoritarian to dismantle our democracy. Lastly, we’ll review the conditions necessary for a proper collapse and the one surprising factor that is ironically holding it all together.

Welcome back, Unf*ckers. As we did with the election, we will periodically interrupt our regularly scheduled essays to discuss more timely and urgent matters. With this in mind, we thought it best to briefly reflect on the Trump-era and the inglorious closing ceremony at the Capitol. Not the peaceful transfer of power. The other thing.

So, this essay is an interlude of sorts rather than one of our deep examinations of a particular issue or trend.

And it’s also a good time to exhale and grasp how Trump missed his chance to fully realize his authoritarian dream. Come with me, Unf*ckers, as we demonstrate how Donald J. Trump was quite possibly the worst would-be dictator the world has ever seen and how we were ironically saved by the thing he cherishes most.

The stage was set beginning in 2016 for horrifying results if Trump was more, you know, smarterish. Ironically, his narcissism and ahistorical, ethnocentric perspective likely kept us from plunging into global war. A more capable autocrat could have used the levers of power available to him to stoke the flames of war abroad to claim unprecedented powers domestically and truly alter the course of the republic.

Instead, his obsessive focus on his parochial rallies, two-bit hustles and a general lack of knowledge of world affairs kept him quite contained. Monday morning quarterback pundits are already prone to expressing pride at how our institutions stood up to Trump when we needed them most. That’s true to the extent that our systems worked much in the same way they did when they allowed for him to be elected. Perfectly imperfect.

Our voting system held up, taxes were levied and paid, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security survived, we kept bombing countries filled with Brown people and the courts did their jobs when the the election was tested—aided, of course, by Trump hiring a lecherous-hair-dye-oozing-conspiracy-guzzling-fool (cough, Rudy Giuliani, cough) to represent him in court. So, sure. Our systems of government remained largely intact.

What Professor Orange Von Fucknugget missed was the opportunity to falsely architect a foreign dispute and leverage his disinformation channels to sell it to his gullible followers and an impotent press that has been one step behind him for four straight years. I mean, that’s textbook shit right there.

Remember the Maine! The Gulf of Tonkin! Weapons of Mass Destruction!

What a complete lack of imagination. The playbook is well worn (and extremely successful) and yet, this fucking nimrod didn’t have the political acumen to concoct a tale of "imminent danger" that would have galvanized much of his misinformed supporters and a willing Congress.

Fortunately for us, he was entirely too stupid and uneducated to have a plan or manifesto to grab power and leverage the strength of our military. Especially during a pandemic when newsrooms, already deflated and marginalized, would have found it difficult to dispatch reporters abroad. And considering few Americans even believe credible outlets, the disinformation campaigns that the administration could have swamped us with—most certainly with help from China and Russia—would have been unparalleled in history.

If Trump’s desire was world domination, he could have had it, and there would have been little we could do to stop him.

So that’s the good news. He missed his chance. The world can breathe a sigh of relief that Golden Toilet Boy won’t be able to nuke some unsuspecting country. But the danger he left behind was a blueprint for an equally destructive but far more capable autocrat to abuse the powers of the office.

That’s not to say that we didn’t do terrible things during the Trump administration. In fact, we doubled down on most of our efforts abroad and continued to murder citizens in several countries and support proxy wars, like Yemen. It’s just that he didn’t really have a clue what was going on. So our military apparatus was able to pursue a course of neoliberalism-as-usual, largely under the radar of a domestic press that was exhausted by Twitter storms.

He ignored briefings. He had no idea, to this day, the names of several world leaders. He spent far less time traveling to foreign nations than his predecessors, and usually wound up fighting with our allies on the way out, or hitting on their wives. And if he, heaven forbid, had to stay longer than a day in any destination, he tried to stay at one of his own places.

While the head Cheeto in charge was asleep at the switch, the military apparatus amplified efforts to destabilize parts of northern Africa and the Middle East through drone strikes and sanctions. We increased the number of troops deployed around the world and even carried out or supported assassinations with impunity. The assassination of Iranian General Soleimani might well have been the most precarious of his actions. This completely illegal murder might still have ramifications that are as of yet unknown, but Iran—clearly understanding they were dealing with an unhinged madman—exercised restraint for the time being.

Now that he’s gone—and, please, for the love of god, actually be gone—let’s talk about the danger that lurks in the darkness.

As we covered in our essay The Violent States of America, since Vietnam, Congress has been incapable of reining in U.S. interventionist tendencies when desired by the so-called Commander in Chief. And the executive branch has steadily accumulated a tremendous amount of power over the past half century when it comes to foreign affairs. But wresting power away from Congress, the courts and the states is a different matter. And that’s where we need to agree on some definitions before we continue.

Trump was often accused of being a fascist, a dictator, an authoritarian, a totalitarian, a moron. A lot of people saying a lot of things that aren’t really all that fantastic. Let’s be clear on what he was.

First, as famed sociologist Juan Linz described, totalitarianism is when a leader exerts control over the mechanisms of government, whereas authoritarianism is when a leader exerts control over a nation’s politics. A dictator has centralized powers of authority and ultimate decision making ability, typically ascertained by force, and a fascist regime is one that forcibly suppresses these mechanisms, cracks down on civil liberties, controls the press and seizes all economic levers of power.

So let’s level set and be clear in our definition: Trump was an elected, self-styled authoritarian President with fascist tendencies.

At no point was the nation in danger of Trump consolidating domestic powers, dissolving institutions and programs, eradicating the courts, closing the Federal Reserve, shutting down news organizations, and so on.

As we’ve seen, demagoguery isn’t enough to usher in a fascist regime. Yes, Trump had fascist tendencies; but as we established, he was too stupid to utilize them to the fullest extent. The other part of the equation is just as important; the circumstances under which someone like Trump comes to power. So much has been written about why it was that America fell under the spell of such a fucking no talent loser who stood for exactly everything his supporters really do not. We talked about this in our very first essay of Unf*cking the Republic. In the end, I think it’s fairly simple.

The brilliance of the first Trump campaign was that he tore up convention and really gave the impression that he stood for the working class. A great example of this was an address to auto workers in Detroit. In front of the union members, he lambasted management for selling them out and sending their jobs to Mexico. That was it. No other details or context was needed. Trump was willing to “stick it to the man,” even if he made a career out of fucking over the working class.

It helped that he was running against an establishment candidate who had worn out her welcome long ago while her party fucked over the only other guy who was actually standing up for the working person. No conspiracy nonsense or handwringing over Trump’s stance on immigrants, her fucking emails or Russian collusion mattered. Working people saw a dude belittle management and call out Washington. And that was enough.

How the nation moves forward in a post-Trump environment is critical. Groups like the Lincoln Project projected a facade of normalcy that lined up extremely well with the conventions of the establishment Democrats to build enough momentum to overcome Trumpism. For now. But even with a victory in Georgia to deliver the Biden administration room to maneuver policy and reestablish some of the hallmarks of the Obama years, it’s difficult to see how this all plays out.

While we’re rebuilding, we would be wise to keep an eye on the individual states, where the more insidious actions of the Republican Party have been consolidating power through gerrymandering and locking up state legislatures with the goal of controlling the ability to amend the Constitution outside of Congressional powers. Always look to the areas that aren’t being watched to see where the seeds of revolution are truly being sown.

As much as the center of the country might feel like the worst is behind us, the need for vigilance has perhaps never been higher. Which brings us back to the circumstances that truly give rise to authoritarianism that can lead to the collapse of our democracy and usher in a true fascist regime, something inconceivable even after the spectacle in the U.S. Capitol.

Though we can look throughout all of history, the best comparisons come from the post-Industrial global landscape. I’m zeroing in on this more recent history because the world looked very different prior to World War One.

It was the aftermath that set the world on the collision course to fascism and ultimately delivered us Donald Trump.

The aftermath was hypernationalism. This was a phenomenon that few of the great social and economic theorists ever anticipated. The Allied Powers blithely carved up the world into nation states that ignored cultural and ethnic histories and ascribed the most punitive reparations possible to the defeated powers, stripping them of their national dignity. And the unprecedented cost of the Great War created a perfect storm of economic malaise that shattered entire nations and gave rise to dictators who rose to power on a wave of nationalism and a promise of economic and military salvation.

Now that we’ve established that our nation can easily be manipulated by demagoguery and throngs of devoted followers can be duped into mass violence:

What are the circumstances on the ground that could lead to a true fascist regime in the U.S. whereby an authoritarian could silence the free press, disband our political institutions under self appointed emergency powers and take control of the military?
  1. First, it would take massive inequality. A handful of people would have to pull preposterously away from the rest of the population and consolidate the vast majority of wealth in the nation.

  2. Our currency would have to rapidly lose value.

  3. We would have to experience double digit unemployment and either eradicate benefits or not adjust them to account for the currency devaluation.

  4. A large percentage of the population would have to be completely and willfully duped by large scale, coordinated disinformation campaigns that blame immigrants and ethnic minority groups for their poor economic conditions and perceived loss of freedoms.

  5. This same swath of the population would also have to possess a fervent, almost pathological hyper-nationist belief system that places false idols, fake spirituality and patriotic symbols above their faith in our very democracy.

  6. A system of propaganda would have to be designed and in the hands of only a few private players that can be coerced and manipulated into compliance with authority.

  7. And lastly, our liberal institutions, designed as a bulwark against totalitarianism and misinformation—higher education, Congress, courts, free press, religious institutions and broad community of artists—would have to be maligned, defunded and neutered, or fully bought and paid for by a monied class all too willing to go along with whichever leader allows them the ability to maintain their status.

This isn’t hyperbole. These are the seeds of instability that can, and have, brought about fascism.

Let’s do a quick review to see if you can spot the one and only condition missing at this point in history.
  1. Massive inequality.

  2. A collapse in currency.

  3. Double digit unemployment.

  4. Rampant disinformation.

  5. Hypernationalism.

  6. Coordinated system of mass propaganda in private hands.

  7. And weak liberal institutions that have lost credibility.

The thesis I’m proffering to you, dear Unf*ckers, is that the only condition that currently does not exist is a collapse of our currency. In an ironic twist, the almighty dollar is the one thing that stands between our fragile democracy and the table being fully set for an empire ending collapse. So while we have a great deal of work ahead, the most important thing for the Biden administration to get right is to maintain a stable currency while it works to establish a balance in all other areas.

I believe in so many ways that the enemy of democracy remains the same in the United States, and that is neoliberalism. These forces are cold, calculating and in control of the levers of power and they will not go quietly into the night. They tested our willingness to indiscriminately ravage other nations under the false pretenses that brought us into the most protracted wars in U.S. history.

Now they have a playbook for true authoritarianism through social media disinformation, and don’t think for a second that they aren’t awed by the awesome potential that exists in the dark corners of the internet.

These next couple of years are critical. We have to get it right to reestablish the equilibrium in our democracy so we can set our sights on the most important tasks of our lifetime: social and economic justice, peace and literally saving the planet.

Here endeth the lesson.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).