the national interest

Trump’s Threats of Bloodshed Are Off Message, Republicans Worry

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump’s Republican enablers — the people who might snicker at his behavior but ultimately support him — tend to dismiss his authoritarian tendencies as harmless rantings. Accordingly, they either ignore or mock the liberals and renegade Republicans who warn that the president poses a serious threat to American democracy.

And so, when Trump does engage in one of his periodic bouts of threatening to shake the republic to its foundations should his appetite for power be thwarted, their response is not to revisit their own assumptions about Trump. Instead, they get annoyed that it’s simply going to fuel what they regard as completely groundless hysteria.

The conservative response to Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power has followed this pattern. The Hill has a surreal news report on Republicans’ annoyance that the president went off message by threatening to destroy American democracy. “GOP lawmakers expressed frustration that a week that had started so positively with the Senate Republican Conference quickly unifying ahead of a Supreme Court confirmation battle had turned into a circus,” the site reports. The story, lacking any normative concern over Trump’s intentions, is focused on its unhelpful impact on the party’s talking points.

“There’s a chance he doesn’t understand peaceful as a concept,” explained one frustrated Republican senator. Okay, then. Nothing to worry about. Just the leader of the free world does not understand the concept of a peaceful transfer of power. Hopefully, it will be explained to him by somebody he listens to, like Lou Dobbs.

The Republican Establishment perspective is perfectly reflected by the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Journal editorial strategy is to cluck its tongue every few months at one of the president’s more counterproductively deranged outbursts, while ignoring his substantive abuses, resolutely opposing any measures to subject him to accountability or oversight, and occasionally mocking anybody who deems his authoritarian maneuvers dangerous.

Today’s Journal editorial is especially comic. Its main thrust is that delusional Democrats (not to mention formerly loyal Republicans now rallying to defend the rule of law from his predations) are going to make a big deal over the no-peaceful-transition thing:

The sad reality is that Democratic opinion leaders have been waiting for a Reichstag fire moment from the minute Mr. Trump took office. Their thirst to be vindicated has grown more intense as his term draws to a close. Perhaps they want to save face after misunderstanding their country and its citizens so fundamentally for four years.

The Reichstag fire is a dodge favored by anti-anti-Trumpists. Despite the popular misconception, it is historically rare for a democracy to perish in a sudden dramatic gesture. Every democracy expert who has been sounding the alarms has been patiently explaining that the threat is not a fascist coup, but a slow breakdown of democratic norms, enabled by mainstream allies who would rather cooperate with authoritarian allies on their own side than allow the opposition to win.

It is true that Trump has limited tools at his disposal with which to operationalize his authoritarian impulses. He has, however, already weakened or disabled a number of constraints. Trump has, among other activities, been busy:

• Stoking baseless claims that mail balloting is inherently fraudulent

• Calling armed supporters into the streets

• Advocating violence against reporters

• Strong-arming companies to support him politically

• Promising pardons to government employees and co-conspirators who break the law on his behalf

Firing officials who refuse to violate the law on his behalf

• Refusing outright to cooperate with any congressional oversight

Just today, his son is on social media, in an official campaign message, raising an “army” of supporters to come to the polls.

The election will probably proceed in a peaceful fashion, largely because Trump will probably lose by a margin too wide for him to cheat. But given the high-magnitude impact of the other scenarios, working to safeguard the republic seems like a worthwhile precaution.

The Journal explains there’s nothing to worry about, since the military has been raising alarms about his authoritarian inclinations. “As for the notion that Mr. Trump could execute a coup—he’s been warring with his own security agencies as long as he’s been in office,” the editorial coos. “He’s been denounced by dozens of retired generals, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for appearing with him publicly during the unrest in Washington, D.C.”

I’m not sure this point means what the Journal thinks it does. Yes, after Trump ordered the military to violently attack a completely peaceful protest in June, several military officials expressed their regrets afterward. And yes, as the New York Times reports today, Trump’s expressed desire to quell additional peaceful protests “has incited deep anxiety among senior military and Defense Department leaders.” If Trump tries to order troops to crack down on protests that may follow his expected attempt to discredit the election or cut short vote counting, there will likely be pushback. It seems odd to understand this state of affairs as reason to laugh at the silly liberals who worry about the president’s authoritarianism.

The actual scenario that most concerns the opposition is that Trump’s Republican allies in state legislatures will cite disputes over mail ballots as a pretext to appoint Trump electors, regardless of the intent of the voters in their state. Notably, neither the Journal nor any leading Republicans have renounced such a step.

What’s unfortunate about Trump’s threat, complains the editorial, is that it “hands Democrats a ready-made line of attack in Supreme Court confirmation hearings” and his reckless comments give credence to Democratic hysteria, and he should clarify his views if he doesn’t want to lose more voters who think he lacks the temperament or self-control for the office.” (Genghis Khan’s ill-advised threat to burn Samarkand to cinders just feeds into the narrative that he’s some kind of “bloodthirsty conqueror.”)

Trump of course has clarified his views. He has clarified them for decades, since he began praising authoritarian rulers who forcefully suppress popular demonstrations in Russia or China, or refusing to accept the result of the 2016 election, or calling for the mass imprisonment of his political opponents and independent media.

The Journal doesn’t want him to “clarify his views.” It wishes he would obscure them, for the convenience of his allies who are trying to deny their existence.

Trump’s Threats of Bloodshed Off Message, Republicans Worry