By Hall Gardner*
It can still happen here!
The January 6 siege of the Capitol—the very symbol of American Democracy—was like a scene out of the novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935.
In the book, the bumbling “Buzz” Windrip becomes US Senator after his militia of “minute men” (who consider Windrip “their general and their god”) seize Windrip’s state capitol, much like contemporary far-right wing militias threatened the Michigan capital in 2020. Windrip then wins the presidency and immediately declares martial law over the entire United States.
Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) militants who seized the Capitol—who similarly believe Trump is the “messiah” who is going to reduce the power of the US Federal government over their lives—appear to be just like Buzz Windrip’s motley crew of militias.
In addition to far-right extremists and white supremacist militia groups, some of which were heavily armed, plus adherents of the QAnon myth, there were also Republican donors and officials—and both military and law enforcement personnel—who were all urged by Trump, Trump’s son, Don Jr, and Trump allies to siege the Capitol that had been left largely unprotected by Trump—even after the FBI had clearly warned of violence.
Fortunately, the “insurrection” failed—but that may not be the end of Trump’s reality TV series. More armed protests have been planned for January 17 to take place at the 50 state capitals, followed by a “Million MAGA March” in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021—at the same time that President-elect Biden is to be inaugurated. This time the Capitol is to be protected by some 20,000 National Guards.
Much as I argued in the Postscript of World War Trump, “It Can Happen Here,” it is incredible how Trump’s reality TV show has imitated Sinclair Lewis’s fiction in even more ways than described in this article—even if the boorish Trump probably never heard of Sinclair Lewis and his character, “Buzz” Windrip, the bumbling American dictator. Read the book!
A second impeachment
As Trump was not removed from power by the 25th Amendment because Mike Pence and other Cabinet members remained unwilling to risk opposing Trump and the Trumpist movement—in part due to death threats (“Hang Mike Pence“)—the Democrats of the House of Representatives moved forward with a second impeachment.
It appears dubious that enough Republicans in the Senate will back impeachment after Trump leaves office on January 20. That possibility largely depends on whether Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will back the process.
Nevertheless, it is possible that enough Republicans and Democrats will back Section 3 of the 14th Amendment—as a vote that would only require a simple majority vote of both the House and the Senate. If Trump is found to have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the United States, then a positive vote for Section 3 of the 14th amendment could be used to bar Trump from holding a future Federal office—whether or not he is impeached by the Senate as well as by the House.
Trump’s finger is still on the nuclear trigger!
The problem is not only to muzzle Trump, but to also try to prevent him from engaging in other dangerous actions before he finally evacuates the Oval office—such as attacking Iran or even starting a nuclear war.
Nancy Pelosi demanded that the Pentagon to verify that there are “available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike”!!! This is a major issue: The American president—whether Trump or another—has the absolute right to use nuclear weapons without any oversight whatsoever from the Congress or other elected officials.
This situation needs to be changed. President Biden should appoint a select committee of military (who can explain the military options but not make decisions) and select advisors from the US Senate to deal with the question of both using and deploying nuclear weaponry. Concurrently, Washington needs to find ways to better manage, reduce, if not abolish, nuclear and other advanced weapons systems—as the world enters a new hypersonic and robotics arms rivalry that is increasingly becoming governed by systems of Artificial Intelligence beyond human control.
War with Iran?
Even out of power, Trump and his allies could use US tensions with Iran as a means to upset and weaken the Biden Administration.
Not only did Trump try to drag the Pentagon into imposing martial law prior to the Trump-incited siege of the US Capitol, but there is a real danger that Trump’s presently incoherent “maximum pressure” doctrine against Iran will make it even more difficult for the Biden administration to achieve a peaceful settlement to the ongoing US-Iranian dispute by means of reviving the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear accord that was dumped by Trump in May 2018.
Did alleged Trump administration plans for war with Iran—in addition to the refusal to deploy the US military to settle election disputes—represent reasons why Trump removed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in November 2020 as part of a major shakeup at the Pentagon? Did alleged Trump preparations for war with Iran and the threat to impose martial law represent reasons why Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller had ordered a Pentagon-wide halt to cooperation with the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden?
Prior to the January 6 siege of the US Capitol, Trump repeatedly entertained the option of engaging the US military in a dangerous war with Iran—in alignment with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states after the signing of the Abraham accords. As if war were another form a reality TV show, Trump had discussed the option of striking Iran’s Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities—particularly after Iran began to increase its enrichment of uranium in violation of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
The Trump administration accordingly deployed the Nimitz aircraft carrier and its strike group, plus the US Navy’s guided-missile submarine Georgia, a nuclear attack submarine, as well as nuclear-capable B-52s in the Gulf region. In addition, Israel deployed a Dolphin class submarine. According to reports, the Israel Defense Force had been instructed “to prepare for a scenario of a U.S action against Iran before President Donald Trump leaves the White House on January 20.”
Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration that the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen are to designated a terrorist organization—a designation that will take place on January 19 one day before Biden takes office, plus Pompeo’s claim that Iran is providing Al Qaeda with a base of operations—represent further steps down the path of a very risky war with Iran that could inflame the entire region before or after Trump leaves office.
The claim that Al Qaeda had established a base in Iraq—even though Bin Laden was an opponent of the secular regime of Saddam Hussein—was one of the major justifications for the predatory US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Will Pompeo’s claim that Iran is now providing Al Qaeda with a base of operations likewise be used to justify a war that could dangerously destabilize the entire region at the risk of drawing in Russia and China in support of Iran?
One of Tehran’s games will be to try to draw China and Russia into stronger support for the Iranian regime. Yet here, it is not certain as to what extent Russia and China have already made major security and defence commitments to Tehran. Nor is it certain how both Moscow and Beijing might react if US and Israeli military forces strike Chinese and Russian assets and personnel in case of war.
If negotiations do not succeed soon after Biden arrives in office, Iranian hardliners—who have vowed to play an even tougher game with the US particularly after the Trump ordered the assassination of General Soleimani—could come to power once President Hassan Rouhani steps down after Iranian presidential elections now planned for June 18, 2021.
The real possibility of a wider war with Iran escalating to a major power war must not be dismissed out of hand.
A presidential self-pardon?
The question remains as to whether Trump, Trump’s family, and close allies have all thoroughly discredited themselves after inciting the January 6 siege of the Capitol—or whether their transgressions will be forgiven, forgotten, or put on continual trial, in the next few years.
How will Trump try to protect himself, his family, and Trump Inc. against numerous investigations into his illegal and unethical actions if he no longer possesses presidential immunity for civil damages based on his official acts?
And what will be the result of the numerous criminal charges against Trump Inc.? And how will he pay back his estimated $1 billion debt—at considerable risk to US national and global security if Trump, for example, sells “vital” info—if he can no longer leverage his position as President?
And could Trump try to escape much of the disaster he himself has generated by means of a “self-pardon”? As discussed with his advisors, Trump has asked if he is legally permitted to self-pardon himself—in addition to pardoning his family members even before they are accused of anything! Another option is for Trump to step down at the very last minute and ask for Mike Pence’s pardon. The general right of a president to pardon individuals already raises questions about the criteria used in deciding those pardons. Yet as the legitimacy of the Supreme Court has already been put into question after it rubberstamped George W. Bush’s “victory” in Florida in 2000, thus permitting Bush to win the presidency—could the Supreme Court rule that a US President has the right to self-pardon—which implies a right of absolute power as opposed to democratic oversights—no matter what kind of crimes he has committed?
If so, the Supreme Court should definitely be re-named the “Supreme Kangaroo Court”—particularly after Trump stacked the deck!
The future of Trumpism
Despite his impeachment, Trump has denounced the whole affair as a witch hunt just as he said the first time he was impeached. He hopes that centrist and right-wing Americans will continue to support his “law and order” MAGA movement—even if it were he and his allies who had incited the siege of the US Capitol! And in the belief that his followers will be able to pressure Biden, Trump has forewarned that an aging Biden could also be removed from the presidency by means of the 25th amendment in the future.
As part of his malignantly narcissistic personality disorder, Trump wants the American people to look up to him personally, and not to either the Democrats or the Republicans. In his version of a personality cult. Trump wants to be regarded as the fearless authoritarian leader, whether in power or out, who will speak for the American people in time of crisis—when he is really stuffing the pockets of Trump Inc. and his allies with power and cash.
In effect, Trump hopes that he can brand himself as a “martyr” that is being persecuted by the Democrats—so that he can continue to build a strong following. The more the Democrats criticize Trump and the MAGA movement—after having promised “national reconciliation”—the more Trump believes he can inspire a pro-Trumpist backlash. His strategy appears designed to create enough social tensions by playing the right, center, and left against each other—so that he or his allies can return to power.
A Trumpist movement (whether led by Trump or another Demagogue) could split the Republican party and build a third party as it concurrently attempts to undermine Biden administration efforts to reconcile the country in the next four years. Instead of Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, or another one out of the 100 Republicans in the Senate and House—who had wanted to vote on January 6 against the certification of the November 2020 election unless there was an election audit—or ultimately a Trump family member—could seek the presidency.
If Biden tries to fight against MAGA proposals, Trump and allies will accuse the Democrats of not supporting a strong America and of “political persecution” —while concurrently trying to blame the amorphous anarchist group “Antifa” and other “leftists” for instigating violence. Here, the question of what individual or group put pipe bombs before the Republican headquarters and in the Capitol, and who it was who sent a suspicious package to the Democratic headquarters, could soon become a major political issue—if the investigation is not kept secret.
Even though Biden won the popular vote by roughly 7 million people, the Democrats did lose some members in the House while now barely controlling the Senate by the Vice President’s vote. Biden will consequently have real problems trying to draw Trump’s center-right supporters toward his more centrist policies without concurrently losing his own left- and center-left backers—in his proclaimed effort to reconcile the country. There is, therefore, the risk the Democrats could split over how to handle the demands of the pro-Trumpists, among other issues—given the major policy differences within the Democratic Party. And if Biden cannot effectively counter the Trumpists—particularly those willing who oppose gun control and who are willing to take up arms—his administration will appear weak and unable to control the situation. Dealing with these issues among others during the first crucial 100 days of Biden’s presidency—while concurrently managing the process of Trump’s impeachment—will represent Biden’s test of fire.
The dilemma is that it will prove very difficult to muzzle Trump and his MAGA militants even after Trump leaves the presidency. Banning Trump on Twitter, or suspending Trump at least temporarily on Facebook, Instagram, Snapshot, Stripe, Shopify, and on other social media for advocating violence, will help reduce Trump’s media presence only to a limited degree—as he could find other media platforms, such as starting his own TV station.
Yet this social media censorship raises other questions: If a major government leader can be censured, does this mean Social Media CEOs are in control of free speech and debate? What will happen if other government leaders and political movements are censured or not censured? And will Social Media opposition to movements that advocate violence drive these groups into the digital media underground through the use for encrypted messages, for example? Trump’s general strategy is:
– to make it as difficult as possible for Biden to rule—even before he took power—by inciting his followers to reap havoc whenever possible;
– to make it impossible for the Biden administration to reach an accord with Iran and thereby weaken Biden’s ability to engage in a concerted multilateral foreign policy;
– to try to set the stage for Trump himself to return to the presidency (if legally permitted) or else support the political ambitions of Trump family members and their allies.
Whether Trump can actually achieve his authoritarian “Trump 4(EVA) drive” will depend upon how many people support, forgive, or forget his transgressions and those of his allies on January 6 in urging the siege on the Capitol. It also depends in part on what might happen in the protests planned at the 50 state capitals on January 17—and whether the so-called “Million MAGA March” in Washington, DC gains any significant popular support on January 20. Under pressure, Trump has urged his MAGA followers not to engage in violence…
In the coming years, if Trump’s MAGA militants are not weakened and divided, and if Trump Inc. is not fully bogged down in lawsuits and debt repayments, Trump and/or his cronies could attempt to use their significant base of supporters, plus those minority MAGA militias who are willing to use force and violence, to harass a divided Biden administration and to undermine Biden’s domestic and foreign policies at a time of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic and of a potential greater depression.
Domestic turmoil that risks the outright deterioration of the American system of democracy—while provoking, both directly and indirectly, the real possibility of major power war—must be prevented. To do this, new domestic policies that seek to deepen US democracy coupled with concerted foreign policies that seek to prevent major power conflict by means of forging regional peace and development communities through engaged multilateral cooperation in key conflict regions throughout the world—must be implemented as soon as possible in the coming years.
*Hall Gardner is a professor and former chair (1993–2019) of the International and Comparative Politics of the American University of Paris. His recent books include: IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2019); World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism (New York: Prometheus Books, 2018); Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015); NATO Expansion and the U.S. Strategy in Asia: Surmounting the Global Crisis (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan 2013); Averting Global War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan 2007). Website: www.hallgardner.com. Article published in Wall Street International Magazine, on 18 JANUARY 2021
Bipartisan elite fuels US polarization
In the absence of genuine leaders to unite people and bring fundamental change, self-interested parties exploit and fuel discontent. According to the mainstream narrative, US President Donald Trump’s incitement of his supporters during the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory led to the “insurrection” at the US Capitol on January 6, resulting in the banning of Trump’s social-media accounts and his second impeachment by Congress.