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How a Second Trump Term Could End US Democracy

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GUEST COMMENTARY - Earlier this week, The New York Timespublished a partial exposé of former President Donald Trump’s plans for his second administration. It involved basically turning America into Russia or Hungary, where the president becomes the singular center of federal power, eclipsing Congress and the Courts.

For example, the Times writes:

Mr. Trump intends to bring independent agencies—like the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies, and the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces various antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses—under direct presidential control.

How would this play out? The FCC has power over the internet, as well as all broadcast media in America; it’s how the Trump administration killed net neutrality and gave the giant internet service providers (ISPs) the legal right to track everything you do and say on the web right down to the last keystroke of your posts and your every email.

Thus, President Trump could mandate that any media critical of him—including online media like Daily KosRaw Story, or Common Dreams—must be heavily “regulated,” just like in Russia and Hungary. And he could do this in the first weeks of his presidency, to tamp down the ability to organize protests around his other fascist policies.

Taking over the Federal Trade Commission would allow him to do all kinds of favors for his CEO and billionaire backers, bringing industry behind his fascism, just as happened in the early years of Nazi Germany.

In addition, Trump has already proclaimed his intention to turn the FBI, IRS, and DOJ into weapons against his political enemies. Just like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán.

Lest you think Trump doesn’t have plans to take on the “fake news” media and “liberals” he regularly lambasts, consider what he reposted on his Nazi-infested social media site just three days ago:

If you fuck around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before.

They have been done before, just not here in the U.S.

And the fact that not one single currently elected Republican stood up and called this fascist rhetoric what it is tells us that the next GOP president need not be Trump for this nation to fall from democracy to fascism: strongman authoritarianism is now the governance model the Republican Party and the “conservative” movement have fully embraced.

You and I could be in jail in a matter of weeks; that’s how fast things can change when an autocrat takes control of a democratic nation.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in an op-ed for MSNBC:

Those plans, as reported by The New York Times on Monday, are consistent with a 21st century playbook for authoritarians: Tell the public how you will set up an authoritarian state. Frame your intended expansion of executive powers as a streamlining of government. Don’t forget to repeatedly praisedictators as ‘brilliant’ and ‘top of the line’ people so there’ll be no surprises when you act in a similar manner. And whet your followers’ appetites for destruction of existing norms by advertising how you will purge ‘the sick political class that hates our country’ from government. 

In 1926 Ernest Hemmingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises, which has this extraordinary bit of dialogue about how change happens in most aspects of life—and how governments rise and fall.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
”Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
”What brought it on?”
“Friends," said Mike. "I had a lot of friends. False friends.”

For some unfathomable reason, Democrats insist on calling their Republican colleagues their “friends.” They are not friends.

With few exceptions, they are systematically destroying American democracy with the clear objective of replacing it with strongman authoritarianism, a new and American version of what Benito Mussolini called fascism.

Right now they’re moving gradually:

— Infiltrating police departments and the enlisted ranks of the military
— Taking over school boards and local boards of elections
— Compiling lists of authoritarians who could serve in the next Republican administration and which agencies they intend to purge
— Firing principals and teachers who defend multiracial, multicultural democracy while banning books that contain such “dangerous” ideas
— Demonizing queer people and outlawing drag shows
— Working with right-wing media and Fox “News” to completely rewrite the history of January 6th
— Gerrymandering states and purging voter rolls so regardless of who tries to vote, Republicans control the levers of power
— Changing election laws so they can both make it harder for city-dwellers to vote and so GOP officials can ignore and even change the outcomes of elections they don’t like 
— Building media structures that will support the authoritarian takeover when it happens
— Organizing armed paramilitary militias, with back-channel connections to local police
— Creating legal organizations to sanitize and rationalize ending messy democracy
— Radicalizing average Americans through social media and an ever-growing network of subsidized hard-right radio shows and podcasts 
— Spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories about Democrats and Jews using the dog whistle of “George Soros”
— Firebombing Texas Democratic Party’s Austin headquarters and threatening them that if they don’t stop trying to get Democrats elected worse will come

We’ve seen this movie before.

It was “the other 9/11.” Everything seemed normal until Gen. Augusto Pinochet declared he was taking over the government of Chile on September 11, 1973.

The Chilean government had been run democratically since 1923, the longest in South America, but Pinochet (with help from the Nixon administration and ITT) had already infiltrated and gotten the loyalty of both the police, the army, and the civilian paramilitaries he’d spent the previous few years nurturing.

So when he rolled up to the presidential palace and declared he was taking over, nobody came to the defense of the elected president, Salvador Allende. The police were already loyal to Pinochet, including the police who defended that nation’s capitol.

Allende, along with around 30 supporters, held the palace for a few hours, gave a short national radio address, and then put a gun to his head and ended his presidency.

Gradually, then suddenly.

When Chileans poured into the streets, Pinochet swept them up and held them in the national stadium, where tens of thousands were tortured, murdered, or simply disappeared. One of the favorite tactics of his military was to throw “liberals” out of helicopters over the ocean to kill them, a practice celebrated by right-wingers around the U.S. today.

Pinochet’s democratic political opposition lost all its power and went underground; it would be 17 years before anything resembling democracy would return to Chile, a process that is still pulling itself together.

If Mike Pence had gone along with Trump’s plan to install the guy who lost both the popular and the electoral vote as president, America would be a very, very different country today.

Gradually, then suddenly.

Trump had previously proclaimed his desire to change the nation’s libel and slander laws so he could sue or imprison his political opponents and those in the media who opposed him; if he had succeeded on January 6th, that would have happened by now, and people like me (and maybe you) would be in jail.

Echoing one of Pinochet’s first 1973 laws, a Republican state legislator in Florida proposed legislation requiring bloggers and writers to register with the state if they intend to criticize any elected official; the next Republican president will almost certainly put similar laws into place and quickly.

Trump had previously promised his violent partisans that he’d pardon them and pick up their legal fees; if he or another MAGA Republican takes the White House in 2024, within months hundreds of Kyle Rittenhouses will be “defending themselves” against Black people, “Antifa,” and “commie liberals” without consequence.

Under the next GOP president, a constitutional convention like right-wing billionaires have been promoting and annually rehearsing in Washington, D.C. will be underway to rewrite our founding document. The right of all Americans to vote, separation of church and state, civil rights, protections of free speech and assembly, the right to due process and equal protection under the law, even the obscure Emoluments Clause will all be on the chopping block.

Trump-friendly corporations will be running political purges of their employees, reminiscent of the McCarthy Republicans’ “Red Scare” and “Blacklist” 1950s all across the country. Social media accounts will be examined for evidence of “leftist” leanings; Johnny McEntee began that process when he was “Deputy President” to Trump and was firing even the most ordinary and nondescript employees in the executive branch for “liking” postings by “left-wing” entertainers like Taylor Swift.

The process Trump started in Portland and Seattle in the summer of 2020 of unmarked vans and stormtrooper-like federal police with no identifying patches kidnapping people off the streets and beating them will expand nationwide; tens of thousands will be in custody without charges.

Private for-profit prisons will expand to take in the hundreds of thousands of people who will be arrested protesting in the streets or for speaking out on social media. For those Americans who voted Republican or were completely apolitical, though, life would go on as normal (just like in the early years of the takeovers of Chile, Russia, and Hungary—or Italy, Germany, and Spain in the 1930s).

A handful of high-profile progressive politicians may be assassinated or survive assassination attempts (as did Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi on January 6, 2021); the police and the FBI, however, will claim they’re as clueless about their killers as they said they were about 10,000 people planning to storm the Capitol and assassinate the vice president and speaker of the House.

The Democratic Party will be labeled aggressors and subversives by right-wing media and the administration; its ranks will melt away as quickly as the union-aligned parties did in Italy and Germany in the 1930s or the Allende democrats did in Chile in 1973.

First abortion will be criminalized nationwide, then birth control, then women in business and politics will find themselves under constant attack in the media and the workplace. White male dominance will reattain the status it had in 1972 when women couldn’t legally get an abortion, buy a house, sign contracts, or even get a credit card without the signature of a father or husband.

Newsrooms across the country will be purged of liberals and running editorials in support of the “new patriotism” proclaimed by the GOP; the hedge funds headed up by right-wing billionaires—who today own over half of all the nation’s newspapers—will be snapping up the rest of the nation’s media like Orbán’s oligarch buddies did in Hungary and Putin’s friends did in Russia.

Every time these sorts of overthrows happen, the nation’s people are shocked and surprised. They had no idea how far things had gone. It even happened that way with the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Gradually, then suddenly.

Trump’s supporters are today openly calling for the end of democracy, for book banning, and for public executions of Democratic politicians. The leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to expel Rep. Paul Gosar for openly celebrating his fantasy murder of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The threat of violence or death is at the core of fascist “leadership.”

A multimillionaire former head of the Carlyle Group with no political experience, Glenn Youngkin, running on a platform of auditing the 2020 election and not much else, won the governorship of Virginia by spreading the naked, racist lie that Democrats in that state were indoctrinating white children to feel ashamed of the color of their skin; not a single elected Republican and only a rare few in the media called him out.

There’s a good chance he’ll be the GOP’s nominee if Trump goes down in flames: a fascist in a Mr. Rogers sweater vest.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the fascist “America First” movement within the GOP, he went to political war with them.

“They hate me,” he thundered to cheers, “and I welcome their hatred!”

President Joe Biden appears to think he can negotiate with these people who want to remake America in Pinochet’s image (with the same type of Chicago School neoliberal advisers who helped Pinochet turn Chile into an autocratic nightmare).

He’s wrong.

They are building their power and their organizations right now; armed paramilitary groups are expanding across the country as the GOP has become so radicalized that they even proclaim Liz Cheney as their enemy.

Billionaire-owned media properties like Fox “News” and hate-talk radio push naked lies to their viewers and listeners—all to make a buck and consolidate their political power—to a growing audience.

And they’re packing our courts with young, hardcore right-wing ideologues in state after state, having already put over 300 on the federal bench during Trump’s reign.

Republicans are openly preparing for a second Civil War, calling for a “national divorce.”

Reuters did a major and shocking report on how police forces, presumably sympathetic to local neofascist elements, refuse to even investigate death threats against elections officials and Democratic politicians.

In Michigan, a militia group nearly kidnapped and killed that state’s governor; they were stopped by an insider who turned states’ evidence. Another group was found planning to murder that state’s openly lesbian attorney general.

Meanwhile, all across social media, the word is spreading: “The storm is upon us.”

January 6th was a rehearsal; they're now planning 2024 and early 2025. Coups like this gradually build to an explosive tipping point, then suddenly appear as a fait accompli.

Unless we stop them in-process, this will be our last chance. Because once they take power—if they win in November 2024—it will be just a matter of weeks before they’ve consolidated their power and locked the country down.

Just weeks until you and I are in jail. Until the American experiment is finally dead at the hands of America’s oligarchs.

Their think tanks have already gamed it out, and made it clear their plan will work with any Republican should Trump not ultimately be the guy who takes the White House. They are getting ready.

As Trump told a group of young people last week of his plan to destroy the American government:

This will be the most important election with your country, your freedom, and your future on the line. We are in trouble. This country is in trouble. The election will decide if your generation inherits a fascist country or a free country, if you will have the rule of tyrants or the rule of law, if Marxist radicals burn our civilization to the ground, which they are looking to do, or young patriots like you propel America to glorious heights greater than ever before. …When I get back into the oval office, I will obliterate the deep state.

Gradually, then suddenly.

(Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream" (2020); "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" (2019); and more than 25 other books in print. This article was featured in Common Dreams.)

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