I sometimes think all human conversation consists of bragging and complaining. In an attempt to prove my own thesis, I will brag about my own accuracy, then complain about Donald Trump.
I started the Ethical Spectacle in January 1995, and have almost obsessively managed to publish an issue every one of the 258 months since. On the whole, I think my predictive abilities have been quite good, and arguably better than those of many famous pundits. In the very first issue, I said that campaign finance was legalized bribery. In the 1990's, I tracked Newt Gingrich's assault on language, the two party system, and the Constitution. On the evening of September 11, 2001, I wrote: "What happens next I don't really know, but I know what I fear: that we will embark, like the Israelis and Palestinians, on a mindless spasm of killing and counter-killing; that civil liberties and freedom of speech will be curtailed; that the president, with his powerful backers, his deer-in-the-headlights look and his primitive philosophy, will not see the line before crossing it, or won't care." In the 2000's, I identified billionaires, the Koch Brothers in particular, as the biggest existential threat to American democracy. In general, I have argued that Enlightenment values, as embodied in American constitutionalism, are greatly threatened by an expanding toxic brew of sophistry, dark money, gun love and rage. I think Donald Trump himself is the predictable result of the trends I have been tracking since 1995.
What predictions have I made that I now know to be wildly wrong? I believed the computers would all go down on January 1, 2001. I believed that we were likely facing a worldwide Ebola epidemic in 2015. In general, I can say that my bad calls share two factors: each involved a technological or scientific premise I wasn't personally qualified to understand, and a powerful belief in human incompetence, denial and general bloodymindedness. You usually can't go wrong predicting that "things fall apart".
I have just engaged in this review of my own record because to most people I know, today I sound like a crackpot, like Kevin McCarthy with wild eyes shouting "You're next!" at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers . I believe two things which are not popular in my crowd: that Donald Trump has a substantial chance of winning in November, and that, if he does, we are facing a shit-storm worse than anything we have seen in my lifetime. If Hillary Clinton wins, or if we have a gently inept Trump presidency with an isolated clown executive routinely run over by his own party, then this article may stand as the most distraught and embarrassing thing I've ever written. But I think the arguments against my views I am hearing are emotional and denial-based, more along the lines of "This is America. It can't happen here", rather than based on any real reasoning.
A word about my methodology. For the last few years I have been working on an immense, seemingly endless project on the history of the idea of free speech; so that when people say, "It can't happen here" I reply, "It already has". A human enterprise I call the "Forgettery" has been hard at work erasing unpleasant memories which jar with our Official Narrative. I know what few Americans remember, that a drunk in a tavern went to prison for a colorful reference to John Adams' ass, that Jefferson not to conflict with his theories of small government pushed prosecutions of editors who didn't like him down to the state level, that Lincoln interned New York journalists who opposed the Civil War and tried an Ohio Congressman before a military commission, that a massive bloodbath occurred under Woodrow Wilson involving the beating of Suffragettes, socialists, conscientous objectors, Wobblies, and anti-war demonstrators, and the murder of some of them, trials and prison sentences for writers of quite mainstream and moderate anti-war views, mass arrests and deportations of foreign socialists, "flag-kissing" mobs, and even the imprisonment of a film producer for a rather accurate silent movie depicting British atrocities during the Revolution. I know that Roosevelt would have prosecuted Father Coughlin if the Vatican had not silenced him first, that Truman launched the persecution of the left before HUAC and Senator McCarthy ran it through the goal posts, that under the Smith Act Communists were convicted based on a theory that peaceful language was "Aesopian" and really called for violence, and that their attorneys were sentenced to contempt of court, as counsel for the Chicago 8 were decades later. I know that construction workers beat demonstrators in Manhattan in May 1970 after Nixon staffer Charles Colson called the boss of their union requesting violence. I know that Solicitor General Elena Kagan testified to Congress that merely filing an amicus brief in a case involving an enemy combatant (which I have personally done) could be construed as "material support" for the enemy under the extraordinarily broad and vague post-9/11 law. Therefore, I know that almost everything I fear Trump will do has already been done by an American President, including some Democratic idols and heroes, such as Jefferson, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Obama.
I then come at my subject from another angle: Where will Trump stop based on internal morals, standards, governors? Professor Mothersill in the ethics class I took at Columbia used to ask if we would steal pennies from blind newsboys if no one was watching. If you said no, she asked, why not? Then, if I find no internal barriers in Trump, I ask who else will stop him? Congress? The Supreme Court? The American people? I believe that Richard Nixon would have stopped at nothing, but that a strong Congress and judiciary served as a deterrent. Do we have such strong firewalls today?
Therefore I argue that the extremely dark predictions I am about to make are not mere emotional maundering, but, even if wrong, are based on history, psychology, logic.
Here in no particular order are some things I think a President Trump will do.
Trump's entire campaign is based on the idea that America is coming apart, that we are endangered by an internal enemy, a combination or joint venture of ISIS, people shooting cops, and killer illegal Mexicans. Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who spoke at the Republican convention, said, "You war is here", at home: "You don't have to go searching for it." Trump has expressed an "America First" message in which he talks abut our foreign commitments being too expensive, closing bases our allies refuse to pay for, and basing the army at home.
What would prevent President Trump from declaring martial law to deal with the "chaos", what Luttrell called the "war at home"? President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and imposed trial by military commission, in regions quite far from the Civil War battlefields. Amusingly, a Google search on "martial law" finds right wing fringe sites predicting that Obama will use it to prevent a Trump presidency. While the "Posse Comitatus" act ostensibly prevents the use of the Army at home without Congressional approval, the "War Powers" law similarly forbids foreign wars without a declaration by Congress, yet presidents and Congresses have avoided and worked around that requirement nonstop since it was instituted in the 1970's. Executive power is constantly invoked to meet real-time "emergencies" with Congress playing catch-up, or not trying. Vague, brief resolutions passed years ago are invoked to justify present measures; a Congressional resolution authorizing action against Al Qaeda is invoked as the basis of action against ISIS today (and could even be the justification for military action at home post San Bernardino and Orlando). Anyway, despite "Posse Comitatus", President Nixon deployed the 82nd Airborne in Washington in May 1971 as a precaution against the demonstrators in the capitol. We now also know that for fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover, under various names, maintained a list of as many as 20,000 people he would recommend be rounded up if martial law was imposed. When Hoover died, the list supposedly also became defunct, but we would not know if a version has been reconstituted post-9/11 (I would be surprised in fact if one hasn't).
Why wouldn't President Trump prosecute Hillary Clinton? At the convention, Chris Christie, who could be Trump's attorney general, led a call and response event at which his refrain was "Guilty or not guilty?" and the enthralled crowd shouted "Guilty!" The "Lock her up!" chant went viral, and some "Bernie or Bust" protesters even chanted it at the Democratic convention. Its all reminiscent of the 2010 Ukraine election, after which the winner, Viktor Yanukovych, prosecuted and imprisoned his predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko. In the stranger-than-fiction department: Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, advised Yanukovych in that 2010 election.
If he's willing to indict his opponent in the race, what would stop President Trump from searching for grounds to indict other Democrats and powerful adversaries? The sedition laws adopted during John Adams' presidency are still partly on the books, and have been used in times of panic since then, for example the Wilson presidency. Wilson used them, and new laws, against quite powerful people, such as Eugene Debs, the highly respected Socialist leader who had commanded a million votes in several presidential elections. Lincoln convicted by military commission and locked up Clement Vallandigham, a Democratic Congressman who opposed the war. As I mentioned above, Roosevelt was ready to prosecute the annoying and very popular Father Coughlin. President Johnson's attorney general prosecuted the nation's baby doctor, Benjamin Spock, for opposing the draft. Trump could imaginably find some excuse to prosecute Barack Obama or Ruth Bader Ginsburg (opening up another spot on the Supreme Court).
Although I am tiny, a nobody, I can imagine myself being indicted or interned in a Trump administration. I filed an amicus brief in the Padilla enemy combatant case circa 2003, which Elena Kagan, who now sits on the Supreme Court, later said was "material support" of the enemy. My writing here in the Spectacle since 1995 contains numerous statements similar to the speech for which writers like Scott Nearing were prosecuted under Wilson. Already, and with little public notice, several young Arab American men have been imprisoned under the "material support" act, and others, overseas, killed by drone strikes, for the mere act of maintaining a web site. I defend protesters and dissenters in criminal court cases and it is a short step indeed from locking up my clients to imprisoning their attorney, as has already been done at least twice in American history. I am a proud member of National Lawyers' Guild, and have a copy of a Congressional report from the 1950's recommending that all Guild members be disbarred.
What would stop Trump from bringing back the House Unamerican Activities Committee to persecute the prominent and the obscure (like me) via subpoena? His other right hand guy, Newt Gingrich, already called for that.
What would stop Trump from establishing a loyalty review board, and purging Obama supporters, liberal Democrats and civil libertarians from government civil service? Chris Christie already called for a change in civil service rules so that Obama adherents could be fired post-election. Truman set the precedent, with a review board which investigated three million federal employees, several thousand of whom resigned under pressure. 212 were fired.
What would stop Trump from bringing back water-boarding, or worse forms of torture? He has said over and over he plans to do so; do we not believe him?
Speaking of drones, what would stop Donald Trump from expanding their use to punish speech acts? We have already killed people like Samir Khan, editor of Inspire magazine, for speech which uttered in Times Square would be clearly First Amendment-protected. We routinely use drones today to kill people in countries with which we are not at war, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Whoever becomes President, I think it is only a matter of time before the first drone strike in a remote area of Canada, and then within the borders of the U.S. (the use of a robot to kill the Dallas cop shooter is a precedent).
What would prevent President Trump from using tactical nukes? We have some not well-publicized weapons which are essentially battlefield artillery firing nuclear shells. While every previous president has refrained, Trump would not need anyone's permission; as Commander in Chief he could order the use of these weapons.
The only things which could possibly prevent a President Trump from doing any of these things would be some internal self restraint, Congress, the Supreme Court or the American people.
There is no evidence that Trump has any moral scheme which would stop him, or any sense of propriety or proportion. In fact, a lot of the denial I am seeing among my Democratic and progressive peers is based on disbelieving Trump's exact words, that "he doesn't really mean it", its just talk. Trump has called for protesters to be roughed up at his events, envisioned violence at the Republican convention several times (if the "Stop Trump" movement prevailed; later he said that his "Triumph of the Will" style entry during Senator Cruz's speech prevented the crowd from "ripping" Cruz off the stage), and most recently stated his desire to "hit" Mayor Bloomberg and others who spoke about him at the Democratic convention. And he has talked repeatedly about using torture, not just waterboarding, against ISIS foot soldiers and their families. Trump's entire presentation is suffused with violence. He seems to me already to be intoxicated with power. When he actually can order the deaths, internment, prosecution of people who oppose him, I don't see anything operating in his make up or mind which would stop him.
I had imagined only six weeks ago that a coalition of Democrats and responsible Republicans might quickly impeach a President Trump. But that was before people he actually humilated, like Senators McCain and Rubio, began supporting him. I had planned an article about the parallels to Germany in 1932; here is an excerpt from my research, citing William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The conservatives "were sure they had lassoed the Nazis for their own ends"; Papen thought that the Vice Chancellorship and an understanding with Hindenberg "would enable him to put a brake on the radical Nazi leader". "But this frivolous, conniving politician did not know Hitler-- no one really knew Hitler--nor did he comprehend the strength of the forces which had spewed him up. Nor did Papen, or anyone else except Hitler, quite realize the unexplicable weakness, that now bordered on paralysis,of existing institutions--the Army, the churches, the trade union, the political parties--or of the vast non-Nazi middle class and the highly organized proletariat all of which, as Papen mournfully observed much later, would 'give up without a fight'".
The Supreme Court will not stand up to Trump; he will immediately fill the existing vacancy, re-securing a 5-4 majority, and imaginably, as I said above, may prosecute Justice Ginsburg, who spoke improvidently against him, or pressure her into quitting. He will in the years to come almost certainly fill other vacancies, assuring a complacent Court for generations to come. Anyway, Supreme Courts historically have not been strong bulwarks against wartime presidents. The Court sustained Wilson's prosecution of Socialists for distributing leaflets (Holmes filed his two famous dissents) and approved Roosevelt's internment of the Japanese Americans. While the Supreme Court eventually pushed back against Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, the Court, when it does act, is almost always late to the party--cases take years to get before it.
The American people will not, in any significant numbers, be able to stand up to Trump, if we have the failure of courage and attention required to elect him. We will then have been more passive, frightened, and inward-focused than any electorate since 1932 Germany. The spectacle of millions of us happily playing "Pokemon Go" on our smartphones while the fate of our country is in play is suggestive enough of that.
We have a last clear chance not to go down this dark stretch of bad road. The genuine act of a free person, an action conceived in autonomy, truth, and compassion, is to vote against Donald Trump in November.