David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has penned an article in The Atlantic that is both astute and terrifying—“Last Exit From Autocracy: America survived one Trump term. It wouldn’t survive a second.” It begins,
The most important ballot question in 2020 is not Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, or Democrat versus Republican. The most important question is: Will Trump get away with his corruption—will his crooked and authoritarian tactics succeed?
If the answer is yes, be ready for more. Much more.
Frum’s essay is a model of intellectual rigor and thoughtful analysis. He highlights the founder’s worries about a truly corrupt President, the restraints they put in place to deal with that situation, and how the institutions designed to do so have failed us.
(Frum previously published a cover story in The Atlantic arguing that Trump’s presidency could put the United States on the road to autocracy. “By all early indications,” he wrote, “the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law—and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question.”)
He then measures the damage done including: attempting to cripple the Postal Service to alter the election’s outcome; refusing to comply with subpoenas from congressional committees; ignoring ethics guidelines and rules on security clearances; shutting down two counterintelligence investigations of his Russian business links; assigning prison and park police as street enforcers bypassing the National Guard and the FBI; again welcoming Russian help for his election campaign; etc, etc, etc. Some take solace in Trump’s laziness and ignorance but forget that the sycophants that enable and empower him.
Perhaps the most consequential change Trump has wrought is in the Republican Party’s attitude toward democracy … Republicans in the Trump years have gotten used to competing under rules biased in their favor. They have come to fear that unless the rules favor them, they will lose … and to view any effort to correct those rules as a direct attack on their survival. What I wrote in 2017 has only become more true since: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”
To better understand how the U.S. system has failed to reign in Trump Frum surveys just a few of Trump’s abuses and how they might worsen in a second term.
First – abuse of the pardon power
On July 10, 2020, Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime associate Roger Stone. As Stone’s own communications showed, he had acted as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016. Had Stone cooperated with federal investigators, the revelations might have been dangerous to Trump. Instead, Stone lied to Congress and threatened other witnesses. Just as Stone was supposed to go to prison, Trump commuted his sentence. Commutation was more useful to the cover-up than an outright pardon. A commuted person retains his Fifth Amendment right not to testify; a pardoned person loses that right.
Trump’s clemency reminds other guilty Trump associates like Paul Manafort and Ghislaine Maxwell of the benefits of staying silent. Consider that in a second-term Trump might demand that others break the law for him and then protect them when they are caught. He might pardon his relatives or even himself.
Second – abuse of government resources for personal gain
On August 28, 2020, after the president broke with precedent and violated ethical norms by accepting the Republican nomination on White House grounds. Aids reported that he enjoyed the fact that no one could stop him. In addition, no one has stopped Trump from: 1) directing taxpayer dollars to his personal businesses; 2) defying congressional subpoenas looking into whether he was violating tax and banking laws; 3) hiring and promoting his relatives; 4) using government resources for partisan purposes; 5) pressuring and cajoling foreign governments to help his reelection campaign; 6)using his power over the Postal Service to discourage voting that he thinks will hurt him; etc, etc, etc. And what of the institutions designed to stop this corruption?
Trump found it surprisingly easy to use the Justice Department as a shield against curtailment of his own wrongdoing. The Hatch Act forbids most uses of government resources for partisan purposes. By long-standing courtesy, however, enforcement of that law against senior presidential appointees is left to the president. It’s just assumed that the president will want to comply. But what if he does not? The independent federal agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel, has found nine senior Trump aides in violation of the law, and has recommended that Trump request their resignation. He has ignored that recommendation.
Or consider Trump’s purging of the inspectors general from Cabinet departments and punishment of whistleblowers.
In a second Trump term, the administration would operate ever more opaquely to cover up corruption and breaches in national security. The Justice Department would be debauched ever more radically, becoming Trump’s own law firm and spending taxpayer dollars to defend him against the consequences of his personal wrongdoing. The hyper-politicization of the Justice and Homeland Security Departments would spread to other agencies.
Third – directing public funds to himself and his companies
No president before Trump directed public dollars to his own companies. Congress never outlawed such activity because they didn’t assume it would happen or that if it did the political system would police wrongdoing. But Trump
steals in plain view. He accepts bribes in a hotel located smack in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. His supporters do not object. His party in Congress is acquiescent. This level of corruption in American life is unprecedented. Trump has actually pocketed more from the Republican Party than he has from the U.S. Treasury—money you would imagine that Republicans donated to elect other Republicans and enact their favored policies, not to enrich Trump—yet the party and its candidates continue to book event after event at Trump properties, proving loyalty by allowing themselves to be pillaged. A willingness to line the Trump family’s pockets has become a mark of obeisance and identity…
The result of this Republican complicity in Trump’s personal corruption has been the Congress refuses to act even when corruption is disclosed. “In the past, a subpoena from Congress was a subpoena from Congress; all of its members shared an interest in seeing it obeyed.” But now “Republicans in the House cheerfully support Trump when he defies subpoenas from Democratic chairs…”
Trump has a lot to hide, both as president and as a businessman. The price of his political and economic survival has been the destruction of oversight by Congress and the discrediting of honest reporting by responsible media. In a second Trump term, radical gerrymandering and ever more extreme voter suppression by Republican governors would become the party’s only path to survival in a country where a majority of the electorate strongly opposes Trump and his party. The GOP would complete its transformation into an avowedly antidemocratic party.
Fourth – inciting political violence
Frum argues that,
Trump has used violence as a political resource … But as his reelection prospects have dimmed in 2020, political violence has become central to Trump’s message. He wants more of it. After video circulated that appeared to show Kyle Rittenhouse shooting and killing two people and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, Trump liked a tweet declaring that “Kyle Rittenhouse is a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox & Friends on August 27. Two nights later, a 600-vehicle caravan of Trump supporters headed into downtown Portland, Oregon, firing paintball guns and pepper spray, driving toward a confrontation during which one of them was shot dead.
The people whose job it is to regulate political violence are local police, but Trump has urged them to be as tough as needed and that he has their back no matter how “tough” they have to be or civil rights they violate. Of course, Trump’s appeal is founded on racial resentment that has “stimulated white racist terrorism in the United States and the world, from the New Zealand mosque slaughter (whose perpetrator invoked Trump) to the Pittsburgh synagogue murders to mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California. In recent weeks, political violence has caused those deaths in Kenosha and Portland. A second Trump term will only incite more such horror.”
So the man the Founders dreaded became the President and abused the office as they feared he would. His strategy is to use the Electoral College to be reelected against the opposition of the majority of the people. If he can scare enough white people to vote for him, if he can convince them that he is the leader of the people and that those who think differently don’t count as legitimate citizens, then he may succeed.
As Frum concludes,
Yet that does not mean the authoritarian populist respects his followers. He is exploiting their prejudices for his own benefit, not theirs. Trump uses power to enrich himself and weaken any institution of law or ethics that gets in the way of his self-enrichment. He holds power by inflaming resentments and hatreds. A second term will mean more stealing, more institution-wrecking, more incitement of bigotry.
Voters in 2020 will go to the polls in the midst of a terrible economic recession, with millions out of work because of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. But the country is facing a democratic recession too, a from-the-top squeeze on the freedom of ordinary people to influence their government. Will the president follow laws or ignore them? Will public money be used for public purposes—or be redirected to profit Trump and his cronies? Will elections be run fairly—or be manipulated by the president’s party to prevent opposing votes from being cast and counted? Will majority rule remain the American way? Or will minority rule become not a freak event but an enduring habit? These questions are on the ballot as Americans go into the voting booth.
This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Last Exit.”