Thinking the unthinkable

If the last five years have taught us anything it’s this: the fact that something being unimaginable doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. So, it’s worth considering the prospect that Donald Trump becomes President after the 2024 election whether by getting enough votes to win the Electoral College under the current rules, or by having a Democratic victory overturned. Trump has made it clear that, in such an event, he would wish to secure at least a third term in office and perhaps a life presidency.

Even if Trump chose not to attempt the necessary constitutional change, by 2028 he would be in a position to nominate a family member as the Republican candidate and to ensure that his candidate was declared President regardless of how Americans voted. After that, the Trumps would have effectively untrammeled power, with a compliant Congressional majority and a far-right Supreme Court. There’s no obvious reason why they couldn’t rule for decades as Putin and others have done.

What would life be like in the US and elsewhere in such a case? I’ve tried to think about the political options for resistance, both through electoral politics and through direct action, and concluded that there is no obvious prospect of success. So, I think of something like the US South before and during the Civil Rights struggle, with one-party government and resistance suppressed by extra-legal violence.

The big difference is that, unlike in the Civil Rights era, there will be no federal government to step in and change things. And emigration won’t be a serious option for most.

Maybe life would continue more or less as normal, particularly in cities and in Democratic states, assuming that state-level democracy survived. Or maybe things would get a lot worse. The literature of dystopia (1984, The Man in the High Castle, The Handmaids Tale) offers one way of thinking about life in such a world. Less dramatically, we could look at Russia and Hungary as possible models – certainly the Republicans are doing so.

At the global level, what’s left of the post-Cold War global order would be replaced by a system of competing, or co-operating, autocracies. The remaining democracies, like Australia and the EU would need to keep their heads down and avoid attracting too much attention.

I don’t want to spend too much time discuss the plausibility of this scenario. What I want to do is to imagine what life would be like for people in the US and elsewhere in the event of a Trump Presidency for Life or hereditary rulership, and what, if any, responses would be possible.

14 thoughts on “Thinking the unthinkable

  1. Trump probably does not have the energy to maintain such a autocratic system for life, which in any case can’t be too long anymore. But a Trumpkin like a Josh Hawley or even a Marjorie Taylor-Greene could well do so, if the Jewish space lasers don’t get them first.

    I think the more frightening prospect is that the Republicans may not even need to do that though. The party could choose to simply rule through a permanent judicial majority backed by an obstructionist Senate. If the Democrats win an election, you just stop them doing anything with the fillibuster and the natural gerrymander, legislate from the bench, and then run against them blaming them for your legislation until they lose. And then you do as you like when you win and all that was unconstitutional becomes constitutional. Why even bother with a formal autocracy?

  2. > with a compliant Congressional majority

    It might be interesting to explore what happens if all the scenarios of your post hold true except this one – say there is initial success in setting desired presidential election outcomes but not for all the congressional outcomes at the same time. What could a Democratic congress do – refuse to pass appropriations, extended and extensive shut down of the federal government. I know that in previous weeks long shutdowns under Clinton, Obama, Trump that military, fed law enforcement and ‘essential’ work remained operational, but whether that was through effectively gentlemen’s agreements or constitutional requirements I don’t know. A life President might find a Dem congress unwilling to engage in the niceties of continuing to pay his federal law enforcers.

  3. Idle speculation and ultimately pointless because of all the known and unknown unknowns. It’s almost inevitable violent political protests and counter-protests would increase, requiring law enforcement agencies to resort to increasingly oppressive measures. Some Democratic states like California and New York might simply adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the federal government and defy them to do something about it. Would institutions like the universities and public service tamely submit, or lead a program of civil disobedience? Would Trump press the military into domestic law enforcement, accelerating the violence?

    Another factor to consider is that Trump is an idiot, and surrounds himself with extremists and other idiots. He is incapable of loyalty to any subordinates outside his family and long-time New York associates. It’s inconceivable that he could change now, and put together a capable, united team of executives. His efforts to circumvent the constitution would therefore almost certainly be clumsy and inept, and his administration as incompetent as it proved faced with the pandemic. Even mainstream Republicans would stop supporting a government that stumbled into national security crises, or dithered helplessly in the face of runaway inflation or massive natural disasters.

    In short, I expect an administration such as the one you describe would be far from permanent, probably falling apart as soon as Trump himself died. it’s more likely that conservative white Americans will try to remain in power using increasingly undemocratic means at both state and federal level, but impossible to do anything but guess at how that would play out over decades. It’s very hard to see such a vast, diverse nation becoming another Singapore, let alone Hungary.

  4. Team Trump has been working on those never Trump republicans that still exist, one by one they are back flipping, resigning, not standing or just disappearing. He will soon own the Republican Party and by extension the SC.

    All the rumours of Trump’s demise post election have withered on the vine

    Power in the US is illusory, if you are small you will be crushed but if you are a ceo, accommodated will be made for you.

    JQs hypothesis is only as ridiculous as the one when Trump would be made President.

  5. Under such a regime with such a future there would be no Biden approved nukes for Australia for yet many more extra decades. It’s hard to say if there would be more pressure for Australia to be front line US cannon fodder though. Indeed, could there be more pressure than now?

    Australia will be toast by then in any case – with most of the population having fled the continent – but it may have become fully incorporated into the imperium as the US federated state of Orstria, or, more likely, fully pwned like sad Puerto Rico yet with the distinction, unlike the other four sad unincorporated US territories, of being able to vote for Trump and nothing else. What’s NZ gonna do?

  6. “I’ve tried to think about the political options for resistance, both through electoral politics and through direct action, and concluded that there is no obvious prospect of success.” With an estimated 393 million guns in civilian hands in the USA, tyrannicide will look attractive to somebody. The majority of these weapons are in the hands of Trump supporters, but a significant proportion are not. Add to the risk that American laws allow wide access to military-type semi-automatic and sniper rifles, while the country´s large military establishment and neocolonial wars have left it with a large pool of trained veterans. IIRC incendiary and armour-piercing ammunition is illegal but the truly committed can make decent substitutes at home.

    I am not proposing such action, only noting that it is a likely scenario. History suggests that the persons of tyrants are pretty vulnerable absent a comprehensive Chekist police state, which is unlikely in the USA. The problem is that killing the tyrant, Caesar, dictator, Tsar, king, Caliph, Sultan or President-for-life rarely leads to regime change. the successor is a man (very, very rarely a woman) of the same type. Modern surveillance technology would make it very difficult or impossible to create a resistance movement capable of planning a counter-revolution.

  7. First, he´s too old. Not that this will stop someone younger. Even almost coup like takeovers by the children are not unheard off in far right parties, see France. So off we go what if it happens. I´m actually sort of optimistic, the US is far less dysfunctional than Russia, so we would in all likelyhood see a return to dysfunctional democracy the way it is now within a short timeframe possibly with more voter supression. Likely with amnesty and no punishment for most involved in the old regime.
    Let´s see what happens in Austria as a case study for previously more functional democracies. There we got a very young now ex president, still de facto leader of the government. Curiously, he´s not even originating from the far right party, but from the christian democrats, which he completly rebranded as his party.

  8. Trump as a politician has always been a corporate puppet, a useful idiot for right wing billionaires and actual/aspiring crony capitalists. So Trump’s dictatorship would be constrained by the need to keep consumers consuming and tax revenue following. Life would change drastically for a few – intellectuals, activists, etc – but only slightly for many. There wouldn’t be a collapse of living standards, just the same gradual denigration that US (and Australian) citizens have accepted for years, albeit at a faster rate.

    Racial tensions would flare, but mostly only to the point they were useful for making middle America feel scared. The sense for most Americans would be of fighting a war which they were mostly winning, even as they lost battles they weren’t even aware of.

    Life for the active left and for racial minorities who couldn’t afford to move to safe cities would be torrid, but the Trumpian ideal is subjecting people to unpredictable, occasional harassment, not systematic brutality.

    Economically, the waste would be extraordinary. The whole of government would be run like the defence department now, with billions spent on schemes that went nowhere and increasing spending with no improved results – all to funnel money to supporters, allies and family members.

    I don’t think it’s realistic. It’s like asking a brain surgeon just how intelligent you might become if this brain tumour keeps growing. Trump is dominating the Republican Party because it is so morally and ideologically bereft that no one has any grounds to resist him, but when he loses again, by much more, the whole thing will collapse.

  9. My guess is that he’ll bypass the need for a Constitutional amendment by saying “Well, I won in 2016, I won in 2020, and I won in 2024, so that’s three wins. The amendment doesn’t apply.”

  10. The collapse of living standards in the UK — a result of their struggle to obtain a collapse in living standards — does not bode well for the future of the US.

  11. Let´s see what happens in Austria as a case study for previously more functional democracies. There we got a very young now ex president, still de facto leader of the government.

    By ‘president’ you mean ‘chancellor’?

  12. I fear we may live to regret cancelling the French submarine contract, and going out of our way to annoy the Chinese. A Trump-led US scares me a lot more than China.

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