In the face of the forthcoming Trump administration, there is a lot of work to be done. Protecting people and necessary institutions who are vulnerable. Preparing to win Congressional and statehouse elections in 2018. Preparing to handle the worst if it comes. Watchdogging what is happening in our government.
But there is, unhappily, very little we can do about what the Federal government actually does until 2018 elections come around. Republicans hold both houses of Congress and have a grip on the Federal judiciary; Democratic Party leaders, activist organizations, and ordinary citizens will therefore have very little power to shape the course of the Executive Branch's actions.
This is terrifying because I see Trump leading a para-fascist movement which is sure to severely damage the Republic. There is a real chance that it will take us to an authoritarian dystopia. Watching helplessly for the next two years is a nightmare.
But. These next two years will not be a simple death spiral into an authoritarian takeover. The internal dynamics of what the Federal government will actually do are complex and impossible to predict. I see four key actors on stage who do not have a shared agenda.
- The Deep State
- Republicans in Congress
- Team Trump
- Trump himself
The Deep State
The Deep State is the network of Federal government functionaries (and connected powerful citizens) who run the country and give us the seemingly unshakable continuity between Presidential administrations which one might naïvely expect to differ more. It's the military brass and foreign policy advisors who maintain American global hegemony though military and trade power, the economists and bankers and regulators and titans of industry who shape economic policy, and so forth. It's easy to go Alex Jones Paranoid talking about the Deep State, but you don't have to. I am not talking about a tight-knit small cabal of sinister secret princes with a shared agenda. The Deep State is more a large collection of smart, motivated, sincere, and not-entirely-wrong people with shared inclinations but plenty of internal friction. They are very smart and powerful and very accustomed to bending new Presidential administrations to their will ... but this is not a normal administration. There's going to be a huge battle between the Trump administration and the Deep State, it's going to mostly happen invisibly under the waterline, and it's very hard to imagine how it's going to go.
Republicans in Congress
Powerful Republicans in Congress think it's Christmas, and they are largely right. Initially, Trump is going to be happy to rubber-stamp almost anything they send him ... so long as they commit themselves to loyalty to him. A lot of them are going to fall for the okeydoke; they're either too dumb to see what they're doing or too scared of losing Trump's base as voters to do otherwise. But Team Trump's agenda is not their agenda. It won't be long before we see friction between Trump's erratic and eccentric policy and the ideological movement conservatism of most Republican politicians, who will face some hard decisions. Do they betray the big donors to whom they have become beholden? Or Trump's base of voters? Do they push back against a White House gathering power at the expense of Congress? Or do they align with an administration that rewards loyalists and punishes individuals who show any signs of disloyalty?
The Trump administration is not just the man himself, it's the collection of Cabinet members, White House staffers, and other advisors (including Trump's family), many of whom are yet to be named. The crew we have seen so far are turning out to be an army of evil clowns. There are a lot of different flavors of crackpottery in there, and a lot of ambition. Vice President Pence wants to build the Christian Republic of Gilead. Chief Strategist Bannon wants to realize his vision of Twue Capitalism. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn wants a Forever War of the US military against Islam. Ivanka Trump wants to build the Trump corporate empire and her own brand. And so on. We can expect wild irresponsibility and crazy talk and crazier action on the regular from these guys. Will they turn into a circular firing squad of incompetence, or a powerful crackpot alliance? (Being a geek of a certain age, I cannot help but think of how the Legion Of Doom were never a threat to the Superfriends because they just couldn't get their acts together.) Will their squabbling for power in the administration undercut their effectiveness or produce weird fiefdoms in different domains? How will that interact with the Deep State? And what will hold them together? Usually in authoritarianism, there is either a tight-knit ruling junta or a dictator at the heart of it all, but instead here we have ....
Every evidence is that the Maximum Leader wants to reign rather than rule. This is one way in which Trump doesn't fit the usual authoritarian mold. Like Hitler or Franco or Stalin or Peron or Saddam Hussein, he cunningly gathers power and builds a personality cult ... but unlike those guys and others like them, he doesn't appear to be terribly interested in actually running the country. Given his narcissism, he's likely to intervene vigorously, erratically, and capriciously in policy, which is going to make a hash of how these other players try to interact with him.
It's going to be a strange, surprising, rocky ride.