A brief response to Kevin Drum: Did Donald Trump just cross the Rubicon?

With respect, I do not think that Kevin Drum fully appreciates the significance of Trump’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.  When he says that “this letter was plainly not written with legal arguments in mind. No lawyer would do anything but laugh at it” he misunderstands both the provenance of the arguments made in the letter and their likely appeal to the five Republican Party zealots who are currently in control of the Supreme Court.

Trump’s lawyers are making arguments that are essentially the same as those made in the OLC memos and in other legal memos and briefs written during the GW Bush administration revolving abound theories of the unitary executive.    As I understand the OLC and Bush era memos, the president is the living, breathing heart of the country in much the same way that the person of an absolute monarch is entwined with the very essence of the nation. That is what I think Louis XIV meant when he said « l’état, c’est moi » (I am the state).

What I think both Trump’s lawyers and the lawyers who wrote the OLC memos are saying, in essence, is that, by convention, this country chooses a new ruler every four years. But once that ruler has ascended to the presidency, he becomes the state in much the same way that Louis XIV was the state and his power transcends everything.  The president enjoys sovereign immunity and he enjoys it absolutely. The president cannot be investigated, cannot be prosecuted, cannot be forced to use the power of the state to harm himself in any way because he and the nation are perfectly entwined.  The person of the president and the existence of the nation are one. This is the concept of the inviolability of the monarch’s person that I wrote about earlier.

These are not arguments with which I agree but there are many in the hard right with quite respectable legal and philosophical credentials who believe that this is the logical and inevitable resting place of all presidential systems. My assumption is that all of the Republicans in the senate and the five party members on the Supreme Court will grumble a bit but Republican Party’s will to power is such that they’re ultimately going to accept these legal theories as legitimate and correct even though they are obviously and utterly inconsistent with the principles upon which our republic was founded and hundreds of years of Supreme Court decisions. The norm of “checks and balances” is simply destroyed.  The president is now the proprietor of an administrative state which is equated with the person of the monarch.  What Congress gets from this point in the future is thanks to “la grâce de roi” and not because it is a co-equal branch of government.

Essentially, I think that simply by declaring that he is above the law and won’t cooperate with Congress except as it pleases him, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have just crossed the Rubicon. There’s no way to stop them. All we can do at this point is wait and see whether President for life Donald will rule with an iron fist or with an iron fist in a velvet glove. With any luck, it’s still possible that the chaos Trump leaves in his wake will make it impossible for the Republican Party to consolidate its power and continue the shift towards kleptocracy.  This is an important point being made by Paul Krugman but, nevertheless, it’s a very slim threat on which the fate of our republic is hanging.

But as Julius Caesar said as he crossed the Rubicon: “alea iacta est” (the die is cast).

It can happen here.

“A favorite theory of mine [is] that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often”

Mark Twain

Certainly, the MAGA bomber, the massacre in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the increase in the total number of hate crimes were not Kristallnacht.   But I fear that the writing is on the wall. The echoes are still very weak and still quite distant, but if you listen carefully, the sound that is coming ever closer is so familiar that there is no doubt about it. Kristallnacht is coming.

Impossible here? Maybe in 2020 Trump is going to win a huge victory but then, of course, he’s going to be free from the constraints of the law, in which case I’m sure he’s going to change American society in the same way that Putin has turned Russia into an authoritarian regime. The money, the power, the lack of prosecution for his crimes will be a huge temptation for Trump. If he wins, he will be unrestrained.  So even if he wins, we lose.

What if he loses?  My belief is that he will make a coup d’état. We’re probably going to have a double whammy; massive pogroms and the end of our republican form of government.  Trump and the Republicans will cry that the election was stolen. And this will whip the base of the deplorable party in a violent frenzy.  There will be violent pogroms. And the authorities in Republican-controlled places will be told to allow the MAGA thugs to carry out these pogroms without interference, just as was the case with Kristallnacht. And he and his party will use these pogroms to pressure everyone else to buy peace by allowing him to stay in power.

As Yogi Berra once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” The question is whether the violence we’ve seen is the work of a scattering of isolated nutters or a harbinger of things to come. My guess is more the latter and less of the former. And when it comes, it will be more than the Jews, it will be everyone else. They will spill as much blood as it takes to keep their power; rivers of blood if that’s what it takes. I assure you that Trump and the Republicans will not be going gently into that good night.

It can happen here.  It’s starting here in a way very similar to the fall of the Weimer Republic. It will be different this time, of course. It’s different every time and yet always the same. An American version instead of a German version. Thugs with a red “MAGA” hat instead of thugs with brown shirts. But they are really the same people. They are always the same people. Maybe the Trump victims will be Mexicans and Jews, or maybe Asians or Arabs as well. But it will be bad, and what we’ve seen in recent months certainly bodes ill. It can always get worse and it probably will.

Of course, there are critical differences – mainly, that the various bombers, killers and MAGA criminals of recent months did not benefit from the impunity of those who executed the pogrom of Kristallnacht.  So that is something to watch for as an important indicator of what is to come. We must not ignore this important, but perhaps transitory, difference between today’s America and the end of Weimer, but nevertheless, the similarity is chilling.  The guardians of civil society resemble the little boy who has his finger in the dike and who holds back the sea. But for how much longer? My fear is that to wait and see what Trump and the Republicans are going to do and whether they’re going to give a semi-official green light to their “Bully Boys” is leaving it too late.  Remember, things deteriorated very quickly after the Kristallnacht. The result is will be the same if Trump and the Republican decide to end the republic after the 2020 election.

Trump will do everything to keep power. And stay out of jail too; remember that he was not simply involved in money laundering and various frauds like Trump University; he almost certainly committed serious crimes in during the 2016 presidential election.  As I suggested above, it’s a good bet that Trump will not be willing to leave office after the 2020 election if the incoming president is a Democrat. And so, the metaphor that might apply is that Republicans are like Caesar’s armies, camped along the banks of the Rubicon, waiting to choose between him and Rome.

For Caesar, a normal and not particularly evil man, crossing the Rubicon was perhaps a difficult choice. One could argue that there were larger issues involved, that it wasn’t purely self over country, since the Populares had legitimate and serious differences with the oligarchs who ruled the Roman Republic. But for a diabolical narcissist like Trump, the time is always right to put his personal interests over those of his country.  For Trump, patriotism is for losers. I think Trump and the Republican party will never accept a defeat in the 2020 election.  They would see the country burn first.  If you think I’m histrionic, I strongly recommend this analysis by Professor Tom Pepinsky, a recognized expert on authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps at the end of Weimar or the fall of the Roman Republic? Maybe politics as usual?  Who knows?  What I do know is that there is still something in the air. A tension, a hint that this can happen here. I am more concerned about the future of my country than ever before.

I think the Republicans are already camped alongside the river and ready to cross the Rubicon–I don’t know if they’re going to cross the Rubicon if they lose, maybe they won’t, but I’m wondering if there were people sitting around the breakfast table in 1933 having this conversation. And then, too, I wonder if Mark Twain is right that history repeats itself and we are doomed to share their fate.

A Reply to Josh Marshall: America must never wage a war without mercy

مجزرة حماه - Hama Massacre
The aftermath of the 1982 Hama Massacre in Hama, Syria. (Freedom House/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I was disappointed with Josh Marshall’s proposal to make Assad the winner of the Syrian Civil War. I understand it was meant to be something of a “realpolitik” approach but it looked to me like the attacks in Paris have made him think about spending some quality time on the Dark Side with Darth Cheney. It isn’t a very well thought out idea and he seems to be foolishly assuming that there are no consequences that would follow from the United States taking action to bring about the Assad Family’s victory.

To begin with, the whole idea struck me as revolting; a sort of reverse trolley problem in which Josh Marshall decided that it was the right choice that ten thousand innocent muslims should die rather than one innocent European or American. I don’t that’s the right choice for us as a people. We went down that road after September 11th and look at our public discourse now.

The moral issues notwithstanding, there are also problems that make this a very poor idea from a “realpolitik” perspective. To begin with, here is my assumption about what happens if we make Assad the winner. The losing side of this civil war is going to be in for decades of truly horrific, unspeakable reprisals. Even if that is acceptable to us, the rest of the Islamic world is going to horrified at what they see our client doing to their coreligionists.

If you Google “Hama Rules” you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. We’re talking about whole families being slaughtered in the most graphic, nightmarish ways possible. The Assad Family has done things to political opponents that I wouldn’t even be willing to put on my blog. Just reading about it gives me nightmares. The fact that Assad himself is a Muslim isn’t going to matter nearly as much as his being the client of the Americans and Europeans.

Marsall’s proposal also doesn’t say what happens to the millions of refugees who have already fled. Will they be sent back to be massacred? Will they be resettled in a Europe that backed the man who has slaughtered their families and will soon be pleasuring himself with a truly epic bloodletting of everyone in their extended families who couldn’t make it out in time?

And, of course, the moment it becomes clear that the Americans have chosen Assad as their champion, the trickle of refugees will become a raging river. That isn’t a problem for Americans since it’s clear that as a people we’d rather see them all dead then let a single Muslim child find refuge here but it will be a very tricky situation for the Europeans.

If, as Art Goldhammer says, “the question of political Islam has become for the twenty-first century what Sartre said Marxism was for the twentieth: the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of our time,” the betrayal of millions of helpless people and the horrific reprisals by our client will be a radicalizing event like nothing else could ever be. The ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda practically writes itself. And it will strongly resonate throughout Sunni Islam.

Once Assad becomes our client, Syrian refugees will become both pitiful and very, very dangerous. And if they aren’t today, they soon will be. The millions of Sunni Muslims in Western countries around the world will know that we’ve sided against them and will reason, correctly, that their position in the West is precarious with predictably disastrous consequences.

There are five million Muslims in France alone. Tens of millions in Europe as a whole. As Arun Kapil has written:

The Islamic State, telling Muslims in the West that, in effect, they must either adhere to the IS and its conception of Islam or ‘apostatize’ and adopt the ‘kufri’ (infidel) religion of the West. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the ‘kuffars.’ As they say, it’s a no brainer.

As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.

I think Arun is basically right about the implications of the attacks for Muslims. He’s right, too, about the opportunities we have right now for making a billion Muslims allies in the fight against Islamism. We need to dampen down the idiots in the Republican Party talking trash and trying to bring about a clash of civilizations. But, equally, if making Assad the winner results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Sunnis, the choice for the billion Muslims on the planet will still be a “no brainer” but not in the way that Arun thinks.

There’s also the practical problem of clientism that has basically wreaked so many American foreign adventures. The problem was particularly on display in an Afghanistan where every effort by the US to build a civil society was undercut by the corruption of our client, his family and followers. As seems to be customary with these adventures, the blood and treasure spent to build a country found its way into the bank accounts that we allow our clients and their families to keep in London, New York and Dubai.

Similarly, in Iraq, because keeping our clients happy became the most important thing, we had no way to stop the disintegration of the nascent Iraqi state and its decent into yet another civil war. The Iraqi Army didn’t survive it first encounter with ISIS because they really didn’t care. It was our money, not theirs that paid for the weapons they threw away and there’s always more where that came from. And, by and large, it seems most joined the army as a form of patronage rather than out of a desire to defend Iraq.

Think about what happens to the war against ISIS if Assad becomes our client: What incentive will Assad have to actually defeat ISIS or even to weaken it to the point where it can no longer mount terrorist operations against the West? None. After all, if Josh Marshall’s proposal is acted upon, the attacks of November 13th will have been the best thing to ever happen to Assad. Every further attack would almost certainly bring him vast increases in wealth and power; why should wage real war against ISIS when phony war pays better and we’re committed to keeping him in power no matter what?

Also, whether it was a throw away line to mollify “non-realists” like me, surely Marshall’s saying up front that we can always get rid of Assad once he has done our bidding gives Assad a powerful incentive to favor a perpetual phony war against ISIS over victory that would be his death warrant?

This is a terrible idea. If we make Assad the winner in the Syrian Civil War, we will lose our souls and gain nothing.