by Joe Cirincione
There is a growing concern that Donald Trump is wrecking the core instruments of domestic tranquility and global security. “I don’t think we are fully grappling with the possibility that we could be on the cusp of a completely new era, a fundamental reshaping of the international order,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote in a Twitter thread July 9, “And I don’t mean over the course of the Trump Administration. I mean by next week.”
Shapiro sounded one of many alarms over the past few weeks that the presidency of Donald Trump, whether by pathology or plan, is pushing American democracy and national security over the edge. Can America survive four years of Trump? Can it survive eight?
I did a deep dive on this issue with David Rothkopf on his thoughtful podcast, Deep State Radio, early this month. Three of the regulars on the show, Rothkopf, Kori Schake, and Rosa Brooks, let me join them for the afternoon. I am not sure that was a favor. It was a dark, dystopian vision we conjured up in the steamy “third sub-basement of the Ministry of Snark,” as they call their studio.
Unravelling the International System
Rothkopf set the stage:
Back when America led the world, there was an international system with mutual respect from both parties in the United States. We built it to institutionalize our ideas, so that they would endure from leader to leader, regime to regime around the world. There would be some permanence to this structure which we felt was so important to global stability.
Those days are gone, he says:
We’ve discovered that what we thought was permanent is not only so much less permanent than we thought, but that things can change on a dime, and that there is a surprising fragility to it. Much of this was in the United States: Donald Trump pulling out of trade agreements, moving from the free-trade stance that’s been the U.S. policy since the 1930s to a protectionist, nationalist stance. Turning on NATO, embracing Russia, turning on democracy, embracing dictators, pulling out of UN organizations. All of this has happened in 18 months.
We agreed that there were no foregone conclusions with elections, that Trump could prevail in voting contests this year and in 2020. What would six-and-a-half more years of Trump mean for democratic institutions, for U.S. global alliances, and for the future of the world? If Republicans retain control of the House and Senate in the November elections, would Trump interpret that as a mandate? “Trump’s going to get a message that everything he’s doing is great. That he has plenty of support,” says Rothkopf. “That he should keep doing what he’s doing. That separating families is good. That attacking NATO is good, that embracing Russia is good, that lying to the American people is good, that ethics don’t matter and international institutions don’t matter. And he could keep doing it.”
Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London, warns that after six-and-a-half more years of Trump the international order would be so badly damaged that “it would take at least a generation to restore confidence in the US.”
She lists the key areas of institutional destruction:
- Our security guarantees will have collapsed with concomitant accelerations of nuclear weapons proliferation and regional wars.
- Countries that formerly were American treaty allies will be desperately trying to band together in the hope that middle powers can be strong enough to sustain the liberal order.
- America’s friends will be passing legislation and creating payment mechanisms to skirt the dollar zone, which Europeans have contemplated after the American violation of the Iran nuclear agreement.
- Countries that are on Russia’s periphery will be a lot more fearful, exposed, and vulnerable, which could force them to make bad security and domestic political choices.
- China could take possession of the entire South China Sea and force the smaller countries on its periphery into the same kind of trap that Russia has created for countries on its periphery.
- The collapse of North America as a platform for trade, commerce, mutual investment, mutually beneficial immigration, and amity.
“Is that enough?” she asks.
The Darker Scenarios
Well, no. It could be worse. The United States could easily be drawn into military conflicts with Iran or North Korea or see the first use of nuclear weapons in 73 years.
Trump’s foolish abandonment of the agreement with Iran—the strongest anti-nuclear agreement negotiated since the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 50 years ago—raises the real possibility that hot conflicts in the Middle East could escalate to a third major war. The administration’s incoherent diplomacy with North Korea could collapse, risking a return to the nuclear saber-rattling of the the first year of the administration and the sundering of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. A new nuclear arms race has broken out, with every nuclear-armed nation building new nuclear weapons and no U.S. plan on how to stop this dangerous escalation.
An Iran War would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like warm-up acts. The destruction from a Korean War or a nuclear war would dwarf any combat the world has seen since the end of World War II.
Schake and I agreed that one of the core instruments of American democracy might be on the verge of self-destruction: the Republican Party. The kowtowing of the party’s leadership to Trump’s bizarre behavior reached a new low on July 12 when House members staged a 10-hour attack on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its inquiry into Russian interference in America’s elections. The Republicans have gone beyond the Paul Ryan strategy of ignoring Trump’s corruption, abuse, and incompetence in order to get tax cuts, an increase in military contracts, and cuts in social programs, environmental protections, and workers’ rights. Once Trump passes from the stage, they may believe that they can get back to normal. But their embrace of the worst of his racism, misogyny, isolationism, and support of dictators represents a Trumpian takeover the party may not survive.
“I think we are moving steadily in the direction of Putin’s Russia, [becoming] more of a corrupt thugocracy, and people like us may very well be fine,” said Georgetown University law professor and former defense official Rosa Brooks on the show. “There are plenty of rich, fat, happy Russians under Putin who have sold out on whatever principles they had.”
Brooks was blunt:
This is the question of the next few years, whether America is in fact a democracy anymore, in any meaningful sense. We’ve had two recent elections where the winner of the popular vote did not assume the presidency. We have a system that initially by constitutional design overprivileged sparsely populated rural states relative to the urban areas where most Americans now live. We have parties which colluded in gerrymandering electoral districts to dilute the voting power of many Americans. We already have a system in which the will of the people, such as it is, is consistently not reflected in electoral outcomes. All of the signs point to that getting worse.
There is a war going on that is not, by and large, a war of bombs and guns. [It] is a war for the future of America’s democratic institutions. And if we lose that war, which we may very well, then we go in the direction of Putin’s Russia. I think we have seen on almost every front a steady weakening of the kinds of institutions that had some ability to be counterbalances to pure kleptocracy at the top.
All this would be done, Rothkopf points out, with the likely addition of not just one new hard-right Supreme Court justice but likely three, for a 7-2 majority that would last for a generation or more.
There is one final dystrumpian possibility: What will Donald Trump do if he loses the 2020 election? If that happens, he will face the real possibility of indictments, lawsuits, and the implosion of his family fortune and business without any of the protections and powers the presidency conveys. Would he go quietly into the night? Would he accept the results of the vote?
Trump laid the groundwork for disputing the results of the vote in the 2016 campaign, claiming it was rigged. He doubled down after his popular vote loss and Electoral College win, claiming that he actually won the popular vote (minus the three million votes he said were cast illegally). It is not hard to imagine Sarah Huckabee Sanders or her replacement coming to the podium at the White House on November 4, 2020 to announce that the president is deeply concerned by the rampant fraud in the just-concluded election, that he believes the American people have been robbed of their democratic rights to a fair election, and that he is working with Congress to reject the results and arrange for electoral reforms and new elections as soon as feasible. Is there any reason to believe that the Republican Party would not back him?
Is this possibility too grim to be imagined? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reminds us in her new book, Fascism: A Warning, that most fascist regimes were elected:
We have reason to be concerned by the gathering array of political and social currents buffeting us today. Currents provided by the dark underside of the technological revolution, the corroding effects of power, the American president’s disrespect for truth, and the widening acceptance of dehumanizing insults, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as being within the bounds of normal public debate.
She does not call Trump a fascist, but she is deeply worried by his direction. “We are not there yet, but these feel like signposts on the road back to an era when Fascism found nourishment and individual tragedies were multiplied millions-fold.”
The dystopia Trump is creating is real, is growing, and is supported by at least one-third of the American populace. Understanding how bad this dystrumpia could get is the first step to stopping it.
Joe Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.