On this Independence Day, I am nervous about democracy.
Not so much about Donald Trump, per se. I think the country’s democratic immune system has responded fairly effectively to the introduction of one kind of non-democratic invader. It’s containing the damage. But at a cost.
My larger fear is what comes next, that the country may be weakened and not prepared for this next challenge to the Republic. This is how I imagine it happening.
It’s mid-2018. This is a horrible thought, but imagine that little has changed in the past year—the same divisive hyperpartisanship, the same unstable guy in the White House. Congress has done nothing substantive except rip at the ankles of democracy. We’ve had about 300 social media crises.
And then we have a real one. North Korea fires a missile that lands where people live. Russia sends tanks into several Soviet-era satellites. You get the idea.
And a funny thing happens. The President doesn’t take to Twitter. Instead, social media and cable news go absolutely crazy, without the President’s participation. So many nutty thoughts you don’t know what’s going on! Nobody in the country, apparently, knows how to spell coup d’etat.
Then, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mathis appear on every TV channel (they even stream it on Netflix and Amazon Prime to reach millennials) with a real, live, on-the-record press conference. Mathis steps to the microphone with McMaster behind him and to the side. He says something like this.
“Earlier today, Gen. McMaster and I did something extraordinary in the life of our nation. We went to President Trump and told him we were removing him from the active execution of his duties as President. We took away his phone, and he was flown from the White House to Camp David, where he is resting comfortably with his wife, children and advisors. No one has been hurt. No one will be hurt.
“We then called a joint session of Congress and dissolved both groups. Nobody was arrested, every member was allowed to walk out of that meeting. Check your social media; we’re sure they are screaming to high heaven.
“We teleconferenced with the Supreme Court and advised the justices that their duties have been temporarily suspended. We have advised the rest of President Trump’s Cabinet of the situation and asked that they stay on. Same with governors, the Coast Guard, your local elected dog catcher.
“As I said, this is extraordinary. And temporary. But in a situation where the nation’s interests are so at risk, we cannot be as fractured and ineffective as this nation has been for the past two years. We are assuming a temporary command.
“We will do three things:
“Protect the nation from foreign threats, beginning with Russia/North Korea’s most recent aggressions.
“Provide for the general welfare.
“Ask states in time to send representative to draft a revision of the Constitution that will use extra-Constitutional means, in hopes to accomplish this re-set of the American government far more quickly and effectively than would be possible given the existing rules and environment.
“This is not being done lightly, nor permanently. Our intention is to return to ‘normal governing’ as soon as a process can be put in place that will return us to normal. That will take some time, but we ask that you bear with us. We pledge to keep you safe and return this great country of ours to a position it has sadly abdicated in this new century. We believe that America is a special place and that it can regain its special spot in history and in the world. But it will require a new way. We encourage you to join us in determining America’s new way.”
Mathis and McMaster would answer a few questions from the stunned reporters. Word would spread that former Gen. and CIA head David Petraeus had been asked to help in an as-yet-unannounced capacity. Then they’d get to winning a war and running a country.
This isn’t the part that scares me.
What scares me is that a) I think a majority of Americans would accept such startling news with an unexpected emotion—relief—and b) I don’t know that we’d ever return to our republican roots.
If this strikes you as preposterous, all I can say is, this graph (from Gallup, in 2016):
That was last year. This past year, if I had to guess, the confidence-losers have been: the police, the presidency, television news, Congress. I don’t think there have been any big winners. But I’d bet the military remains the most popular institution in the country.
I mean, today is Independence Day, which should be the policy wonk holiday to end all policy wonk holidays. A day ostensibly about the drafting and reading of a document.
And what do you see on social media? “Thanks to those who have fought to protect this country.” Wait, don’t we have other holidays to celebrate veterans’ service to the country?
In short, I think American democracy is not as important to American people as American projection of power and competence—this translates both in its relationships outside the country and how it treats its citizens. A military junta—one that was empire-focused and reality-friendly—could steer a course between the two parties. It might even move some policies (climate change, infrastructure, perhaps health care) faster and better than liberals or conservatives could, if only because the military wouldn’t be a political party and unbeholden to the extremes on either side.
And here’s an unsettling question: If a military junta delivered what appeared to be a functioning republic without, you know, the messy democratic parts, would people be in a hurry to complete the Constitutional re-set, or would that just get lost in the wash? I fear that the 21st Century American Experiment could take a very different turn.
I don’t think this path is likely, but I don’t think it’s a fever dream either. It’s possible that you don’t need to remove the President to accomplish something similar—instead, he becomes insulated, to an ever-greater degree, by “my generals”. And frankly, the way we’re living now is the fever dream, the simmering pot that has made the unthinkable thinkable. I certainly think we are closer today to a military takeover, hard or soft, than at any point in my lifetime, and my sense is that this may be the closest we’ve been in a very long time. Because, sadly, it makes a certain sense.