Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

As President Trump’s poll numbers slip four months before the election, he and his frenzied staff have launched an end game of wild thrashing that could bring further damage to a country they pretend to love.

The closer defeat looms, the more desperate the death throes of a deranged administration. It lunges for levers of power and propaganda. It undermines institutions that stand above politics. It smears physicians who work for the public’s health. It attempts to conceal pandemic data, Soviet-style. It issues absurd decrees to local school boards to open in the fall or else. It dispatches unidentified federal forces to kidnap peaceful protesters. It flails out against measures to ease voting. And these are only the omens. A final spasm—if it is final—seems likely.

Insurgencies, dictatorships, and the like often tend toward untamed outrages as they are backed into a corner and face annihilation. Similar impulses appear ascendant in Trump’s criminal government, where the rule of law is a minor irritation and self-enrichment at taxpayers’ expense is routine. He has shed his White House of responsible advisers, replacing them with cruel dogmatists whose ideology of ignorance is a plague on the nation. It’s hard to see impediments to the abuses. Trump has no moral brakes. His values are those of a mafia boss who rewards and punishes those who protect or oppose him. Never in U.S. history has a president commuted the prison sentence of the chief witness against him, as Trump did for Roger Stone, who defied every legal requirement to testify on Russia’s alleged collaboration with the Trump 2016 election campaign. No “snitch” was Stone. His silence stymied Robert Mueller’s investigation and enabled Trump to crow, “Hoax!” The full truth may never be known.

Where are the Republicans who chant “law and order” when their party leader ignores the law and sows disorder? Where are the conservatives who don’t fight to conserve the American constitutional system that Trump and his accomplices try to shred? If there is a glaring lesson from the Trump era, it is how easily compromised are the nation’s founding principles, how deferent to autocratic aims are those who wear the camouflage of liberty: Congressional Republicans, right-wing broadcast personalities, self-righteous evangelicals, flinty citizens who make a show of individualism and resistance.

In Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, a state militia loyal to the eventual fascist president, Buzz Windrip, “considered him their general and their god.” The militia was a precursor to the Minute Men, his private troops in black capes or white or khaki shirts, who beat, arrested, and confined—and thereby purged books, manuscripts, and thinkers from the political landscape. In 2020 America, armed right-wing vigilantes have already attacked Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and have been encouraged by the Trump campaign to “monitor” polling places in November. The smell of political violence is in the air.

This fear could be overdrawn—let’s hope so. Trump’s incompetence as a manager might save us. But he has a zealous base and a compliant coterie of collaborators. Consider this passage from Lewis and its familiar ring, describing the fictional Windrip’s supporters before a rally in Madison Square Garden: “Eighth Avenue, lined with cheapjack shops, was packed with drab, discouraged people who yet, tonight, were tipsy with the hashish of hope. . . . they were people concerned with the tailor’s goose, the tray of potato salad, the card of hooks-and-eyes, the leech-like mortgage on the owner-driven taxi, with, at home, the baby’s diapers, the dull safety-razor blade, the awful rise in the cost of rump steak and kosher chicken. . . . Kind people, industrious people, generous to their aged, eager to find any desperate cure for the sickness of worry over losing the job. Most facile material for any rabble-rouser.”

Trump’s mental and emotional disabilities have infected many under him, and they in turn create a loop of reinforcement for his most destructive impulses. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos parrots his dangerous insistence that schools reopen entirely in the fall or risk losing federal funds. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf adopts a callous plan to deport international college students whose classes proceed online (before uproars and lawsuits force a reversal). He and Attorney General Bill Barr begin to mobilize elements of law enforcement for political ends, specifically to tout “law and order” in Portland, Oregon, where the U.S. Marshal’s Service has been deployed in violation of local officials’ demands to depart and halt their violent harassment and false arrests of demonstrators. It would be wise to see Portland as only the first stepping stone toward as much repression as this administration can muster in the coming months.

Pity Trump and the country he leads. Raised in a family rife with emotional abuse, as his niece Mary Trump has documented, he suffers from narcissism and a fragile ego that deliver him to an unending reliance on lies, conflict, and bullying. His obvious brain dysfunctions prevent him from processing information, reasoning logically, remembering what he said a minute earlier, and governing effectively. He cannot stand anyone smarter or more popular than him, so his economic adviser, Peter Navarro, and anonymous acolytes try to take down Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose credibility in polls far exceeds Trump’s.

The president of what is supposed to be the greatest country in all of human history cannot tell the difference between image and reality, or cares more about image than reality, as he orders a halt in reporting COVID-19 hospitalizations to the CDC and laments the increase in coronavirus testing because it makes the case numbers go higher. Is it possible that his mental defect means that he doesn’t realize that the actual incidence of infection is a fact independent of how many are detected by tests? Or is he just trying to fool his fellow Americans? And how many will be fooled? Or frightened?

We’ll find out in November.

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.