Letter 1: Trump, Trumpism, and the end of our world
My first letter to Michael Moynihan, in which I argue that we should be quite afraid
This is the first letter I’m writing as part of a new project–my attempt to have meaningful dialogue with people I don’t agree with. I’m writing it to Michael Moynihan, of Vice News and The Fifth Column podcast. The idea is for him to respond to this letter with his own, then I’ll write him back. Michael is a good starter disagreeer (sp?) for me, since I’ve known and liked him for a long time and agree with him on a lot.
I hope to write two letters each week to people I disagree with on crucial (or, sometimes, petty) issues. After several years of angry tweet storms, I am trying to re-learn how to have thoughtful, respectful, productive disagreements. Please share your thoughts on people I should write with and topics I should cover.
This disagreement is an odd one in that I hope you are right and I am wrong.
It’s also odd because we seem to agree on most of the basic facts.
The disagreement, I think, comes down to one simple question: how scared should we be about Trump, Trumpism, and this moment in American history?
My view: very, very scared.
Let me start with the areas I think we agree on before I walk through why I think the United States and, therefore, the world are in something like mortal danger.
Points of agreement (I think we agree on these, you should obviously correct or edit what I get wrong):
Trump sucks. In all the ways. He’s a uniquely awful human being. He was a uniquely awful president. With untrammeled power and a bit of competence, he’d destroy America and the world (we’ll get to the degree to which that power is or isn’t trammeled).
Trump’s most diehard supporters—the ones who either went to the Capitol on January 6th or wish they had—are somehow both risible and terrifying.
Most elected Republicans with real power despise Trump and can’t wait for him to go away.
Many Republican voters are not especially pro-Trump.
Many American institutions—especially many courts—have done a reasonably good job at preventing Trump’s worst excesses.
My sense is that you see Trump and his followers as a loud, unfortunate but not all that scary side-show. Soon enough, they will breathe their last. And America and the world will be just fine–or, at least, will plod along with the normal level of dysfunction. Folks like me, who see this period as terrifying and the future as potentially disastrous, are being hysterical and falling for a carny’s act. (Obviously, you will be much better at explaining your view and I can’t wait to read it.)
Just how scared should we be?
I think that it is reasonable—even required—for Americans to take the risk of Trump and Trumpism very seriously. There is a significant chance that America will become less democratic, less free, less stable, less prosperous, and more violent, with increasing state-sponsored or state-ignored murders, arbitrary arrests, and the rest of the authoritarian playbook. The chance of the worst happening is low, though I’d still place at above ten percent; but the chance of some elements of this scenario unfolding is 100 percent—because it already has. We have, in a short period of time, seen powerful people reject many of the core norms that have kept our society functioning.
I’d guess that many of the other disagreements you and I might have—over things like cancel culture, the role of the media, wokeism—probably stem, in part, from this one big question: are we headed towards horror? Or are we plodding along in the general direction of peaceful prosperity?
What am I so afraid of?
It has become hard to talk about the fear of Trumpism without reference to fascism, semi-fascism, or Nazism. I find this kind of decoder-ring history mostly unhelpful—pointing to one specific time or another and trying to figure out if now is exactly identical or entirely different. It’s easy to find clear parallels between the things Trump and his followers say and do with things that Hitler and Mussolini said or did. It’s also easy to point out differences.
I see it as obvious that Trump would like to be a lot like Mussolini and Hitler; Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Trump believes himself to be the embodiment of some ill-defined idea of American greatness and he becomes giddy when his followers use violence to crush those who don’t view him that way. I see no constraint within Trump or Trumpism; left to themselves, they would lead us to something like the authoritarianism, targeted murder, and mass deaths of Italy and then Germany, 1922 to 1945.
(I am curious: do you disagree? Do you see some self-restraint within the Trumpist movement that I don’t? Or do you believe that this argument is irrelevant because there are constraints outside of the movement that blunt their impulses?)
To my mind, the question is not, “Is America more or less precisely like Italy and Germany in the 1920s?” The question is more like, “Can we have confidence that formal and informal institutions in the United States are strong enough to resist a growing movement of Americans who openly call for and use violence and anti-democratic tools to suppress the will of the majority?”
I do find the violence shocking. I can’t dismiss the two, known attempted assassinations of Nancy Pelosi as merely the work of inept, nutjobs (inept nutjobs have played crucial roles in many of history’s worst moments). I was, like all of us, shocked by January 6th.
But my core fear doesn’t come from the current use of violence. My core fear is about our institutions. Are they strong enough to reign in these terrifying impulses?
When societies unravel, widespread violence is, often, the thing that comes last. It is the late-stage symptom of a crisis that might take decades to unfold. So, no, I’m not arming myself and getting my other out-of-shape 50-year-old journalist friends to run drills on my farm in Vermont. But that doesn’t mean I’m not truly afraid.
The single biggest influence on my thinking is the work of Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson and others in the “New Institutionalist” school of political economics. Their must-read books include Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor. (They, of course, bear no responsibility for the ways I am sure I am mangling their ideas.)
Put simply: peaceful, widely prosperous societies are rare and delicate things. They don’t come about because of a general feeling of goodwill or some emotional and intellectual maturation of the people involved. They come about through a balance of power. People with power, nearly everywhere and always, would prefer to use their power to benefit themselves and those close to them. But, from time to time, situations arise where they can’t do that. They are constrained by the interests of others and have to share their power. And, if things change, and the people who wield power are less constrained by the people over whom they rule, life can get very nasty for those being ruled. The entire society is far more prone to poverty, violence, revolution, collapse.
My reading of US history is that there has been a general movement—unsteady and far from perfect—towards greater representation, towards an increasing percentage of the general public being able to constrain those with power. In turn, the group of powerful people has expanded to include far more members of previously disempowered groups.
My fear is that 2020 represents an inflection point. We are on a new trend towards an extended period in which power is allocated by a smaller and smaller percentage of the country. Which means that power is increasingly decoupled from the general public.
You know the list: the electoral college, gerrymandering, primaries, and a muscular right-wing press have all led to a Republican Party that has more power than it would in a more representative system. And that party’s decision-makers are more extreme than the party’s membership as a whole.
One can argue that primaries have also disproportionately empowered progressives within the Democratic Party. But that fact is less relevant because Republicans have such an advantage in most state—and all national—elections; an advantage not because they are more popular but because our very weird systems including gerrymandering and the electoral college provide smaller groups of rural voters with far more power than their size justifies. A minority of a minority becomes more powerful than the majority. The people with power are still constrained, but by a tiny group that is entirely out of step with the country as a whole.
The electoral college, gerrymandering, and primaries have all been around for a long time. And they have always been a force against broader democracy. But they have been countermanded by other forces—most importantly, expanded voting—that have softened their impact. But the pro-democracy movement is floundering (until someone figures out how to get kids in their 20s to vote). And the older forces of generally pro-rural, anti-urban political machinations have become more significant and less checked.
What does that have to do with Trump?
Many of the things that worry me most have little to do with Trump and would exist if he had never been born or if Fred had been a more loving daddy and Donald was a kind, happy building manager in Jamaica Estates rather than this weaponized mass of congealed self-contempt. I generally believe that underlying forces are more important than singular figures.
Trump, by my way of thinking, is a symptom more than a cause. But he’s a pretty awful symptom. And he has served as an accelerant, pushing us further, faster, and with more damage than would have happened under, say, Jeb Bush or, even, Ted Cruz.
While the central forces may have degraded our institutions, I doubt they’d be in this sorry state without Trump.
But the Institutions!
Speaking of institutions, I’ve heard you speak about how impressed you are by their resilience. The military and the courts, in particular, have constrained Trump’s truly dangerous impulses. But institutions are not unchanging. They are just slower-changing. Today’s institutions represent the consensus of the powerful who represent the past couple generations. As the people with power, and their consensus, changes, the institutions change, too. They just tend to change more slowly than other parts of our system.
We are already seeing the Aileen Cannon- and Claremontization of our judiciary. When I and others speak of the possible end of democracy if Trump is reelected, that is our focus. I can barely imagine the idiocy of the judges that will be appointed; the embarrassing loyalty oaths that will be required to hold on to power in any of the branches of government.
“But they’re a bunch of yahoos”
I’ve heard you make the point that Trump’s core supporters are relatively small and, absent Trump, a low-status and weak bunch of idiots. And that most GOP electeds are just mouthing words to get votes while secretly hating Trump and Trumpism.
Maybe so. Though several powerful elites have openly embraced the guy, and far more seem fine with him and his worst impulses (even if he’s not their first choice).
But even if most Republicans secretly reject Trump and only play the sycophant on TV, I am still scared. Maybe more scared. This is further proof of how malleable and easily compromised our leaders and institutions have become. Donors, large corporations, and the rest of the Republican selectorate seem pretty cool with anti-democratic, racist policies if there’s a hint of tax cuts and more-favorable regulation.
If, as seems quite possible, a minority of voters elect Trump or a not-exactly-never-Trumper like DeSantis in 2024 and place the House and Senate in the hands of Republicans, what constraints will they feel? What would prevent them from doing precisely what they say they’ll do: remove “disloyal” civil servants and judges, replacing them with opportunistic toadies? Why would they not continue to pass ever more extreme laws and make rulings that represent the views of a tiny minority of Americans and transfer wealth to an even smaller group?
I find it all too easy to picture a time in, say, 2028 or 2032, when we see another riot against a fair election but this time there’s a compliant Congress, Courts, state overseers—even key military figures. It would be an effective end to the very idea of the power of the popular vote. As more Americans see voting as an irrelevancy, they will turn to other means of acquiring power. That’s when the violence starts.
I struggle to see the forces that will prevent this outcome. It is so much easier to mock and destroy than to build.
How to use history
I agree with you that history offers no perfect guide. There’s never been a scenario quite like this one: a largely stable democracy with a near-perfect record of two and a half centuries of peaceful transfer of power. I would agree that Weimar Germany or 1920s Italy don’t offer a precise model of what we’re going through now: no time does.
However, that’s not how I use history. I don’t think it’s helpful to point to one or two specific time periods and see how precisely they match. Rather, I think it’s best to look at broader trends. And those trends scare the bejesus out of me. For reasons that nobody can fully explain, a host of formal and informal institutions and norms came together over the 18th and 19th centuries to build the America of the 20th century, one in which there was a general—if imperfect—trend towards greater democracy, prosperity, and peace. It was not inevitable—it was almost derailed several times, and it’s not how societies normally function. It seems to me that that period is coming to an end and it’s not clear what will replace it but the signs, right now, are largely bleak.
Please—I say this seriously—show me how I’m wrong.
My guess is that Michael’s response will be something along the lines of, “I mostly agree but you’re ignoring or greatly downplaying the contribution of terrible lefties to this current mess.” Which is both true and probably wont make you feel much better.
I voted for Obama twice and Trump twice. I’m not alone (though people who view the world in black and white have trouble actually seeing and acknowledging Trump’s overwhelming appeal to working class Americans). Thanks to Trump: out of the TPP on day 3, 1stStep Act, Platinum Plan, Lowering Drug Pricing, Right to Try, VA Reform, No New Wars, Bringing Troops Home, Bringing Hostages Home, Low unemployment, and the Abraham Accords.