Soberly Imagining the Future
In just 13 weeks, Republicans will likely lock in a criminal nominee determined to end democracy
I had a plan to write about Elon Musk telling a room of advertisers to “Go F*** Yourself”—not once in passing, but a handful of times—to express his anger that major companies just might have the right to exit his platform which empowers abuse and bigotry and where he personally has traded in antisemitic slurs (among other forms of hateful attacks).
I also had a plan to discuss yesterday’s reinstatement of the gag order by a New York appeals court in an attempt to stem the hateful and dangerous abuse Donald Trump is spewing online and off—leading Judge Arthur Engoron to insist that he will “rigorously and vigorously” enforce this order.
I wanted to write about the narcissism and arrogance of Musk and Trump, who are convinced that norms don’t apply to them, that their money and power freed them to say and do whatever they want—and millions of voters and fans are thrilled by their behavior, despite (and often because of) the damage it causes.
But then I saw yesterday’s deeply sobering Washington Post column by Robert Kagan that opens by telling readers to “stop the wishful thinking and face the stark reality.” The headline pretty well sums it all up: “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending.”
That gave me pause—and I’m sure it gives nearly everyone who reads America, America pause, too. As much effort as I spend to articulate the dangers both in our midst and potentially ahead of us, Kagan’s second sentence makes clear what he thinks is at stake: “There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day.”
Twice I’ve written essays titled “Aiming for Dictatorship,” laying out the efforts of the vast network of right-wing believers to end liberal government and America as we know it with their Project 2025. This Trump-inspired enterprise would strip away an independent judiciary and a non-partisan civil service, put millions of migrants in detention camps and deport them without due process, concentrate all power in the hands of the president (their so-called “unitary executive”), and surround Trump with sycophants in order to successfully pursue retribution against his enemies, real and perceived.
In my own reflection on this, I imagined we have a year to get this right—to push back against the tyrannizing minority and the network of extremists who are more than happy to end the American democratic experiment. That’s true—the election day is November 5, 2024, and I remain clear that most Americans seek a better, more hopeful outcome for our country.
But Kagan’s stern warning slapped me in the face: “In 13 weeks, Donald Trump will have locked up the Republican nomination.” That is, 22 states will have voted in their Republican primaries (and caucuses), including eight in January, February and the first days of March, and 14 more on March 5 (which I’m not about to call a “super” Tuesday). Any other imagined outcome, Kagan asserts—you know, maybe Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis or the cascade of indictments will change the trajectory and doom Trump—portrays hopeful speculators “living in a world of self-delusion, rich with imagined possibilities.”
Thirteen weeks. In 13 weeks, there will not be a single criminal conviction that could push the defendant facing 91 felony charges off his accelerating path toward the nomination. OK, maybe he’ll have been jailed for violating a gag order, but let’s not imagine that will discourage his primary voters—more likely, they will become even more fervently committed.
And once Trump locks up the nomination? “The magical-thinking phase” will end, Kagan writes, ushering in the new chapter when the surviving voices of GOP dissent (however faint) will go dead-silent. Once those primary voters weigh in, “there will be a swift and dramatic shift in the political power dynamic, in his favor.” Kagan adds:
Until now, Republicans and conservatives have enjoyed relative freedom to express anti-Trump sentiments, to speak openly and positively about alternative candidates, to vent criticisms of Trump’s behavior past and present. Donors who find Trump distasteful have been free to spread their money around to help his competitors. Establishment Republicans have made no secret of their hope that Trump will be convicted and thus removed from the equation without their having to take a stand against him.
All this will end once Trump wins Super Tuesday. Votes are the currency of power in our system, and money follows, and by those measures, Trump is about to become far more powerful than he already is. The hour of casting about for alternatives is closing. The next phase is about people falling into line.
And for all of us who remain hopeful that upcoming criminal trials may change this dangerous trajectory, Kagan rightly notes that Trump is planning to exploit them “to boost his candidacy and discredit the American justice system as corrupt—and the media outlets, serving their own interests, will help him do it.”
Kagan also references a “paralyzing psychology of appeasement” at work, in which “the price of stopping Trump has risen higher and higher” at every opportunity since 2016. Not only have one-time opponents like Bob Corker and Paul Ryan ended their political careers, others let their fear—for their jobs and the physical safety of their families and themselves—cause them to refuse voting for Trump’s impeachment or conviction.
As Kagan puts it, “given the magnitude of the crisis,” shouldn’t people be “taking every conceivable measure” to stop it? Yet, speaking metaphorically, “I know that most people don’t think an asteroid is heading toward us and that’s part of the problem.”
Let’s be sure: Descending into dictatorship is not inevitable. Kagan acknowledges that he could be wrong, and that “unforeseen events” can change this dark direction. He knows some readers will find his view too pessimistic, even if he doesn’t agree.
“Maybe, despite everything, Trump won’t win,” Kagan says. “Maybe the coin flip will come up heads and we’ll all be safe. And maybe even if he does win, he won’t do any of the things he says he’s going to do. You may be comforted by this if you choose.”
But Kagan warns that few Republicans—and not enough liberals for that matter—have fully grasped the potential future cost of opposing Trump. America has never been closer to critics facing “persecution, the loss of property and possibly the loss of freedom…the ruin of oneself and one’s family.” The ramifications of this lack of imagination: “we continue to drift toward dictatorship, still hoping for some intervention that will allow us to escape the consequences of our collective cowardice, our complacent, willful ignorance and, above all, our lack of any deep commitment to liberal democracy.”
It’s a powerful warning, and a reminder to each of us that this need not be our collective fate. But it will take the hard work of every one of us to ensure that this sobering vision of the future does not become our reality.
Thirteen weeks when 13 states vote in Republican primaries will come real fast. So will November 2024. Talking to our family, friends and neighbors about the country and form of government we want—and are willing to do whatever we can to secure—has never been more critical.
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