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Donald Trump is the chaos. As long as he is in power, every waking minute will be defined by the swirling tumult of his relentless present. There is no future, only another day to lie and cheat his way through. Tomorrow does not exist until it's today. At the root of the turbulence that forms the undercurrent of every day now, the sense that we spend every second of every day on the edge of a cliff looking down at the surf buffeting the rocks of our own destruction, is the president. He did not create many of this country's problems, but given the chance, he has made them worse. And of course, he has invented a few of his own. We are all captives to the venal impulse that is the electricity of his twisted mind. It will not end until he is removed from office, a scenario he now seeks to prevent by marshaling the chaos for another great escape, the greatest-ever conman's One Last Job.
He has announced his intent to steal the state of Pennsylvania's electoral votes by sending in an army of lawyers to throw out as many American citizens' votes as they can. He has offered his presidential blessing to supporters who menaced members of Joe Biden's campaign with their pickup trucks, surrounding a Biden bus on the road in Texas and slamming into an SUV riding with it. He himself fantasized about physically assaulting his opponent. That was all just this weekend. His supporters now chant for any and all of his political enemies to be imprisoned. And all that builds on the mobilization work he's done for far-right paramilitary groups, which one expert told me he likely cannot undo even if he wanted to, which he does not. His goal is to maximize the chaos, to prevent the passage of a legitimate election. He knows that, if the 2020 contest is a free and fair process of democracy, he cannot win.
But he has also offered signs that chaos will continue as his governing principle—such as it is—if this nation is so foolish as to give him any more time in power, or if he is successful in preventing enough people from making their voices heard. It's not just that he cannot articulate any kind of second-term agenda, and that he has no plan for any of the major crises facing the United States and the world at this moment. He has also begun to position himself for a great purge of the federal government, in which as many civil servants who bring expertise and professionalism to the setup will be replaced with the kind of off-brand, halfwit lackeys who have come to populate the ranks of his political appointees. Obedience is the only characteristic that matters. To call it "loyalty" would imply that the president has anything resembling a relationship of mutual respect with people he views as inanimate tools for his own self-interest.
This is one thing in the abstract, but the president was shameless enough to say out loud on Sunday that this will include Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the one public-facing member of his administration whom large swathes of the public trust to tell the truth about anything.
Wow -- a "Fire Fauci!" chant at the Trump rally
"Let me wait until a little after the election," Trump replies pic.twitter.com/bRHLqzzcRF
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 2, 2020
Savvy observers on the Tweet Machine have been quick to point out that Trump does not have the power, by law, to fire Fauci. This interpretation fundamentally lacks imagination. The president has, for years now, completely disregarded any statute that stands in the way of his relentless self-interest, including some of the core components of our constitutional system. He has assaulted the power of the purse that is the primary basis of Congress's influence in the nation's affairs, attempting to seize money the legislature refused to allocate for his Big, Beautiful Wall and build it anyway. If the president can unilaterally take money from the Treasury and pursue any project he wants, he is an autocrat, particularly if he's stuffed the federal judiciary with partisan hacks who will rubber-stamp his actions. His staffers have almost ritualistically violated the Hatch Act with zero consequences. He has almost certainly violated the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, also in ritual fashion, with zero consequences.
But we're supposed to believe he will be constrained by Laws in a second term, the stage when we know authoritarians the world over have moved quickly to entrench their power and lay waste to the remaining institutions of democracy that might stop them? Please. If we've learned anything these last few years, it's that Laws and Norms are functionally non-existent if there's no one to enforce them. We have seen Congress is too weak to do so—the president has simply rejected the House of Representatives' subpoena power, attempting to render obsolete its role providing oversight of the Executive Branch. (It's a good thing, too, as far as he's concerned. All they'd find would be an absolute festival of conflicts-of-interest and outright corruption.) The free press has found only modest success drawing public attention to this creeping autocracy, stopping the slide only for brief moments, and you can bet the president's assault on sources of information independent from his government will ramp up significantly in a second term. His allies on the Supreme Court, particularly Clarence Thomas, have indicated their willingness to vandalize the First Amendment to open up more legal exposure for news organizations.
Who, really, will stop him from firing Fauci, or doing much of anything else? His formerly Normal Republican colleagues like Marco Rubio—a tenuous title in the best of times—are now backing his position on street violence, cheering the weekend's truck incident as Florida Man stuff. We're through the looking glass now. The chaos, as it's wont to do, has taken on a life of its own. The president has no capacity to control it now, not that he wants to, and there is no one who might control him. Except, perhaps, for the American public, which has one last chance to pull the plug on this grotesque reverse-Truman Show, where we all serve as props in the production as the president attempts to fill the bottomless void in his soul with attention, praise, and—crucially—money.
It turns out he really needed the money. He owes a lot of people a lot of it, the culmination of a lifetime of flying by the seat of his pants—captive, like the rest of us, to his own deranged impulse. If this feels like the end of him, remember that he has never in his life faced accountability for anything he's done. He has always gotten away with it, always slipped out the back before the bill came due. There is no reason to believe this time will be different until he has physically departed the White House. He has already begun barricading himself inside in order to insulate his person, as always, from the chaos he himself will stoke in the coming days. The streets of the nation's capital already look like those of a failed state. There is no upper limit to the destruction of life and property he will see as acceptable if it means staying in office—and, perhaps, out of jail. Even a resounding defeat in tomorrow's election will not be the end of him. But, crucially, it would be the start.
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