“Decline into anocracy”: Experts outline Trump’s retaliation plan

“Decline into anocracy”: Experts outline Trump’s retaliation plan

Following the advice of his infamous mentor Roy Cohn, instead of being chastened and cowed by the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, Donald Trump has instead chosen to go on the attack by proclaiming his innocence through lies and fantastical statements. The former president insists he did nothing wrong stowing away top secret and other highly classified information at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in alleged violation of the Espionage Act. Trump is also making delusional conspiratorial claims that he is being “persecuted” for “defending” “real America” against Joe Biden and the Democrats and “the left” and the “woke agenda” and “the socialists.” 

Since his arrest and indictment in Miami, Trump claims to have received many millions of dollars in donations from the MAGA faithful. Predictably, he and his agents are now escalating their threats of widespread violence and civil unrest — including making threats against special counsel Jack Smith — if he is held accountable for his many crimes against democracy and the rule of law. The Republican Party and the right-wing “news” media have rallied to the disgraced former president’s defense.

In all, the tumult and troubles of the Trumpocene and America’s democracy crisis are far from over – and will likely get much worse when Donald Trump’s various criminal trials begin in Miami, New York, and likely in Georgia and other parts of the country as well. In an attempt to make sense of his truly historic moment, I asked a range of experts for their reactions to last Tuesday’s events and predictions for what comes next in the Age of Trump and the country’s democracy crisis.

Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast “White Flag with Joe Walsh.”

I felt immense satisfaction when Trump was indicted for these federal crimes. I felt like celebrating. Because the justice system, for now, held. The rule of law held. The principle that no one is above the law held. The principle of equality under the law held. All against great political odds. The rest of the Western world holds their leaders and their former leaders accountable. We’ve always shied away from that here. With Donald Trump, we’ve been forced to confront this “for the good of the country, leave him alone” bullshit. I felt damn happy that we rose to the occasion and did the right thing with this indictment.

I also immediately felt the same fear I’ve always had that this indictment will make Trump stronger politically.

“If Aileen Cannon does not recuse herself, the trial could be a farce.”

What happens next in this saga is easy to see – Trump will use this indictment as a badge of honor, as a sign of persecution, he will campaign on it, his challengers will back down in cowardice, and Republicans will rally behind him until his next indictment in two months. And then another indictment in another two months. The next 16-17 months will feature a 3-4 times indicted, eventually convicted felon leading one of America’s two major political parties in the fight to take back the White House from an 80-something-year-old incumbent who needs to stay upright.

The Republican Party put themselves in this horrible spot, and there is nothing they can do to escape it.

Violence. I fear 16-17 months of political violence. I come from the Republican base, I still engage with the Republican base, and I hear a level of anger from that base I haven’t heard since before January 6. It will only get worse. I fear a number of potential targeted, lone wolf incidents of violence. I fear violent political rallies from the MAGA base. The country needs to be prepared for what promises to be a violent, ugly, tearing apart of the fabric of America these next 16-17 months.

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University where he specializes in apocalyptic religion and political violence.

I have a mixed bag of emotions about Trump’s indictment and arrest.

On the one hand, the Department of Justice pushing forward is proof that the rule of law still exists in this country, that even the most powerful face consequences for breaking the law. Trump’s modus operandi has long been a personal disregard for societal rules and regulations and extending that to taking top secret documents home with him and holding on to them is finally too far. On the other hand, despite the indictment, he’s the runaway favorite for the GOP nomination for the presidency. His supporters refuse to see this as a crime, claim that it is a politically motivated investigation, repeatedly diminish the importance of national security standards—they are using this to continue developing their parallel reality where power is the only metric that matters, so long as it is their power.

I do not believe we will see massive street protests during the trial—the rhetoric of crowds does not seem to match the reality—but I do believe fundraising will kick off from this, that branches of the GOP will continue to escalate their rhetoric of DOJ overreach, that unending garbage bills will be thrown out from the House to censure and investigate and impeach officials in the Biden Administration on the flimsiest of pretenses to “punish” them for investigating Trump. If Trump is convicted, which it certainly seems he should be, and if he is given an adequate sentence for his very real crimes—which I am less convinced of—then I worry about bloodshed. The bigger worry, for me, is that the rhetoric coming out of this will continue the escalation of stochastic terrorism—attacks on the FBI or the DOJ or on judges, lawyers, and congresspeople who speak out about it. And that is a wider and more disturbing trend that we need to remain vigilant about, the dehumanization of opponents by the far right that leads to real world attacks, bomb threats, fascist rallies, mass shootings, etc.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of “American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy.”

I’m feeling very “meh.” If you lay out the timelines, there’s only a slim chance he goes to trial before the election, and basically zero chance he’s in prison. Even if he’s convicted, high likelihood he’ll be out on appeal given that he’s almost certain to be the GOP nominee for president). It doesn’t change the long-term equation much either: Biden only did two points better than Clinton in 2020, which is indicative of how inelastic the vote is.

I don’t think these indictments move the needle much, and the polling for Biden shows he might only be getting back some of what he’s lost in the past few years. The vast majority of Republicans will stick with him, and most GOP leaders are either hedging their bets or sticking with him. Honestly, the introduction of a “No Labels” third-party ticket is likely to have way more impact on the election.

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We wait for many, many months for the trial to start as Trump’s team uses every trick in the book to stall for time. Aileen Cannon is a partisan hack and unqualified to sit on the bench, but she will accommodate these tactics, just as she did with the request for a special master. With nothing happening, the attention of the American public will wane, especially with no cameras or recordings of the court proceedings (this seems highly likely given the threat to people involved in the trial due to the potential for stochastic terrorism). So, just like with mass shootings, this moves out of the public eye, and is forgotten, until the trial starts, if it ever happens at all. It only has relevance if, by some miracle, Biden wins a second term. This is the right thing to do. I wrote before that Trump can’t go out like Nixon. But it’s too little, too late, and we’re all going to pay the price during the second term when Trump fully weaponizes the Department of Justice in retaliation and accelerates the United States decline into anocracy.

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for The Atlantic. 

My first reaction to Trump’s indictment and arraignment was relief. Finally, this monster will be held to account for his criminal and reckless actions. And some elation that there will be more indictments, and more of his cronies testifying against him. But the path ahead is a bumpy one. I wish this had happened earlier; the trials will all be during a heightened political season. If Aileen Cannon does not recuse herself, the trial could be a farce, and end badly despite the devastating facts we already know— much less the ones we don’t. And then there is the disappointment— not surprise— that so many Trump lickspittles continue to defend his recklessness and damage to America’s fundamental national security.

Barbara Walter is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. She is also a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has consulted for the State Department, the Department of Defense, the UN and the World Bank. Walter’s most recent book is “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.”

I have mixed feelings. I’m feeling a mix of sadness, pride, and relief all in one. I’m sad because America’s great democracy is in the fight of its life against an anti-democratic former president who is willing to do whatever is necessary to capture power and money. I’m sad to see the presidency used and tarnished this way.  But I’m also proud because our justice system has not only remained stalwart in the face of one of its greatest lifetime challenges – to indict a recent president who is the ideological leader of a large faction of Americans – but it has pursued the cases with immense care, thoroughness, and professionalism. The Department of Justice is one of the guardrails of democracy that has held in a time of deep challenges. And I’m relieved because American voters are taking Trump’s indictment (especially the one in Miami) seriously.

Almost 40% of Republicans think the charges against Trump are serious (up from 21% in April), suggesting that his popularity with Republicans is decreasing. What is even more important is that the indictment is causing Trump to lose support among key suburban swing voters whose votes he needs to win the election in 2024. Trump didn’t have enough votes to win in 2020, and his indictment is likely to make it even harder to win in 2024. That is a relief. 

I think Republicans will start to jump off the Trump ship as the indictments and their details pile up. Republican leaders want to grow the party and win elections and they know that Trump will make this harder for them. They need an opening to get rid of him and these indictments are likely the best opportunity they are going to get. Their challenge, however, is that they will need MAGA base support if they want to win in 2024 and it will be very hard to find a candidate who will appeal both to this base and to educated white suburban voters. You can bet Republican leaders are desperately trying to find such a person. 

But their chances of finding such a person are likely to improve as Trump gets distracted, tired, and weakened by the cases against him. So, Republican leaders are likely secretly hoping for a tipping point when enough moderate Republicans and independents shift away from Trump that it becomes clear to potentially electable Republican candidates to get in the race. 

Republicans are beginning to turn on him – you saw this with Chris Christie’s public criticisms of Trump this past week, as well as the series of Republicans who added their own criticisms of Trump’s behavior. You are likely to see more and more of this as Trump faces months of bad press and continues to lose the support of key independent voters. In their heart of hearts, most Republican Party leaders do not want to see Trump succeed and the indictments are helping to inch their voters to the tipping point.

Trump was not successful in mobilizing a mob to defend him in Miami the way he was able to mobilize a mob on January 6th. Americans might be tempted to celebrate this non-event and assume that the threat of violence has dissipated. But violent extremists have not declined in America, they have simply gone underground in the face of a justice system that is increasingly prosecuting them. The underlying conditions for violent extremism in the United States – white anger and resentment at changing demographics and their loss of status – are all still there. And as long as the underlying conditions are still there, violent extremists will continue to plan how to prevent this.

David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist, and former elected official. His new book is “Saving Democracy: A User’s Manual for Every American”.

We have a crisis of lack of accountability at all levels of American politics. It’s what’s fueling so much of the attack on democracy around the country. So even though I think the short-term political consequences of the indictment are mixed and minimal, it’s a welcome sight to see accountability emerge at the highest level and for such egregious acts. It’s a badly needed and welcome break from years where no accountability has driven the downward spiral in the rule of law.

What happens next is months and months of delay and “both sides” propaganda from the right that turns this into a painful and drawn-out process. This will become a race between the trial and an election by which Trump will seek to pardon himself. My guess is the election comes first.

As important as this is, this case will not magically shore up democracy. Nothing will but the hard, day-to-day work of protecting democracy in state after state. My advice to those who are worried about democracy is: don’t let this distract you from doing the work it takes to protect democracy wherever you live, and wherever it’s under attack.

Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. His most recent book is “A Brief History of Fascist Lies.”

My impression is that democracy is working to defend itself when all are equal under the law, especially politicians like Donald Trump who has dedicated the last years of his life to downplay democracy by almost any means necessary.

It is unclear to me what is the outcome of the Trump saga of evading justice and responsibility. Trump is trying to manipulate the judicial process turning into yet another excuse for his failings. It is not surprising that this manipulation takes the form of fascist-style propaganda, including conspiracy theories about the deep state as well as projective impulses. Perhaps what is more worrying is that Trump is, of course, being defended and enabled by conservative media and the GOP. The most recent example of this was Fox News inverting the terms of the equation and calling President Joe Biden a “wannabe dictator” when in fact the opposite is true. It is Trump that wanted to be a dictator via coup. Trump is the wannabe fascist in American politics.

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As I explain in my forthcoming book, “The Wannabe Fascist”, Trump fits that description because like classic fascists dictators of the past, such as Hitler and Mussolini, he wants to destroy democracy from within but unlike them, he has failed. Trump’s failure has a variety of causes: from lack of ideological commitment to an excess of opportunism and of course how the state’s institutions defended democracy. The current indictments are another example of the latter.

Noah Bookbinder is the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a former federal corruption prosecutor. He previously served as chief counsel for criminal justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Donald Trump has repeatedly engaged in serious criminal conduct, often of a nature that has threatened our democracy, and he has continually evaded real accountability. It is always a somber moment when a leader is charged with crimes, and charging a former president is never something that should be taken lightly. But seeing Donald Trump finally face federal charges after dodging consequences for so long brings a sense of justice and renewed faith in our system.

The indictment itself is remarkable. It tells an incredibly compelling and cohesive story, supported by strong evidence. Particularly powerful are the descriptions of Walt Nauta, at Donald Trump’s instruction, moving boxes containing classified documents to hide them from Trump’s own lawyers and the Department of Justice; of Trump showing highly sensitive documents to someone from his PAC and to journalists, knowing that they were not cleared to see them; and of Trump’s many statements from 2016 about the need for presidents to understand and enforce classification laws and to be held accountable if they did not.  If Jack Smith can back all of this up with strong evidence, and there is grounds for confidence that he can, it will be very, very hard to beat.

Donald Trump will try very hard to delay this case with all manner of motions. We will learn very soon whether Judge Cannon will make decisions that ignore the law and favor Trump, as she did in earlier proceedings about these documents, or whether she will be chastened by the appeals court’s rebuke after she did so previously and apply the law fairly going forward. This case should be able to move to trial in less than a year and be done by the middle of next year, absent extraordinary delays from Trump or the court.

Key next steps in the saga also include a likely indictment of Trump in Georgia, perhaps in August, for his efforts to overturn that state’s vote in 2020 and quite possibly an additional federal indictment, likely in Washington, DC, for Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and perhaps for his incitement of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

One common criticism of the recent indictment is that others like President Biden and former Vice President Pence engaged in conduct similar to that for which Donald Trump was charged, and did not face any charges. That’s just not the case, as the indictment makes clear. Trump retained many more documents, and there is significant evidence that he intended to do so, while there is no such evidence that is publicly known for Biden or Pence. More importantly, while Biden and Pence cooperated fully with investigators and returned the documents, Trump obstructed the investigation and has been charged with doing so. His efforts to hide documents from investigators and attorneys were extraordinary and of a totally different nature than we’ve seen in those other investigations. Indeed, none of the documents Trump is charged with illegally retaining were ones that he returned voluntarily. So if he had cooperated and returned the documents, as Biden and Pence did, rather than obstructing the investigation, he very likely would not have been charged at all even though he took many more documents and did it intentionally.

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