Americans are increasingly horrified by Trump. But somehow hope pervades. The greatest hope, and greatest solution is that he loses the mid-terms, and then loses the next election. Once Trump is replaced with someone, anyone, it will all get better. Everything will be ok because Trump will be defeated at the next election.
But there is a big problem with this. Who will stand against Trump? Not only has nobody exceptional appeared to lead the Democrats yet, but you have to ask yourself why anyone good would take this on. One of the biggest risks faced by America today is that nobody good enough to defeat Trump will step up and take on that fight.
America has already been downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy. Having elections does not make a country a democracy, as Russia has shown. America will only be classified as a democracy if it has free and fair elections, in which high quality candidates can stand against the incumbent, and can win. The way Trump has twisted America’s political norms creates the risk that nobody capable of defeating him will stand against him, at which point the elections become a sham.
Where is the next Obama? Where is the once in a generation leader who can save America’s democracy? Where, in fact, is any leader? Who will stand against Trump?
Standing against Trump is basically a suicide mission. Even if that person wins, even if they become President, whoever runs in the next election will be annihilated by Trump, on Twitter, and in the right-wing media. Every moment of their past will be trawled over and scrutinised; every indiscretion, careless word, or innocent mistake will be manipulated and twisted, and then churned out in front of the world. And that’s just the truth.
Whoever stands will be hacked, their emails leaked, those leaked emails mixed with fake emails. Trump will Tweet the fake emails, Fox will run endless programs discussing them. Very quickly truth and falsehood, propaganda, and downright lies will blur into a mess that nobody can untangle. Remember what Gary Kasparov said about modern propaganda and Truth:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Whoever stands will no doubt be dragged into the biggest scandal in years, real or not. They will become a target for Trump, Breitbart, Russia, the European Right, and more. They will be stripped bare across the world’s media, accused of every crazy conspiracy their opponents can dream up.
Think about what we saw in the last election, before this strategy had matured. Remember Pizza-Gate, when Hillary Clinton was accused of running a pedophile ring under a pizza restaurant, and some crazy turned up with a gun to rescue the kids. Remember the email hacks. Remember how WikiLeaks, the Russian FSB, and the Trumps colluded to use fake emails, mixed in with real emails to discredit Hillary and her team. Hillary Clinton was a hardened, experienced international politician and she lost to this onslaught.
So who will make this sacrifice next? Who will sacrifice their health, sanity, reputation, family, and future to save America from Trump? All the weaponry of the Trump and Putin machine is aimed and ready, poised to take on whoever walks into their line of fire. Who on earth would do that? The prospect of winning the Presidency seems like a poor reward, a meagre incentive. The bigger risk is to go through all that and lose, limping away after the battle without a public platform from which to re-build their reputation and restore truth, just to disappear into the trashcan of history.
You think the last election got too personal? That was when Trump was the underdog, an outsider. Trump and his allies will have had 5 years to consolidate their control of the media, to fine-tune their way of winning elections. Russia too has had years of Western elections to play with and perfect their strategy. Maybe it is already too late, because truth won’t make it in the next election.
And it won’t just be the Presidential candidate who will take fire. Their running partner, and all other candidates will come under attack. It looks likely that the Trump machine will act against moderate Republicans as well as Democrats; anyone who is not with Trump. Young newcomers with no previous experience of fighting an election will be mowed down like rookie soldiers drafted into the middle of a war, whilst political elders will watch as the achievements of their careers and years of reputation wither under an assault that will be unlike anything ever seen before.
And that is the problem for America. Trump has already damaged so much that at the next election truth will quickly be trodden under foot, subsumed by a storm of lies, leaks, and disinformation. Forget a healthy debate about policy, the next election will just be about personalities. Trump will push the debate away from policy, attacking people one by one. He will use that attack to obscure any discussion of his record, alternative policies, or legitimate political discourse. The election will be ugly, personal, cruel.
We’ve seen Trump and his media support take on public figures like Mueller and Hillary Clinton. And we’ve seen Trump use Twitter to insult world leaders personally. We have also seen Russia hack and leak emails, and share the outcomes of espionage with Western political parties they want to support. That should be seen as a grave warning to America. If this is allowed to become a norm, it will be the way the next election is fought.
The first part of the journey to dictatorship is taking control, seizing power and then using a first elected term to dismantle the checks and balances, in particular the free press. The second part is to undermine the opposition, make it hard for them to be heard, dangerous for them to stand, until only the most devoted activists are willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause. Look at Turkey, Russia, Poland, Hungary, and so many more countries to see how America is on that road.
In Turkey, the government was recently found to be using German made spy software on the phones of opposition party members. In Russia, opposition leader Alexy Navalny is constantly being arrested, and is barred from standing in elections due to a trumped up corruption investigation, and of course opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered.
“People understand that to be in the opposition in Russia means that you will either be killed or imprisoned or something else of that sort will happen to you.”
It is no coincidence that the Opposition parties in authoritarian countries like Russia, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary are weak and divided. They are subjected to constant attacks from the State. They lack strong leaders because anybody good is either arrested or is intimidated out of politics. Those who hang on become subject to persecution ranging from trumped-up legal investigations to disinformation. All this wears them down, distracts them from effectively opposing the incumbent leadership.
We saw this starting in America’s last election, with Trump calling for Hillary to be locked up. The intent was there, now Trump has the means.
The challenge for America now, for anyone who wants to see an end to Trump, and a future for real democracy in America, is to work out how to make it safe for people to stand against him. How can the remaining independent media, the Social Media companies, law makers, and law enforcers, come together to ensure a safe and fair environment in which people can stand for election without it being assumed their reputations, lives, and futures will be destroyed by Trump’s campaign.
If America can’t work that out, nobody good will stand. If nobody good stands against Trump, America really is on the path to dictatorship.