Both inside and outside America, neutral observers find it hard to understand how such a person as Donald Trump, who still refuses to accept defeat in an election he clearly lost, could ever find himself in power again.
‘I’m worried about America. I think it’s about fifty-fifty that democracy will survive, and I don’t know if we will come out of this. I’m really worried”. These are not the words of any old political hack, but those of General Michael Hayden, speaking to the BBC last month. Hayden, a distinguished four-star general and the former head of both the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, was commenting on the near certainty that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate in the presidential election to be held in exactly a year’s time, and the realistic possibility that he will be elected.
John Bolton, former security advisor to Donald Trump, also has serious concerns about his former boss. “Trump himself has no philosophy and doesn’t think in policy terms as anyone conventionally understands that phrase”, he said in an interview last month. “He works at everything through the prism of what benefits Donald Trump. He just didn’t understand how the Federal Government ran. After seventeen months of seeing him every day and watching him perform in office, to me it was an inescapable conclusion he was not fit to be president. I didn’t vote for him in 2020 and I won’t vote for him in 2024”.
Trump is facing 91 serious criminal charges in four different trials, federal and state, as well as the resolution of a fraud case currently taking place in New York. So America could soon find itself in a surreal situation—a presidential candidate canvassing from inside a jail. But Trump’s legal strategy is his political strategy. He is running for president in part because he sees a return to the White House as a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. Once reinstalled in the Oval Office, he believes that he will be able to pardon himself from the mountain of serious federal crimes for which he has been indicted.
Both inside and outside America, neutral observers find it hard to understand how such a person as Donald Trump, who still refuses to accept defeat in an election he clearly lost, could ever find himself in power again. As life-long Republican, Stuart Stevens, who worked on five presidential campaigns says “a fundamental principle which is essential to any democratic framework, is that someone must be willing to lose. Without that, you can’t have a democracy!” Stevens, like many Americans, believes that the Republican Party has transformed itself from a traditional American political party into an authoritarian movement. “Republicans are acting on the belief that elections are only valid when they win and they are invalid when they lose”, he said in a recent interview. “If anyone can explain the difference between that and the system, they have in Russia that elects Vladimir Putin, I’d like to hear it, because I don’t think there is any difference”.
Since the end of Donald Trump’s term as president, and especially after the 6 January 2021 uprising, a plethora of former high-level officials who knew him well have vociferously broken with him. These include not only his vice president, Mike Pence, but also his former attorney general, secretary of state, UN ambassador, and several ex-defence secretaries and national security advisors. Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, has called him “the most flawed person I have ever met in my life”.
But a large group of loyal Trumpists remain in Washington, most of them scattered in conservative action groups on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. Few of them appear to care whether Trump runs as a convicted felon or not. After all, Trump proudly presents himself as a martyr as his legal nightmares build. Steve Bannon, who served in the White House as his Chief Strategist is a strong supporter of Trump as the next president. He is projecting what he calls a “populist nationalist revolution”. He wants to sweep away every vestige of conventional political thinking and radicalise America from the hard-right. “This is all about a popular nationalist revolt”, he told the BBC, “where the grassroots are finding real political power for the first time. People have got to stop thinking about Democrats and Republicans. Politics is changing. The 2024 elections are vitally important because we need to take on the Deep State, solve the invasion on our southern border, and deport eight to 10 million people”. Bannon claims that the populist movement rightly wants to take on America’s rogue element—the national security apparatus, the intelligence apparatus, and the Pentagon—which he describes as the “Pretorian Guard of the Deep State”.
And it’s not Bannon alone who is expressing these extreme right-wing views across America. He insists that some 30 other online platforms are also giving ordinary people a “voice”. According to him, the ultimate goal is for the movement to have total control of Congress and the White House so that they can get rid of the Deep State, which would then allow ordinary American citizens to take power in their own country.
If you think this is just rhetoric without substance, think again. Just a short distance from the Capitol in Washington lies the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank ranked among the most influential public policy-making institutions in the country. Here, the foundation’s president, Kevin Roberts, established Project 2025, a scheme to reform the entire US federal government to support Trumpism. The aim is to place the entire Executive Branch under direct presidential control, eliminating the independence of the Department of Justice and a host of other agencies. This would fulfil Trump’s undemocratic claim in 2019 that he had “the right to do whatever as president”. Project 2025 will also be “a wrecking ball for the Deep State,” say Trump’s ultra-right wing populist supporters.
And these can be measured in their millions. “It’s simply amazing how Trump has struck a chord with so many people,” says US Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin. Raskin believes that some Democrats might consider that the Trump derangement “is just an aberration, a bizarre outburst of authoritarian politics, corruption, and irrationalism. But there’s little doubt that there’s a dark undertow in US politics, otherwise Donald Trump would just be one more deranged huckster”.
Many see all this as a serious threat to American democracy. Sheldon Whitehouse, an American lawyer and Democrat Senator, told the BBC that he sees many of the laws and conventions that have guided American democracy are “in peril, and the notion that government of the people, by the people and for the people will be infiltrated by Trump supporting individuals who are serving a small group of right-wing billionaires. These want to take over the institutions of government in order to use them as masked vehicles for their private secretive endeavours. Nothing would trash public and global confidence in American democracy more than that”.
Mary McCord, a visiting professor of Law at Washington’s Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection is also deeply worried about the future of America’s democracy. “What we see now is an effort to really take over in some areas every level of our government to create a system that would be entrenched, so that there won’t be equal opportunity for another view to have its turn. We also see the threats Mr Trump is making that if he were to get into office again, he would really weaponise the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies. If that were to happen, then we are not living up to any of the ideals of America. We would then be a failed democracy”.
A year from today, a deeply divided country will go to the polls to elect a new president. At an election rally in Texas last week, Donald Trump pitched the election as “the most important for the future of the nation”. He’s right. If he wins, the United States will be torn apart, and it will herald the beginning of the end of democracy in the most powerful nation on earth.