His Victory Complete, Trump Faces A New Challenge: Defining ‘American Autocracy’

We use the term “feigned incredulity” in these pages quite a bit, but there’s nothing “feigned” about the incredulity emanating from Democrats and ardent Trump detractors on Monday.

In a sense, the President’s exoneration in the special counsel probe isn’t wholly surprising. One point we’ve made here repeatedly over the course of the last year is that Trump, either by design or, far more likely, by virtue of being a silly person, has made a public show of obstructing justice. We are, after all, talking about a man who said the following to Lester Holt about his (Trump’s) decision to fire James Comey:

He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.

Trump would later try to claim that NBC “fudged the tape”, but in reality, Trump “fudged” the coverup. He admitted to obstructing justice on national television and if you recall, his lawyers were acutely aware of how grievous that quote actually was.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Because in the end, it looks like the obstruction line is blurred when you do it openly. Trump bullied, badgered and otherwise intimidated everyone associated with the investigation including (and especially) then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But he did it all on Twitter, at rallies and in remarks to the media. In other words, he committed this particular high crime in the most public of public forums and he did it habitually and loudly.

Relive Trump’s real-time, public obstruction odyssey

New Details Of Trump Obstruction Probe Revealed: Jeff Sessions Was Pressured To Avoid Recusing Himself

If It’s Evidence Of Obstruction Mueller Is After, Trump’s Wednesday Attack On Jeff Sessions Is Exhibit A

Did Donald Trump Just Admit To Obstruction Of Justice On Twitter?

In the end, Mueller made a point to say that his report “did not exonerate” Trump in the obstruction case but you’ve got to think the public nature of Trump’s questionable conduct muddied the waters for the special counsel considerably. Is it a conspiracy when it’s conducted in plain sight?

Further, William Barr has made no secret of his disdain for the obstruction angle. He spelled that out in a memo to Rod Rosenstein dated June 8, 2018, called “Mueller’s ‘Obstruction’ Theory’ (you can read it in full here).

And besides, Barr’s contentious history with special counsels is legendary – his friendship with Mueller notwithstanding (more here).

Mueller surely knew Barr would not pursue the obstruction case against Trump, which one assumes means Mueller didn’t think it was compelling enough to pursue on his own – or at least not compelling enough to risk a scenario where the special counsel’s office pushed the issue knowing that the people at Justice overseeing the probe would push back.

It’s also interesting that Rosenstein allowed himself (again) to be the fall guy (Rod of course wrote the memo justifying Comey’s dismissal and Barr’s letter to Congress on Sunday made a point of noting that Rosenstein was consulted on the decision not to pursue the obstruction case against Trump).

But perhaps more importantly, Robert Mueller is a consummate lawman – a straight arrow. Trump’s efforts to castigate him as a hopelessly conflicted, nefarious “deep state” operative aside, Mueller is, by all accounts, a “button-down” guy, which means the idea that he would “go rogue” and accuse a sitting president of what amounts to high treason and/or with trying to obstruct an investigation into that alleged high treason without being absolutely sure he could prove it to the public was probably far-fetched in the first place. Trump, it would certainly appear, didn’t give Mueller enough credit when it comes to his (Bob’s) reputation for professionalism.

Finally – and this is obviously the most consequential point – what America got on Sunday is indicative of what happens when nations are slowly backsliding into autocracy and one-man rule.

This is precisely what Michael Cohen tried to warn everyone about during his public testimony last month. If you recall, Cohen essentially scoffed at the notion that anyone was going to find the smoking (or maybe “smocking” is better) gun on his former boss. Recall this clip:


That played into the characterization of Trump as a “mob boss” (something we would generally disagree with because, frankly, Trump lacks even a perverse honor code). But now, he no longer has to “speak in code” or otherwise obscure his activities in order to avoid running afoul of America’s institutions. Trump has triumphed over those institutions. The checks and balances have failed. And that’s in part because folks like Bob Mueller are playing by a different rule book than Trump.

Arguably, there are no longer any limits on what Trump can and can’t do (short of things that would land him at the Hague).

Democrats’ impeachment bid is now in shambles, something Nancy Pelosi pseudo-predicted weeks ago. The Justice Department is clearly in Trump’s pocket (as noted above, the accidental “genius” of Trump’s obstruction is that by doing it in full view of the public, it wasn’t obstruction anymore). The GOP has morphed into a personality cult and has demonstrated, time and again, the party’s willingness to subjugate any and all traditional Republican values (e.g., pretensions to high Christian morality, fiscal rectitude, respect for venerated GOP stalwarts like John McCain, loyalty to America’s allies, an aversion to dictators, etc.) to their allegiance to Trump.

Yes, Trump’s legal woes will continue and it does seem likely that, if he ever leaves office, he will end up being indicted by New York for financial crimes.

But that’s just it – under what circumstances will Trump leave office? Without lapsing into bombast or hysterics, we would flatly note that in the absence of some kind of bombshell between now and the election, it seems highly unlikely that he will lose in 2020. The exoneration in the Mueller probe is obviously a huge boon and even if he were to lose, he’d just claim massive voter fraud and move to nullify the results. After all, he claimed massive voter fraud even when he won.

After that, he’ll look for an excuse to extend presidential term limits and if Republicans manage to retake Congress at some point, he’ll probably succeed.

Again, none of that is an effort to resort to hysterics. Rather, it increasingly seems like the most plausible trajectory.

Having crumbled the country’s institutions and having essentially antiquated the whole idea of “checks and balances”, Trump now faces a new challenge: Shaping and defining autocracy in America.

One wonders if he appreciates the gravity of that.

And on that note, we’ll leave you with some excerpts from an article that ran in The Atlantic exactly two years ago called “How To Build An Autocracy“, in which the author imagined what America might look like in 2021.

It’s 2021, and president Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.

Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.

The president’s critics, meanwhile, have found little hearing for their protests and complaints. A Senate investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign sputtered into inconclusive partisan wrangling. Concerns about Trump’s purported conflicts of interest excited debate in Washington but never drew much attention from the wider American public.

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

Anyway, doesn’t everybody do it?


The business community learned its lesson early. “You work for me, you don’t criticize me,” the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company’s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trump’s personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.

The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice’s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper’s new owner—an investor group based in Slovakia—has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Some people believe them; others don’t. It’s hard work to ascertain what is true.

Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever—provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.

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25 thoughts on “His Victory Complete, Trump Faces A New Challenge: Defining ‘American Autocracy’

  1. Trump won the Electoral College by a margin of 72,000 votes in three states. He has not expanded his cult…er, base. The economy tanks, Trump loses.

  2. The most scary thing…..his idiocy, lying, and ‘inconclusive obstruction” keeps getting affirmation, which will embolden him even more. Still the most dangerous man in America.

  3. Trump is no shoe in to win. But sure he could win re-election. The Achilles heel is the economy. Despite lots of happy talk out there, a recession is 6 months to 18 months away. He is not personally popular with a large swath of the electorate and if the economy flounders so does his re-election bid. Pelosi was very astute, the best and only way to vanquish Trump and Trumpism is at the polling booth.

    1. Again: what happens if he just refuses to accept the results? if you think that’s far-fetched, then you don’t understand how these things metastasize. he will (probably): claim massive voter fraud, whip his base into a frenzy that results in protests, sue, and marshal any and all support he can on Capitol Hill for the voter fraud narrative. then, he’ll demand a recount or a re-vote which he’ll fix.

      1. and it’s so funny, because people like Cohen who have known him for years are telling you that’s what’s going to happen and everybody continues to say “nah, that can’t happen.” but it can. it’s already happening. look at all the things he’s done already that everyone would have claimed were far-fetched if you had suggested them in 2016

      2. As depraved as the GOPer goose-steppers have become… they have begun to show the inchoate fuzz of some hair on their political balls when it comes to egregious arrogation of power by Orangehole. True, only because they presumably are getting drenched in the night sweats of realization that a Democratic president will also do to the national agenda what CBs do to to markets: engineer & establish by a plenary fiat.

        To wit: look at the bathetic wall machinations and the sanctimonious (but more importantly, legislative) harumphing by a handful of othewise ankle-grabbing GOPer thralls in the Senate – when the dawning realization that the neoliberal establishment of an “Orangehole fiat” E.O. rule threatens to kneecap their “SCOTUS put.”

        And truthfully, as animatedly histrionic as i get about everything – I just don’t see it even coming to a necessity of law-abiding (in the most minimal sense) nee-Republican Senators to have to do anything. I get that Orangehole is Orangehole and leads a charmed racketeering life.

        But I also know that an America flooded with iphones, SUVs that do everything but the dishes, generally accessible ease/comfort, and a world conspicuously awash in arrant sanguineous misery due to political ruptures gone military – I know that civil war isn’t something that this nation will do, fact-free, megalomaniacal Weimar rallies to a nihilistic 40% notwithstanding. The military, its apparatus, and the legal exigencies available are chock full of Democrats and still Constitutionally responsible non-Scummo GOPs.

        1. Apologies in advance for my brusque reply, but it needs saying:

          The sooner you get it in your thick skull that the GOPs and their like-minded followers answer to EVERYTHING is (and always will be) a shit eating grin on THEIR face with their middle finger stuck in YOUR face, the better off you’re going to be.

          1. Absolutely no disagreement about the imperiousness of the GOPer Kult protofascist sanctimony and arrogation of power. However, my “thick skull” promulgated that there are many, many impediments to Orangehole, Inc. subverting the Constitution and materially changing (or, more specifically in relation to H.R.’s proposition that in less than 2 yrs. autocratic rule is possible – transmogrifying) American democracy by dint of a “Babyman Put.”

            The bathetically perfidious Scummo makes Cheney and Nixon seem brightly, transparently patriotic, in relational retrospect: but at those times of Constitutional crisis there was palpable fear that American democracy was in dark jeopardy of being thwarted.

            I simply disagree that Orangehole’s congressional GOPer taints (tain’t exactly voting enthusiasts outside of neoConfederate red state swamps but tain’t exactly willing to become involuntary de-nutted thralls, esp. the Senate) are even close to political machinations which would countenance wholesale sedition – if only because of the ramifications of the incalculable liability the GOPers would incur when our robust democratic process did what it’s done for 250 plus years (including a civil war): remedy existential threats to the country.

  4. I have often postulated (on this website) that Trump is the symptom of the destruction of a Democracy from within. I think that this a controlled demolition by a system that recognizes “one man one vote ” is about to uproot the control structure of the power elite. It is not near as conspiratorial as it is a natural no holds bared brawl in public view….. The “Base” well that is fearmongering and manipulation by a well oiled machine..

  5. My supposition is Mueller basically says in his report… congress has everything they need right out in the public to do their job… if they don’t he’s not going to try to indite a standing president because his odds would be precisely 0%.

    1. Well he’s being rather presumptive don’t you think? Considering he had to have known full well that Barr his bud/friend was going to block everyone from being able to see that report?

      My personal opinion, Mueller hit the low hanging fruit, passed off what he could, and then called it a day. For all the “he’s a hero” talk I find his inability to target a single person in the Trump family indicative of his unwillingness to put his own name on the line.

      Now we get to watch Barr and the GOP Senate block all of us from viewing this report for the remainder of this presidential term.

      1. I am 100 percent sure that the full Mueller report, every single word of it, will be leaked…er, released to the public. Not if, when.

    1. Well put but I don’t think the idea is to get Autocracy.. If that is what they wanted , it would not be Trump at the helm. The goal is solidification of power by the elite who do try to fly a little below the public’s radar. Trump is the proverbial useful idiot …Bet H…agrees with the last part of that……

  6. Nixon gave the blueprint. Just hire Borks. That is it. If Robert Bork had been Attorney General instead of Solicitor General, the Special Prosecutor would have been fired and Nixon would have survived Watergate. Party before Country. The Republicans of the 1970’s went the other way and they were wiped out. They learned their lesson and said never again. They will voter suppress, pull rank, and do everything possible to stay in power. Trump faces the very real possibility of jail after his term is up, and he is the living id of the Republican Party. They will back him over laws, rules, customs, or mores. Votes will not get him out. Constant, French-style demonstrations and work stoppages eventually might.

  7. Of course Scummo will lose… just look at 2018: it had nothing to do with the criminal racketeering and utter amoral perfidy of the most treacherous enemy of American Constitutional democracy ever; it was about issues and on those even some of the GOPer rabble found sanity when they realized their kids weren’t going to be getting health care; their economic miracles weren’t anywhere but in the pockets of the top 10%; the Treasury-raping CONservatives want to steal Medicaid and SS; voting and respresentative democracy were being wholesale stolen (polls show independent redistricting is nationally popular & popping); etc., etc., etc.

    Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million; this despite just what a shitty job her campaign did in securing the midwest and her inability to bitchslap Scummo toe-to-toe, instead opting for feckless, effete civility. In retrospect it’s easy to see just how wretchedly inadequate here campaign energy & architecture were.

    That’s hardly a problem with the unapologetic, GOPer Janus head coinage of young, fiercely aggressive Democrats/Progressives who give no fucks about hurting the dignity of political high road traditions: indeed, the new unspoken motto is “when they go low – dig a hole beneath them and bury them!” Even Biden seems to intuitively have cut-and-pasted his statesman image into a “I’ll bitch-slap Scummo & his amoral trumpFilth with equal degeneracy, if I have to.”

    Had the 2018 elections been different – maybe. But the abject misogyny, ghoulish political predation, comically circle-jerking GOPer-Orangehole bukkake fascism, and increasingly dark national mood began to scare those nee-Republican independents & sane GOPers enough to see that (ewwwwww:) the zaftig degenerate Orangehole indeed has no clothes. Even with the Russia thing mostly done, Scummo still gets nothing from a redoubtable political adversary Nancy Pelosi – unless it empowers the 2020 election for Democrats.

    It feels somewhate reminiscent of the fiddling days of would-be “decider” Bush – and this is after less than 3 years, not 6 or 7. Key demographic groups are fleeing Scummo’s dystopian “goobah gobbah one of us” carnival – and just like in 2016 they will be voting for something different, not for a specific ideology, per se. THey control statehouses in the midwest and there will be no sleeping on the GOPer vote-thieving mafia watch this time. I am ambivalent about “he will win” prognostications because although hearing it makes my soul vomit reflexively, and I am certain it will not happen – I like the fact that it scares the preponderantly larger voting population of Democrats into keeping the amphetamine chip on their shoulder needed to mobilize en masse.

    1. Completely agree with Canuck! Feckless effete civility – and fundamentally being too chiken-shit to stand up to Scummo – while CNN aired his bullshit and rallys non-stop.

  8. “The checks and balances have failed. And that’s in part because folks like Bob Mueller are playing by a different rule book than Trump.” You are scaring the hell out of me. No one imagined Trump would win but he did so we don’t want to make the same mistake twice – of lacking imagination.

  9. All this talk about what Trump will do in 2020 is a bit much. And frankly, it all amounts to a huge round of hyperventilating. You make it sound like Trump is surrounded by an army of cultists that would like nothing more than for him to declare himself dictator, and collectively this cult has enough power to be able to carry out such a plan. And to be honest, that’s just not reality.

    The best advice I’ve read about 2020 was written by an Italian, who saw the easy comparison between Trump and Berlusconi (If you don’t know who Silvio Berlusconi is then I would suggest going and reading about him, he is probably the best Trump comparison there is). All the hyperventilation and drama surrounding his political life always ended up giving him a boost in the end, in campaign after campaign. And the only way Berlusconi was finally beaten was by treating him as a normal politician, and using normal politics to get more votes than he could. That’s it.

    Now, it is up to the Democrats to pick the candidate who can get the most votes, and not flub it like they did in 2016. In any event, the likeliness of a second term Trump hinges on the likeliness of Democrats being able to hold it together. And sadly, it doesn’t seem like they can because all they can do is stand around and quake in their boots over Trump declaring himself dictator.

    1. m. sam… you’ve put me in a rather difficult situation. I do have to laugh rather robustly with H.R.’s reply, here – and it does wax at least a cursory patina of naiveté to your opinion.

      However, I am firmly in your ken of experiential reference and prognostication: despite Orangehole, Inc.’s outright perfidy and Constitutional treachery; and his consummate sociopath’s predatory ability to lead a charmed existence entirely at the expense of all whom he uses and discards; the increasingly (in my opinion) histrionic pitch of his ability to commandeer the Constitutional governmental transfers of power just don’t seem persuasive – beyond cautionary and, I think, responsible patriotic calls for aggressive electoral participation.

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