Whatever one might think about Donald Trump’s claim to be a “stable genius,” his rambling and seemingly unfocused rant of a speech to an enthusiastic throng of CPAC attendees on Saturday demonstrated the kind of demagoguery at which he has become adept—and included a chilling shot across the bow of the smoldering political debate dividing this country. What Trump did was raise the ante in a very dangerous way, and in so doing reinforce the concern Michael Cohen expressed last Wednesday in public testimony before Congress, a concern that has been on my mind for a couple of years now but gets very limited attention in the mainstream media or on guardedly progressive cable networks like MSNBC.
Addressing the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 27, Cohen said in a closing statement, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Coming from a longtime Trump “enforcer,” lightly regarded for his political or intellectual gravitas, the warning was both surprising and sobering.
Trump had already raised the stakes last month when he declared a national emergency over border wall funding, ignoring the wishes of Congress and making an unprecedented grab for executive power that many thought threatened the checks and balances written into the Constitution by the founding fathers. But on Saturday his rhetoric seemed to launch a new phase of escalation and make Cohen’s concerns even more ominous.
Speaking about the Mueller investigation and the broadening inquiries in the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, Trump hurled words like “lunatic,” “sick” and “dirty,” and characterized Democrats’ efforts as a no-holds-barred assault on his presidency: “They’re trying to take you out with bullshit, OK? With bullshit.”
Unprecedented, unpresidential, debasing and vulgar are only some of the adjectives that would be appropriate to describe the president’s language. But looked at another way, the invective was unerringly on target—a bullshit bullseye, if you will. To an adoring base that has elevated Trump to the status of a cult leader (chosen by God, some say), he accomplished several things at once. Not only did he extend his defiance of politically correct behavior and language, he coined a new rallying cry, to be echoed when Mueller’s report is issued, or when Democrats reveal the findings of their investigations, or the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York builds criminal cases against him.
Trump or his inner circle was involved in collusion with Russia? Bullshit, they’ll shout. Trump obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws, committed bank fraud, insurance fraud, witness tampering, violations of the emoluments clause? Bullshit, they’ll scream. Impeach the president? Bullshit.
But with Congress gridlocked and successful impeachment unlikely, the 2020 election still seems like the best shot we’ll have at derailing Trump’s authoritarian juggernaut, and that’s where my fear and Cohen’s warning converge: If he wins, it’s all over for democracy in this country, but even if he loses, who among us can really see Trump going quietly? Even in 2016, prepared to lose to Hillary, he was all ready to cry fraud and contest the election. Not only will he almost certainly do so after a loss in 2020, but he is steering his base toward mass violence to protest the “deep state” conspiracy, “voter fraud” from minorities and a diabolical “coup” to drive him from office. Should he get away with the trumped-up border emergency, an allegedly rigged election will surely be his next excuse for a national emergency. If it’s not just a witch-hunt but a “bullshit” assault designed to take out the greatest president ever, a Democratic victory at the polls may be nearly as dangerous as a loss.
This country never fully got over the Civil War (on a cultural level, if not a geographic one) and may be headed for another iteration. With his bullshit bull’s-eye, a narcissistic rich kid from Queens may just have fired the first round.