It Can't Happen Here

Here’s a movie scenario for you:

A charismatic plutocrat runs for President of the United States—a bellicose outsider, running on a program of patriotic populist revolution, vowing a complete cleansing of Washington in order to “drain the swamp” and “make the country great again.” After a strife-torn campaign, and to the astonishment of the nation’s political establishment, he is elected—in murky circumstances that include alleged interference of Russia, where the new U.S. President has large but shadowy business interests. 

Upbraiding the country’s intelligence agencies, denouncing and taunting the press, the new president assumes office in an atmosphere of open contention and hostility, which he himself inflames at every turn, spurred on by his closest advisor, a rightwing media impresario with dark ambitions. A series of presidential edicts polarizes Washington and the nation, and provokes confrontation with the judiciary. The president ignores legal stays on his actions issued by federal judges, mocking those judges with epithets over social media while daring them to try to stop him “over the will of the people who elected me.”

Soon a series of actions abroad spark a major international contretemps. The president and his national security advisor actively seek confrontation with a longtime U.S. foe, Iran. Tensions mount when Iranian forces allegedly fire on a U.S. naval vessel that Teheran claims encroached illegally on its territorial waters. Speaking on national TV from the White House, the President announces that “the time has come to reverse decades of corrupt and cowardly catering to the ayatollahs.” 

Iran, he alleges, has been carrying on with the development of its nuclear weapons program “in open defiance of promises made to the United States and to the world. We cannot and will not allow Iran to hold the world hostage with its nuclear weapons.” Mobilizing U.S. military forces for what looks like a preemptive attack, the president announces that no measures are being kept off the table, “up to and including the use of our nuclear arsenal if necessary for our own protection.” Again on national TV he thunders against Iran. “This is a criminal country that has been cheating and humiliating America way too long. That ends right now.”

With the world teetering on calamity, and violent protests in the streets of American cities, a faction of the military, supported by the CIA and by a coterie of political leaders of both parties, decides that the fate of the republic demands an intervention. Over the course of a weekend they engineer a bloodless coup, driving the President into exile in Russia, and installing two trusted elder statesmen—a Democrat who formerly served as vice president, and a Republican Senator and Vietnam war hero—as temporary co-presidents. Both men reassure the American people that the gravest danger in the history of the republic has been averted, and pledge to restore constitutional government as quickly as possible.

OK. Of course, and thankfully, it’s not going to happen. But the fact that a coup in the United States might even edge its way anywhere near the radar of possibility—that one could find it remotely plausible, even as a movie scenario—is distressing, and suggests how rife with danger the current moment is. To me it brings back memories of the end stage of the Nixon Administration. I was just a kid then, but I remember how alarming it was to have a president who seemed psychically out of control, immured in the White House, seething at liberal elites and the perfidious press, lashing out with impetuous and angry moves in defiance of judges and Congress. What would happen? I can recall that sense of national tectonic rumbling, the groaning and clashing of fundamental structures of government subjected to deep stresses.

Years later I would find myself in an African country during a coup attempt. It is an eerie feeling to be in a place where governance has ceased to exist. Americans have long been fascinated by the possibility of our government being toppled, from Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, to John Frankenheimer’s 1964 film, Seven Days in May.

The U.S. throughout my lifetime has been extraordinarily well insulated against this kind of fundamental political meltdown. But that’s no guarantee it always will be. There’s a lot to worry about right now, in ways more fundamental—in the terms I’m talking about—than we’re used to seeing. The headlines get worse every day of the Trump Administration. And the dismay is nonpartisan. The New York Times has turned into a veritable smorgasbord of alarm, served up in all varieties by cooks of every political stripe.

How far into uncharted waters are we? When John Yoo—John Yoo, notorious author of the Bush torture memo, the legal architect and avatar of George W. Bush’s massive executive overreach—is writing an op-ed in the Times titled “Executive Power Run Amok,” citing “grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power,” you know you are way, way out there.

Or consider this Times piece by Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson, on the reckless errancy of Trump’s foreign-policy moves so far. Stevenson, a foreign-policy and military expert who served on President Obama’s National Security Council, ends his op-ed by calling it “soberingly perverse that any hope for a sound foreign policy may rest on the wider national security bureaucracy’s opposition to its own president and his closest advisers.”

Hmmmm. That’s that kind of deep tectonic institutional stress I referred to above, that rumbling. But it can’t happen here. Right?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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