Some of the most intelligent and penetrating criticism of what has become of the Republican Party in the wake of Donald Trump has come from disaffected, former Republicans. From The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin to The Atlantic’s David Frum, to the newer breed of “never-Trumpers” such as The Lincoln Project’s Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson, the harshest, most biting—and often the most spot-on—condemnations of the GOP’s descent into a fascist cult of Trump, and of Trump himself, have come from these folks.
Some may be inclined to discount such criticism as merely pique or grievance by those who now find themselves exiled from a political party that they literally spent their lives respecting. But for those inclined to believe that, I suggest that before dismissing their motivations, you try to put yourselves in their place. Imagine witnessing your political party, probably the source of most of your personal and social identity, utterly despoiled by a crude, criminal-minded sociopath who has managed to channel the worst, most un-American impulses from the same people you once considered your closest and most like-minded allies. The realization that one has more or less permanently consigned as an outsider simply by refusing to bow to this new cult mentality must be more than unpleasant, it must be mortifying. For these (apparently few) people in the GOP, two plus two still equals four; it can never, and must never be five, despite what the sycophants think.
Robert Kagan was one of the original neocons, a co-founder of the ill-fated Project for the New American Century, which provided Republicans the intellectual rationale (to the extent that one could possibly exist) for the American foreign policy debacle known as the Iraq War. For this, his views and opinions are understandably held at arm’s length by most Democrats. However, he was one of the few people early on who took the threat posed by Donald Trump quite seriously. In a May 2016 opinion piece for The Washington Post, titled “This is How Fascism Comes to America,” written before Trump had actually secured the GOP presidential nomination, Kagan wasn’t simply prescient; it now seems as if he had traveled back in time from 2021 with a warning of exactly what was to come.
Kagan foresaw exactly why the Trump phenomenon was different and far more sinister than anything the American republic had ever before witnessed, by virtue of Trump’s hold on his followers. In a new piece for The Washington Post, Kagan updates his original assessment with analysis that, if anything, paints an even more sobering and dire picture of the threat Trump poses not just to Republicans, but to the future of this nation.
In 2016, Kagan wrote:
[T]he entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.
What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger.
Kagan recognized well before Trump was elected that the aura of mass resentment and hatred that he cultivated was a larger and far more dangerous thing than Trump himself: “[W]hat he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the ‘mobocracy.’”
And Kagan knew exactly what to call it:
This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.”
In that column Kagan predicted—with astonishing accuracy—exactly how his fellow Republicans would react to a Trump presidency: Some would leap to jump on the bandwagon simply because of their ambition, exhorting the leader’s virtues with their full-throated support with the expectation that their behavior would be rewarded. These are the Matt Gaetzes, the Ted Cruzes, and the Paul Gosars, along with well over a hundred members of the House Sedition Caucus who voted to overturn the the 2020 election.
Others would merely toe Trump’s line out of pure expediency. As Kagan put it then: “Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.” These were the Paul Ryans and Bob Corkers of the party at that time. We know what happened to them: They got out quickly, and are now all but forgotten.
Others would simply go along to get along, secretly confident that Trump was merely a brief phenomenon that would burn itself out. Meanwhile they’d enjoy the opportunities provided by his ascendance. Those are the Marco Rubios, the Ben Sasses, and the Mitt Romneys, confident they will weather the storm unscathed by Trump’s putrefaction, some doubtlessly believing that the Trump stench now sanctified by their party will somehow, one day, allow itself to be scrubbed away.
As Kagan explained in 2016, those who believed this comforting, illusory fairy tale would be proven wrong as well.
What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically.
Four and a half years later, Kagan doesn’t bother to reference his 2016 article in his new piece. He doesn’t need to. His subject now is the immediate future of the American republic. In Friday’s lengthy, detailed and damning piece for The Washington Post, he spells out in where we are most likely heading.
The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial.
Kagan, like many others, has absolutely no doubt that Trump will run again in 2024. Nor does he doubt that his former Republican allies will conspire to do whatever is necessary to ensure Trump’s victory, including overthrowing elections wherever states’ official vote counts suggest otherwise. To emphasize his point, Kagan recounts what most of us are already aware of: the systematic Trumpification of state and local election officials who will eagerly jump at the chance to negate and falsify any election that does not turn out the way Trump wants in 2024.
Meanwhile, Kagan notes, Democrats respond with essentially futile attempts to respond within the parameters of law, passing what are essentially symbolic measures like the John Lewis Voting Rights bill and the abortion rights bill, both of which are doomed to fail, thanks to wholesale Republican opposition as well as the GOP’s apologists and useful fools within the Democratic Party who refuse to abolish the filibuster.
As Kagan sees it, this is the reality of our future about three years from now.
The stage is thus being set for chaos. Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.
According to Kagan, this is the path we’re on, while Democrats continue to pretend that “laws” and “procedure” and “polity” have any meaning. In this Kagan reiterates, without directly mentioning it, exactly what he said in 2016.
Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian. They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power. The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way — if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.
Kagan also makes some salient points that have not been raised before, particularly about what our country is likely to look like after 2022, once, as he predicts, “the Republican zombie party wins control of the House,” and an entire branch of our government becomes hostage to the likes of Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He believes Trump will announce his candidacy at that time, and will soon be allowed back on Twitter, on Facebook, and everywhere else that Americans go to to get their information. “With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.” Kagan believes that there is no way that these social media outlets will be able to justify restricting Trump’s lies once he becomes an official candidate with a following in the tens of millions.
There is a lot to unpack in Kagan’s piece, far more than can be excerpted here in compliance with fair use doctrine. But he ends with an oblique plea to “anti-Trump” Republicans to stand up and denounce Trump’s fascist destruction of our republic, and to work with Democrats on issues limited to the preservation of our elections; however he does not explain what could possibly motivate anyone within the GOP—a party that is now wholly under Trump’s control—to do so.
Kagan also admonishes Democrats to avoid painting all GOP policies over the past 30 years merely as “precursors to Trumpism,” in order to make space for Republicans to take that opportunity. But he offers no real reason why we should expect Republicans to respond to such an overture if it were made. Republicans didn’t listen in 2016, and there’s frankly no reason to expect them to pay attention now. Additionally, as Kagan himself points out, the reason that saving our elections cannot be accomplished right now—thanks to the filibuster—owes itself to the timidity of such Republicans as much as it does to Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
If there is a fault in Kagan’s analysis, it is the implicit assumption that a sufficient number of Republicans still exist who actually care about the continuation of the American experiment, so much so that they would be willing to withstand the wrath of Trump and his rabidly insensate base. What Trump has shown us is that there simply aren’t very many of those Republicans left.
If the republic is to be saved, it appears all but certain that Democrats alone will be ones to save it.