The summer of 2020 was a dark time for Americans’ right to protest. A glorious one, sure, as the murder of George Floyd sparked a nationwide (and worldwide) movement that changed the world’s discourse on racist police violence – but chilling and sobering, too, as police forces across the US literally beat backdemonstrators assembled to challenge their brutality.
At the centre of it all, laagered in the White House like a cerebrally challenged Mekon, was Donald Trump. Clueless about how to acknowledge Floyd’s killing specifically or grapple with what the protests meant, he repeatedly tweeted the words “LAW AND ORDER!” and urged a tougher response from the authorities.
Angry at reports he was bundled into the White House bunker, his main public intervention was to lumber across a forcibly cleared Lafayette Square and hold up a closed Bible outside a church. As with much of his presidency, the resulting image was simultaneously fascistic and daft.
But as the deluge of post-Trump presidential autopsy books begins to break, the real darkness that governed his mind at the time is being exposed to daylight.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender, whose Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost chronicles the 45th president’s benighted last year, Trump’s rage at the sight of people on the streets went beyond irritation into something much more terrifying.
“That’s how you’re supposed to handle these people,” Bender quotes him telling his top officials. “Crack their skulls!” On another occasion, Trump reportedly called for the military to go in and “beat the f**k out of them” – and several times, he told officials “just shoot them”. Met with resistance from Attorney General Bill Barr and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Milley, he then apparently clarified: “Well, shoot them in the leg, or maybe the foot. But be hard on them!”
“The leg, or maybe the foot” is just the sort of chilling-yet-childlike concession you’d expect to hear from Trump. In Milley’s telling, rather than backing down entirely when someone (Bill Barr!) pointed out the immorality of issuing violent reprisals for protesting, he negotiated over the degree of violence rather than the principle of what the state should and shouldn’t do to people expressing their constitutional rights.
There are, of course, words to describe the sort of head of state who responds to largely peaceful protest movements by demanding that the military go in to crack their citizens’ skulls and shoot them in the legs and/or feet.
What else does Bender’s story tell us? It’s easy enough to add it to the tall stack of anecdotes that proves just how unfit Trump was, and just how pathological his power-for-power’s-sake worldview is, too. But more crucially, it’s a reminder that while the last four years are often described as a low point in American political history, they might be better described as a narrow escape.
The theme of “it could have been so much worse” is the Trump administration’s one saving grace, a golden ribbon tied round a festering low-quality steak. More than a few times when it really mattered, the president’s worst impulses were checked, or diluted, or headed off.
Trump’s psychopathology-as-policy still had extraordinarily cruel consequences for millions of people, not least children separated from their parents and locked in cages or families kept apart by the ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. But again and again, just enough was done by the courts or the Congress to ensure that it could have been so much worse.
More to the point, it might be a whole lot worse next time around.
This is a point that writer and scholar Anne Applebaum has repeatedly made in her moving and terrifying book Twilight of Democracy, in which she examines why authoritarian, anti-democratic movements arose in so many countries in recent years. As Applebaum sees it, Trump was simply not competent enough or precise enough in his thinking to surround himself with the people he needed to enact the things he was really capable of, or to sufficiently purge the institutions that stood in his way.
The real worry is that the next person to run for president on a Trumpist platform harbours not only a remorselessly cynical attitude to the US’s constitutional setup, but also the wherewithal to attack it competently.
There are plenty of people around ready to do this. Trump was hardly the only Republican to call for military intervention on the streets in the summer of 2020: Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton memorably took a wrecking-ball to the New York Times’s opinion section at the time with an op-ed baldly titled “Send in the Troops”, a prescription that he acknowledged ”may not appear often in chic salons” but insisted was widely supported.
To get a sense of what it was that kept Trump from being Trump to the fullest extent, it’s essential to look beyond the European fascists of old. Those are simplistic analogies, and their citizens were not lucky enough to benefit from narrow escapes before the worst happened.
A better parallel is with Brazil’s incumbent blowhard thug, Jair Bolsonaro. Deeply bigoted, openly nostalgic for the days of military dictatorship and given to indulging dark conspiracy theories even as Covid-19 slices through his country’s population, he is a democrat’s nightmare come true — but so far, the institutions that keep Brazil’s democracy from crumbling (the courts especially) have not given way. Even his relationship with the military is not working as he’d like. Elections next year will almost certainly see him standing against his bitter rival, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who was released from prison when the Supreme Court ruled his incarceration unlawful. Lula currently leads Bolsonaro in polls by 20 points, a lead that could win him the presidency in one round – as Bolsonaro won it in 2018.
The role of America’s institutions in checking Trump’s brutal impulses cannot be overstated, especially during his protracted challenge to the 2020 election. Judge after judge, many of them appointed by him, threw out the ridiculous “fraud” cases brought by Kraken-wrangler Sidney Powell and FBI corruption suspect Rudy Giuliani. Elected secretaries of state refused to “find” votes for him. On January 6, congressional staff rescued boxes of electoral college votes from the Senate floor, and a Capitol Police officer led rioters away from the elected officials some seemingly intended to execute.
These people were acting in accordance not just with the rules, but with institutional norms and basic values. That their actions worked, and that they were allowed to carry them out, indicates that Trump failed. He did not ultimately instrumentalise the courts, as the Polish government has; he did not muster the power to successfully intimidate any lower-ranking official he liked; and he was either unwilling or unable to fully exploit the Capitol insurrection to his full benefit once it got underway.
The next time around, the US may not be so lucky. Never mind being shot in the leg, or the foot: if a cynical Trumpist with a strategy, brains and nerve is given the chance to govern, the institutions that essentially saved American democracy will be put to a whole new test.