Donald Trump is in trouble, and that could spell very bad news

Edward Luce: Increasingly desperate US president would sabotage democracy to stay in power

Eyewitness footage has captured police firing tear gas on protesters demonstrating outside The White House just minutes before US president Donald Trump walked to the nearby St. John's Episcopal Church. Video: Reuters

 

It Can’t Happen Here was the title of a 1930s novel about America. Fascism never came to the US – nor is it likely to. But martial law, or something close to the militarisation of America’s cities, is plausible.

In the past few days, residents of Washington DC have become familiar with the low-flying helicopters, sand-coloured Humvees, nightly curfews and uniformed men that go with military control.

Were these scenes unfolding in Hong Kong every think-tank in America’s capital would be scheduling emergency webinars. As it is, people are too dazed by the novelty to gauge the risk. The chances of Donald Trump being re-elected in November are not very high. That is the source of America’s danger.

But first, the good news. The Pentagon has no interest in breaking a 233-year habit to interfere in US politics. Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, frightened a lot of people earlier this week by referring to America’s streets as “the battle space” in support of Trump’s call to dominate the protests.

On Wednesday, Esper reversed himself and disavowed military control of America’s cities. This is likely to get Esper fired, possibly within days. His statement was as close as you get to resigning without doing so. Shortly afterwards, the Pentagon said it would be withdrawing 1,600 US troops that had been moved to the Washington area.

Unfortunately, the bad news outweighs the good. That troop order was then itself reversed. As has been said before, Trump is a weak man posing as a strong one. On Monday, his attorney-general, William Barr, ordered the police to clear the square in front of the White House so that Trump could do a photo-opportunity by holding a Bible in front of the local church.

This was in response to mockery that the Secret Service had taken Trump down to the White House bunker as protesters gathered around its perimeter. Barr, who shares none of Esper’s squeamishness, is pushing that perimeter further out. National Guardsmen stand sentinel over the White House’s expanded boundaries.

What is the point of all this? The key is to view these images through the lens of reality television.

Trump’s message

Trump wants Americans to believe that the White House is threatened by domestic terrorists, arsonists, thugs, looters and killers – words he has used frequently in the past few days. US stability is under threat, he claims. The president’s life, and those of decent law-abiding Americans, are threatened by the extremists on the streets. That is the gist of Trump’s message. But it requires a visual backdrop. Hence the hyped-up situation in Washington.

A more sober assessment is that Trump’s poll numbers are dropping. He is faced with the triple cocktail of a badly-managed pandemic, the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression and an inability to quell the legitimate anger behind America’s demonstrations.

Most of those protests are peaceful. There has been looting and scuffles with police. So far, there is no instance of a protester having killed or maimed anyone, let alone a police officer. Several protesters have been killed or maimed by the police. Moreover, most of the looting appears to have been carried out by criminals under cover of the chaos.

It is a very different reality to the one Trump depicts. There is little prospect of him legitimately reversing his fortunes in the coming months. I have lived in enough democracies, including America, to know a doom-laden government when I see one.

Trump was fortunate to have avoided a real crisis in his first three years. Now he has three on his hands. His instincts are mostly optical. He is threatening to use powers that he does not have, such as sending the army into the streets. But he is refusing to use powers he does have, such as marshalling a national response to coronavirus.

These are the actions and inactions of someone with little interest in governing. But Trump does have a burning desire to be re-elected. In his mind defeat would lead to the dismantlement of the Trump Organization and his prosecution and possible imprisonment.

Faced with a choice between sabotaging American democracy or a future spent in and out of court rooms, I have no doubt where Trump’s instincts would lie. It would be up to others to stop him. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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