The Plot Against America

The darkest fears (and silver lining) of a Trump presidency.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - JUNE 11:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump embraces the United States flag during a campaign rally  at the Tampa Convention Center on June 11, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. Florida Gov. Rick Scott spoke at the rally and introduced Trump. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - JUNE 11: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump embraces the United States flag during a campaign rally at the Tampa Convention Center on June 11, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. Florida Gov. Rick Scott spoke at the rally and introduced Trump. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be sitting down to write this at midnight. I am, I admit, in a bad state. I can’t help feeling that America has committed the most calamitous mistake of my lifetime. There will be a time to be reasonable and to think what one what must do to prevent Donald J. Trump from inflicting terrible damage to the United States and to the world. But this is a moment for the rending of garments.

I have spent much of the last year writing about the challenge to the liberal order in Europe. I did not think that what happened in Poland and Hungary could happen here. When, last spring, I asked Lech Walesa how Poland could have elected the reactionary nationalist Law and Justice party, he said, “What about the United States? You’ve got Donald Trump?” Yes, I said, but Trump won’t win. He grinned and said something. My translator turned to me and said, “Mr. Walesa says that he is sure Donald Trump has something up his sleeve.” Mr. Walesa was right.

Now the postwar liberal order has been upended in the nation that created it, paid for it, defended it by means military, cultural, and ideological. Donald Trump won the presidency by openly pitting some Americans against others — against Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, and liberals. He won by calling his rival a criminal and vowing to prosecute her. He won by inciting crowds to acts of violence. We have no precedent for this. George Wallace won 45 electoral votes in 1968. Donald Trump won, at this count, at least 279.

We must turn to fiction for analogies. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagined that Charles Lindbergh, the pro-German isolationist and mega-celebrity, won the Republican nomination for president in 1940 and then defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lindbergh signs peace treaties with Nazi Germany and Japan and installs Henry Ford as secretary of the interior. Anti-Semitic mobs attack Jews while the Ku Klux Klan is unleashed on blacks. White nationalism rules the country. This was allegory, not fantasy: Roth was writing about something he found latent in America. Trump has come along to exploit that dormant spirit with such genius that he has achieved what Lindy, the spokesman for the America First movement, barely dreamed of.

We do not, thank God, live in nearly so perilous an era as the one Roth was writing about. But Trump is eager to make peace with Vladimir Putin, who more than any other individual has set himself against the Western values of individual liberty and political freedom. Putin has returned the favor by hacking the emails of senior Democratic officials — which Trump had the astonishing effrontery to welcome. And Trump will target the outsiders of our own day, whether Hispanic immigrants or Muslim Americans. Is the analogy so very far-fetched?

American institutions are far stronger than those in the new democracies of Eastern Europe, and I do not worry that Trump will be able to duplicate the assault upon judicial independence, or the free press, or secularism, that Viktor Orban in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland have pursued. But he would like to. Trump has never brooked opposition, or accepted its legitimacy, throughout his business life. Why should he change that view now that he has won so ringing an endorsement?

What’s more, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the undisputed leader of Law and Justice, has used the power of the state to pursue a vendetta against his political enemies, conjuring scandals out of the most insignificant acts. Will this be the hallmark of a President Trump, who has threatened to sue the women who accused him of sexual abuse, and has launched the ugliest personal attacks against anyone who has crossed him, including honored Republicans like John McCain? We may see the White House degraded, as it was under Richard Nixon, into an instrument of personal vengeance.

Who can say what a President Trump will do in, and to, the world? He has reflexes, but he does not have policies. We know that he admires Putin, and we know that he considers Syria already a lost cause. Presumably he would abandon any pretense of supporting the Syrian opposition and instead throw in his lot with Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the name of fighting terrorism.

We know that he considers the nuclear pact that President Barack Obama painstakingly reached with Iran to be the worst deal ever made (or perhaps it’s tied for worst with every other agreement Obama has ever reached, and NAFTA). He, and a Republican Congress, will abrogate that deal, which will likely send Iran into a frenzy of nuclear enrichment, and which will in turn provoke Israel — perhaps with American help — to launch an attack. Iran, in turn, will respond by using its proxies — including Hezbollah — to sponsor attacks against Israel and the United States everywhere it can. And then? Will an outraged Trump order an invasion? Who can guess?

We know that Trump considers global warming a hoax. Few things are more certain than that he will repudiate the Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions. And should Washington (I can hardly bring myself to write “Washington” as shorthand for “the Donald Trump administration”) abandon efforts to slow climate change, we can predict that many, if not most, major governments will follow suit.

A year or so ago, I attended a forum at the Brookings Institution in which experts debated the future of a values-based foreign policy. At the end of the day, I said I thought the great question was not between realism and idealism, but between any policy at all and none — between engaging with the world, on whatever terms, and withdrawing from it. Donald Trump is the voice of disengagement, and he has struck a deep and perennial chord in the American people. He wants to build walls: against trade, against immigration, against all the bad forces out there in the world. And that is what he will believe he has won a mandate to do. Perhaps he has.

The question to which, right now, we can only guess at the answer is: What kind of opposition will he provoke? How will Republicans choose between party loyalty and what they understand to be the good of the nation? After all, Trump has repudiated mainstream Republicanism as surely as he has orthodox liberalism. Will Paul Ryan, now speaker of the House of Representatives but perhaps not for long under a Trump dispensation, stand by as his president persecutes domestic enemies and trashes foreign alliances? Will what now passes for mainstream conservatives reason that Trump will, after all, give them the Supreme Court they’ve always yearned for? Will that be enough? If so, we must tremble for the Republic.

And what are those of us to do who misjudged everything (see my all-too-recent piece imagining a Clinton presidency), who incarnate the values that Trump voters despise, and who will henceforth become rank outsiders? I admit that my inclination is to cultivate my own garden, to retreat for the next four years into teaching and writing works of history. But once we get over the shock, the question of the day will be how to preserve the values we most cherish. That doesn’t just mean standing at the ramparts. The day after tomorrow, the urgent task will be to rethink and recast political and economic liberalism in order to forge a non-demagogic, non-cynical, non-vulgar answer to the profound anxieties about the future that this election has exposed. That is a fight worth waging.

Photo credit:  Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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