One of the most underappreciated blessings of living in a liberal democracy is that citizens usually don’t have to parse or propagate conspiracy theories to keep abreast of political developments. If you live in a monarchy, a theocracy, or a dictatorship, you know that the state will try to conceal some of the most basic political developments from the public. Under those circumstances, wild speculation is not irrational; it is a reasonable response to a highly secretive and (more often than not) deeply corrupt system.
It says a lot about the sorry state of the American republic, then, that all of us have been forced to engage in the same kind of conspiratorial speculation over the past months. Circumstantial evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign kept piling up. There was plenty of reason to wonder whether Trump’s team had actively worked with the Kremlin. It was impossible not to become obsessed with semisubstantiated, semiparanoid theories.
So, strangely, I felt a sense of relief when, earlier Tuesday, the wildest and least plausible of the conspiracy theories that had been swirling around was finally confirmed: We now know that the most senior members of Trump’s campaign were willing—even eager—to deploy illegally obtained information about their adversary. They sought to do this despite knowing full well that the information was being provided to them by a hostile power.
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The self-incrimination couldn’t have been more blatant. During the 2016 campaign, the president’s son and adviser, Donald Trump Jr., was offered what was described to him as “very high level and sensitive information” about Hilary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“I love it,” he quickly replied
Though the facts of the sordid matter may not constitute treason in the legal sense, there can be little doubt that historians of our turbulent times will regard Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort as traitors.
Even as the evidence of Trump’s incompetence has piled up over the past months, some of his most ardent critics have steadfastly regarded him as a master manipulator. When he sent out tweets that had Republican allies running for cover, they cast them as brilliant exercises in distraction. And when he let Putin talk him into the absurd idea of a joint task force on cybersecurity, they jumped to the conclusion that he was one step away from rigging the next election. It is nearly as though, in their minds, Trump was a master of the occult, imbued with magical powers.
The latest series of baroque blunders from the Trump camp exposes how absurd this was. The fact that the Trumps did not take the most basic precautions to conceal their intentions—and appear to lack any coherent strategy for containing or responding to the slow trickle of revelations about their malfeasance—once again betrays the depths of their incompetence. So another set of conclusions has now become incontrovertible: Donald Trump is not playing three-dimensional chess. He does not appear to have a master plan for subverting American democracy.
There is some reason to feel relief about that, too: I shudder to think how much more damage the president could do if only he were a little more competent. And yet, I also worry that his latest troubles might stun us into a false sense of security. For as I’ve said and written again and again, the danger posed by Trump has always stemmed from something more subtle than an outright preference for authoritarian rule.
First, though Trump and his team might not be ideologically opposed to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy, they have—as this scandal once again shows—absolutely no regard for them. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that Trump Jr. had to wrestle with his conscience before agreeing to collude with a foreign power to subvert the election. But if that’s the case, not a shred of evidence for such hesitation is contained in the emails he himself released.
And second, though Trump might not have an ideological commitment to a more authoritarian mode of government, his words and his actions have consistently betrayed authoritarian instincts. The firing of James Comey and his threats against CNN, the willingness to collude with Russia and his vow to keep Americans “in suspense” about whether he would accept the outcome of the election all betray that there is no limit to his egotism. He likes elections just fine—so long as they give him a stomping majority. He is in favor of a free press—so long as it praises him. He loves the FBI—so long as it doesn’t dare to investigate him.
In the abstract, Trump is a flawless democrat. When it comes down to the details, he has, at every juncture, given voice to his authoritarian instincts.
The first six months of Trump’s presidency have been such a bizarre whirlwind that it is difficult to know quite where we stand. A lot of commentators are already jumping to the conclusion that this is the beginning of the end for him. Perhaps they are right. I certainly hope so.
But if that is true, then now is the time to be especially vigilant. For when Trump starts to see the writing on the wall, he will not go gracefully or give up easily. Unbound by a real commitment to the Constitution or a recognition that there are limits to his rightful authority, he will do what he has always done: sacrifice everything and anything to the cause of Donald Trump.
There are dozens of terrible things Trump could do on his way out of the door: He could pardon accomplices or ignore court orders. He could incite violence or start a foreign war. So, by all means, let us rejoice that Trump is weaker today than he has been at any previous point in his presidency. But let us also remember that the immense danger he poses to the American republic has not passed as long as he occupies the White House.