There’s a pretty good chance that sometime over the next few years something nasty will happen — a terrorist attack on a public place, an exchange of fire in the South China Sea, something. Then what?
After 9/11, the overwhelming public response was to rally around the commander in chief. Doubts about the legitimacy of a president who lost the popular vote and was installed by a bare majority on the Supreme Court were swept aside. Unquestioning support for the man in the White House was, many Americans believed, what patriotism demanded. …
Unfortunately, the suspension of critical thinking ended … badly. The Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 rush of patriotism to take America into an unrelated war, then used the initial illusion of success in that war to ram through huge tax cuts for the wealthy.
Bad as that was, however, the consequences if Donald Trump finds himself similarly empowered will be incomparably worse.
Mr. Trump’s attack on Judge James Robart, who put a stay on his immigration ban, was unprecedented. The really striking thing about Mr. Trump’s Twitter tirade, however, was his palpable eagerness to see an attack on America, which would show everyone the folly of constraining his power. What we see here is the most powerful man in the world blatantly telegraphing his intention to use national misfortune to grab even more power. And the question becomes, who will stop him?
Don’t talk about institutions, and the checks and balances they create. Institutions are only as good as the people who serve them.
Authoritarianism, American-style, can be averted only if people have the courage to stand against it. So who are these people?
It certainly won’t be Mr. Trump’s inner circle. It won’t be Jeff Sessions, his new attorney general. It might be the courts — but Mr. Trump is doing all he can to delegitimize judicial oversight in advance.
What about Congress? Well, maybe, just maybe, there are enough Republican senators who really do care about America’s fundamental values to cross party lines in their defense. But given what we’ve seen so far, that’s just hopeful speculation.
In the end, I fear, it’s going to rest on the people, on whether enough Americans are willing to take a public stand. We can’t handle another post-9/11-style suspension of doubt about the man in charge; if that happens, America as we know it will soon be gone.