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Eleven Christmases ago, a student boarded a Northwest Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit with a singular mission.
As the plane crossed the US border, he spent 20 minutes in the bathroom and then returned to his seat. There he tried to detonate his underwear, but only succeeded in burning his leg. The likely reason Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to kill almost 300 people was because he was sweating too much.
The US has often been lucky that its enemies are too incompetent to detonate their own devices. But rather than relying on good fortune, successive presidents have spent trillions of dollars building a post-9/11 military order that is supposed to protect our freedoms.
After listening to the outgoing president’s call with Georgia officials, it’s painfully clear that Donald Trump is the underwear bomber of our democracy. We are blessed to have such incompetent enemies, but the next assailant will not sweat quite so much, or so obviously. We cannot wait until someone comes along who knows how to light the fuse.
How incompetent is the soon-to-be-ex-president? Trump wields the awesome power of the presidency with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer trying to crack a safe.
“So what are we going to do here, folks,” he asked Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break. You know, we have that in spades already. Or we can keep it going, but that’s not fair to the voters of Georgia because they’re going to see what happened, and they’re going to see what happened.”
By “keeping it going” Trump meant he would wield his delusional sledgehammer on stage at his Georgia rally on Monday night, the day before the state’s crucial run-off elections that will determine which party controls the US Senate for the next two years.
It’s not that Trump doesn’t try. Yoda says there is no try, but Trump really does try. He tries to sound precise with all the numbers of votes he dreams up. He tries to threaten the state election officials with unspecified crimes and political punishment.
“Well, under law, you’re not allowed to give faulty election results, okay? You’re not allowed to do that. And that’s what you done. This is a faulty election result,” Trump warns his fellow Republican.
“You should meet tomorrow because you have a big election coming up, and because of what you’ve done to the president – you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam – and because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote. And a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president. Okay? They hate it. And they’re going to vote. And you would be respected. Really respected, if this thing could be straightened out before the election.”
One of the many challenges of this era is the distortion field that surrounds Donald Trump. Because he only cares for himself, and because he represents such a grotesque distortion of leadership, we focus on the individual. We try to understand his sociopathy and we talk about Trumpism, assuming it will all dissipate after inaugural day.
But at this point, our concern should not focus on whether Trump and his allies can still derail Joe Biden’s inauguration: they can’t. Instead we should be deeply concerned about whether this cult can derail our democracy.
Long after Trump shuffles down the ramp to his post-presidency, there will be another: a Josh Hawley or a Ted Cruz or a Tom Cotton. We won’t call their autocratic politics Trumpism, but they will be Trump-like.
The roots of this ideology are deep and the network is extensive. At the end of this post-9/11 era, we are waking up to an insidious and far-reaching series of threats to our democracy and way of life. Some of its agents are directed by leaders like Trump; others are self-starting, independent actors. Some are inspired and organized internationally, but many are now home-grown.
The racist, undemocratic wing of American politics moved briefly to the kooky fringes after the civil rights movement. But it burst back onto the main stage in the Obama years with the Tea party and its congressional outgrowth, the ironically-named Freedom Caucus. At the heart of the caucus were Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows – past and present chiefs of staff to one Donald Trump.
It was Meadows who was polishing the turd as he teed up Trump’s call to Georgia’s state officials on Saturday.
“What I’m hopeful for is there some way that we can, we can find some kind of agreement to look at this a little bit more fully,” Meadows ventured. “Mr Secretary, I was hopeful that, you know, in the spirit of cooperation and compromise, is there something that we can at least have a discussion to look at some of these allegations to find a path forward that’s less litigious?”
By less litigious, Meadows meant less engaged with those pesky judges who tossed out all those Trump campaign lawsuits. When Georgia’s secretary of state said the courts decide these issues, Trump himself sounded befuddled.
“Why do you say that, though? I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, sure, we can play this game with the courts, but why do you say that?
The funny thing about this Freedom Caucus ideology is that it doesn’t respect the freedom of the judicial branch.
Trump was planning to award the presidential medal of freedom – the highest civilian honor – to another Freedom Caucus chair, Jim Jordan. And he was traveling to Georgia on Monday with yet another member, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who just happens to support the QAnon conspiracy.
A dozen senators are now openly defying their leader, Mitch McConnell, by promising to challenge the votes of the electoral college this week. They will fail to stop Biden’s presidency, but they are succeeding in splitting their own party between Trumpist autocrats and conservative Republicans.
McConnell should have seen the splinter-group threat of the Tea party from the outset but chose instead to keep them inside his tent. Now he faces the impossible task of pleasing people who are neither conservative nor supporters of the republic.
It is easy to brush this kind of nonsense aside as some temporary fever that will surely break some day. Biden often sounds like he believes he can help administer some centrist medicine with a spoonful of personal charm.
But autocratic politicians nowadays don’t dress in black or brown, and have learned how to sound occasionally normal. Hungary and Poland are still members of the EU. Turkey still has newspapers, just not nearly so many independent ones. Russia still has elections, but its opposition leaders tend to be either jailed or poisoned.
The only reason American democracy survived 2020 is because of historic voter turnout, a handful of principled Republican election officials, and an independent judiciary. None of those factors are guaranteed to survive, and without one of them, the whole system would collapse.
We don’t know precisely why so many former defense secretaries warned Trump and his supporters against involving the military in their last-gasp effort to destroy democracy and the 2020 election results. But we do know the general fear, and the name of the organizer: one Dick Cheney.
It may seem weird that the man who led so many abuses of power in the post-9/11 era should seek to warn us about the abuses of power in the post-Trump era.
But the underwear bomber was no less real for all of Cheney’s promotion of war and torture. And the threat to our democracy is no less real for all of Trump’s buffoonish attempts at autocracy.