Reflections on an inflection point

Since we’re going through what seems to be a world-historic moment, I’m using this space to record my impressions about the current U.S., um, situation. We’ll see how well they’ll age.

If the United States makes it through the next couple of weeks, let alone to November, as a democracy, it will be in large part because the U.S. military refused to go along with Trump’s naked desire to send them into American cities to kill their fellow Americans. Which brings to mind two things.

The last American democratic guardrail?

First, in terms of the norms and institutions that were supposed to safeguard American democracy against Trump, this is really last-line-of-defence stuff. Trump has spent the past four years eviscerating one norm after another, bending the bureaucracy and intelligence agencies to his will to the extent that the Department of Justice now sees itself as Trump’s personal law firm, which is not the way it is supposed to work. By failing to convict him for obvious crimes in January, the Republican-controlled Senate made explicit the previously implicit deal to allow Trump to act with no checks on his increasingly unhinged actions.

But we finally might have discovered the last remaining democratic norm in the United States: the deeply ingrained reluctance of the U.S. military to intervene in domestic politics or to attack American citizens (and thank goodness for it).

The visceral reaction of American military leaders, and the public generally, to Trump’s self-interested military machinations reminds me of the 2017 Alabama Senate election, in which a deep-red state showed that it would rather give a Senate seat to a Democrat than someone accused of multiple instances of sexual assault and child molestation. That election turned out well for supporters of basic human decency and showed that there were some things that even diehard American partisans refuse to excuse.

We’ll see how the next few weeks go for American democracy, but at the moment there seem to be at least two norms that unite an otherwise-polarized country.

The military decides

The second thing has to do with the role of the military in this conflict. In unstable societies when it’s brought into play, military action or inaction is usually decisive in determining outcomes. This fundamental power of the military is often obscured in stable and (relatively) peaceful countries like Canada, with a long history of civilian command of the military. In such countries issues rarely get to the point where the military feels it is forced to choose between obeying or not obeying civilian orders.

That everyone is paying so much attention to which way the military will swing — will they obey Trump, their civilian Commander in Chief, or will they follow the Constitution? — betrays exactly how weak the U.S. state is at the moment. In an even halfway stable, non-failing state, things would never have gotten this far. We’re so used to thinking of the United States as a stable colossus that it can be hard to see these signs of weakness for what they are.

But they also highlight the enormously high stakes of the current moment. If the military follows the Commander-in-Chief into American streets (well, not follow, because Trump is a coward), all bets are off. Worst-case scenario, it would mean that the U.S. military, the sole holdout against Trumpism, would be under the control of a naked authoritarian (as shown by his actions this week). Such a move could well be the death knell for American democracy.

But if the military refuse to follow Trump’s wishes, and if Republican voters (even a minority of them) give Trump the Roy Moore cold shoulder, then there’s a good chance that Trump will effectively be neutered in his last few months in office.

At least that’s how it seems to me, from my side of the Canada-U.S. border. For what little it’s worth, I’m hopeful that the norm will hold. But there’s no certainty that it will.

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