Following the storming of the US Capitol, President Donald Trump is desperate for an exit ramp that will preserve both his fragile ego and his future political influence. Unfortunately, that conundrum leaves him with few options other than to foment even more chaos both at home and abroad.
NEW YORK – Whether the storming of the US Capitol was an attempted coup, an insurrection, or an assault on democracy is merely a question of semantics. What matters is that the violence was aimed at derailing a legitimate transition of power for the benefit and at the behest of a dangerous madman. President Donald Trump, who has never hidden his dictatorial aspirations, should now be removed from power, barred from public office, and prosecuted for high crimes.
After all, the events of January 6 may have been shocking, but they were not surprising. I and many other commentators had long warned that the 2020 election would bring civil unrest, violence, and attempts by Trump to remain in power illegally. Beyond his election-related crimes, Trump is also guilty of a reckless disregard for public health. He and his administration bear much of the blame for the massive COVID-19 death toll in the United States, which accounts for only 4% of the global population but 20% of all coronavirus deaths.
Once a beacon of democracy, rule of law, and good governance, the US now looks like a banana republic that is incapable of controlling either a contagious disease – despite spending more on health care per capita than any other country – or mobs incited by a wannabe dictator. Authoritarian leaders around the world are now laughing at the US and scoffing at American critiques of others’ political misrule. As if the damage done to US soft power over the past four years was not immense enough, Trump’s failed insurrection has undermined America’s standing even more.
Worse, although President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated in about a week, that is plenty of time for Trump to create more mayhem. Right-wing militias and white supremacists are already planning more acts of protest, violence, and racial warfare in cities across the US. And strategic rivals such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will be looking to exploit the chaos by sowing disinformation or launching cyber-attacks, including potentially against critical US infrastructure.
At the same time, a desperate Trump may try to “wag the dog” by ordering a strike – perhaps with a tactical nuclear warhead – on Iran’s main nuclear facility in Natanz, on the grounds that it is being used to enrich uranium. Far from this being out of the question, the Trump administration has already held drills with stealth bombers and fighter jets – loaded, for the first time, with tactical nuclear weapons – to signal to Iran that its air defenses are no defense at all.
No wonder Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi felt the need to reach out to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss steps to prevent a nuclear strike by the Dr. Strangelove in the White House. Whereas an unwarranted order to launch a nuclear attack on a target with a large civilian population would be rejected by the military as obviously “illegal,” an attack on a military target in a non-populated area might not be, even if it would have dire geopolitical consequences. Moreover, Trump knows that both Saudi Arabia and Israel would tacitly support an attack on Iran (indeed, the US may avail itself of Saudi logistical and ground support to carry one out, given the shorter range of nuclear-armed fighter jets).
The prospect of an attack on Iran may give Vice President Mike Pence the pretext he needs to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from power. But even if this were to happen, it would not necessarily be a win for democracy and the rule of law. Trump could – and likely would – be pardoned by Pence (as Richard Nixon was by Gerald Ford), allowing him to run for president again in 2024 or be a kingmaker in that election, given that he now controls the Republican party and its base. Removing Trump with the promise of a pardon may be a Faustian deal that Pence strikes with Trump.
Because the self-pardon that Trump has been considering might not pass constitutional muster, it is reasonable to assume that he will be groping around for other creative outs. He cannot simply resign and allow Pence to issue a pardon, because that would make him look like a “loser” who accepted defeat (the worst insult in Trump’s egomaniacal lexicon). But if the president were to order an attack on Iran and then become a (pardoned) martyr, he could both preserve his base and avoid accountability. By the same token, Trump cannot risk being impeached (again), because that would open up the possibility of his being disqualified from holding office in the future. By this reasoning, he has every incentive to go out with a bang and on his own terms.
If this all sounds like the final days of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned,” that’s because it is. The decay of the American empire appears to be hastening rapidly. Given how politically, socially, and economically divided the US is, four years of sound leadership under Biden will not be enough to reverse the damage that has been done. Most likely, the Republicans will do everything they can to sabotage the new administration, as they did with former President Barack Obama.
Even before the election, US national-security agencies were warning that domestic right-wing terrorism and violence would remain the primary home-grown threat to the US. With Biden in office, this risk will be higher still. For the last four years, heavily armed white-supremacist militias have been kept relatively at bay by dint of the fact that they had an ally in the White House. But once Trump is gone, the groups whom he has instructed to “stand back and stand by” will not simply accept Democratic control of the presidency and Congress. Trump, operating from Mar-a-Lago, will continue to incite the mob with more lies, conspiracy theories, and falsehoods about a stolen election.
The US will thus most likely be the world’s new epicenter of political and geopolitical instability in the months and years ahead. America’s allies will need to hedge their bets against a future return of Trumpism, and strategic rivals will continue to try to destabilize the US through asymmetric warfare. The world is in for a long, ugly, bumpy ride.