Sunday, September 11, 2022

Donald Trump and the American Principate

Back when I was in college and soon afterward, I plotted out a dystopian novel called The American Principate, named after a period in early Roman history in which the emperors reigned but the Republic continued to theoretically function. The gist of it was that the abuse of federal war powers in the name of the "War on Terror" would lead to civil war and a presidential military dictatorship in the U.S. initially established by Not George W. Bush and solidified by Not Dick Cheney. It was heavily tapped into 2001-2007 anxieties about the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, etc. and its time came and went, so don't expect me to finish writing it.

(I suppose I could go full alternate-history like Lindsay Ellis did with Axiom's End, but this really isn't something I'm interested in doing anymore.)

However, in a discussion with a friend about dystopias in fiction and what in particular I might find dystopic, I sent him the blog post. He said it seemed like a more subtle dystopia that many Americans would tolerate and could lead to a true dystopia later on. I'm inclined to view it as a dystopia already, but I remember that long-ago World Book encyclopedia set that differentiated between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian." An authoritarian state regulates its subjects' political participation but doesn't meddle overmuch in other aspects of their lives. A totalitarian state will try to control everything. The American Principate, with a few exceptions, is the former rather than the's much more like the very early Soviet Union (in which the Communists, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks were legal parties and the CP was more democratic internally) than the reign of Stalin in which the whole society was reorganized in a bloodthirsty revolution from above.

And the above brings us to Donald Trump. The American Principate allows the two major parties to operate (the Greens and Libertarians are straight-up outlawed on the grounds they undermine the war effort, which given how Twitter partisans of the two major parties are all convinced they're evil spoilers controlled by their rivals or foreign powers would probably be popular), but the range of acceptable political opinion is narrow. The neoconservative/unitary executive crowd is in ascendance and political positions outside that window are only somewhat less verboten than being a Kadet, Right Socialist Revolutionary, Octobrists, etc. were in the early Soviet Union. Democrats like Joe Lieberman, possibly Joe Biden (who supported the 2003 Iraq War), etc. may operate and at least sometimes win (the election system is federalized), but the ones who opposed the Iraq War, especially the more militant ones, not so much. The paleocon wing of the GOP is probably gone too, especially since I had Not Ron Paul as a prominent opposition leader executed by military elements loyal to the president as the civil war drew to a close. Donald Trump, who was advocating against the Iraq War as early as 2004, would probably be staying very carefully out of politics or else some politically-motivated investigations into his finances and other possible crimes would shut him up real quick.

However, should the American Principate suffer a significant reverse, things might change very quickly. Even with a military version of the bracero program allowing large numbers of Mexicans and other Latin Americans to earn U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families, I imagine the occupation of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan and consequent counterinsurgency operations have stretched the military very thinly and cause the U.S. significant financial problems. If something like our world's Arab Spring breaks out, the US might be put in the position of either having to openly, violently crush a non-violent democratic movement in front of the entire world or abandon the post-invasion governments they set up. The latter might end up being inevitable because of fiscal factors alone, especially if China isn't willing to loan the U.S. money anymore. That's going to generate a massive backlash that even the Principate's more authoritarian system might not be able to contain.

And then is where Trump, assuming he hasn't been conveniently jailed already (and possibly even if he has, if he can spin himself as some kind of antiwar martyr jailed by the Deep State--after all, Hungary's semi-dictator Orban was an anti-Soviet political dissident as a young man), might come in. Despite getting only 50% of the vote in the Republican primary, he was able to bend virtually all of the GOP to his will very quickly, and all this despite having personal issues (multiple divorces, avoiding the Vietnam draft, outright contempt for soldiers) that by the standards of 1990s anti-Clinton Republicans would totally disqualify him and one might think would vex the Principate's more militarized society even more. Right now there are 1.9 to 3 million "War on Terror" veterans--more than the two million who served in Vietnam--and in this timeline there are a hell of a lot more due to the occupation of Iran, Egypt, and possibly other countries. Trump calling soldiers "losers" is going to piss off even more people--including party elites who have even more power in this scenario as well as ordinary veterans--than they would have in our history. Although a majority of veterans supported Trump, younger ones didn't, and there are a lot more of them this time. Although this would represent a potential anti-Trump bloc, if he's able to play on their resentment of the system that sent them to a war they couldn't win without indulging in the excesses of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement (yes, they did happen), he might be able to bring them on board or neutralize them politically.

Given the much more aggressive "War on Terror" in this timeline and likely radicalization of U.S.-born Muslims (see the San Bernardino shooting and the Pulse nightclub shooting), I imagine the primary targets for a much more empowered Trump would be Muslims. Trump pushed for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and although existing US laws limited what could ultimately be implemented significantly, those legal checks are going to be much weaker or nonexistent and terrorism-related precedents could be used to override whatever precedents remain. I would imagine Muslim immigration and/or asylum claims would be sharply limited if not barred completely in this scenario, and American-born Muslims would be subject to much greater surveillance and harassment by state authorities or hyped-up Trump supporters. The Principate would likely play up Bush's post-9/11 "Islam is a religion of peace" rhetoric (especially when they need Muslim cooperation for the expanded "War on Terror"), but under Trump the radicalized base would be in the driver's seat.

Another target for a much more powerful Trump would be Hispanics. Although Hispanic support for the Republican Party grew during his administration, he was very zealous about border enforcement even if it led to human-rights violations. In this world, Hispanic immigration to the US was much, much higher due to the "service for citizenship" program and rather than working and going home, they and their families are staying permanently. I imagine the replacement theory enthusiasts will be losing their minds even more so than in our history. Many, many of the January 6 rioters came from areas where the Hispanic population was rising and the white population was declining. Although the Principate would come down hard on anything resembling January 6 (if Not Bush jailed antiwar protesters using anti-terrorism laws and Not Cheney fought a civil war to crush congressional opposition to what was essentially a presidential military dictatorship, I imagine anything resembling J6 in this timeline would be dealt with much more aggressively), this world's Trump and his allies might be able to channel the same sentiment into support for a more aggressive program against further Hispanic immigration. Given how climate change is still going to be a problem in this world, at least some asylum-seekers in recent years were fleeing natural disasters like hurricanes, and this is projected to get worse, I could imagine a much, much uglier migrant crisis. And there would almost certainly be crackdowns on the enlarged U.S. Hispanic population, especially if they object to the stricter border enforcement regime or some other pretext for jailing or deportation could be found.

And Trump does not take criticism or insult well, much less so than Bush 2.0, Cheney, or Obama. According to the upcoming book Holding The Line, Trump sought to have the Justice Department investigate his critics, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In a world where criticism of the government is considered helping terrorists (look at some of the more obnoxious behavior by Republicans in the 2001-2005 period), wartime restrictions of civil liberties were much more severe, and an expanded overseas counterinsurgency to test out new repression techniques, there's plenty of precedent for a President Trump to be much more destructively vindictive than real history. And then there's the prolonged attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, only with a lot fewer if any guardrails against presidential overreach.

So to sum it up, in the world of the American Principate, Donald Trump is much less likely to become president, but if he does, he's going to be much more likely to become a tyrant whose opponents are worthy of the title "the resistance" than the Trump of real life. If Bush 2.0 is Julius Caesar, Dick Cheney is Augustus, and whomever is holding the bag when the Arab Spring breaks out is Tiberius or Claudius, Trump could be the American Caligula, Nero, or Domitian.

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