The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001. But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is: Whatever disaster comes next.
I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism. If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years: Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.
You can see it coming from 100 miles away: Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits. Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil. As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.
At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.
We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it: Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god. Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.
Nope: We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.
It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.
Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews. But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.
Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.
As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front. Never forget: During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S. You know, just in case.
The point isn’t whether he really meant it. As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.
The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds. To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”: The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear. Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.
Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”
Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.
Remember: In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century. Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored. And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.
You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity? More worrying still: Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?
They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election. They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk. And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.
It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history: Republics cannot be destroyed except from within. In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one: The failure of all three branches to uphold it.
On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.