Over the weekend I went to Ford’s Theater. Among the exhibits on display in the theater’s excellent museum section is the dagger that John Wilkes Booth is said to have used (it’s a hot topic of debate among Lincoln assassination obsessives) to stab Major Henry Rathbone, who was a guest of the president’s at the theater that fateful night. After Booth fired the fatal shot, Rathbone tried to accost him. Booth stabbed Rathbone and jumped down to the stage, issuing his infamous shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (or “thus ever to tyrants”), before dashing off stage left.
The knife was engraved with the words “liberty” and “America.”
Of course it was. Sic semper fascistae. Fascists always, always appropriate the language of patriotism while they are destroying a country. Indeed, it’s precisely how they get away with it. They repeat and repeat that only they are the true patriots and that their vision for the nation constitutes the only true consummation of its original ideals. Their opponents, meanwhile, are the real destroyers and traitors. They say of their opponents what is exactly true of themselves, and they know it. Set the Reichstag on fire, then accuse the Communists of doing it. Works every time.
Though it might not work this time. Republican House and Senate candidates are removing references to Trump from their websites. Trumpworld and GOP operatives are said to be talking about how to deploy Trump this fall, because he wants to get out there on the trail, but Republicans are nervous about this for the obvious reasons: Mounting evidence continues to suggest that he has violated the Presidential Records Act and obstructed justice, and while Republican voters are mostly sticking by him, independents are jumping ship (only 27 percent want him to run in 2024, a disastrous number). What with Joe Biden’s recent speech on MAGA fascism and some poll numbers showing that concern about democracy is on the rise, a clear and present danger is being articulated, with some evident success.
And let’s not forget—the House January 6 committee is ramping up again. What new holy-crap information might it have up its sleeve? In other words, Trump is sure to remain at the center of the news cycle through November, in ways that aren’t likely to make him or his party of enablers look good. That Florida judge (a Trump appointee) has done him a huge favor by agreeing to appoint a special master to go through the Mar-a-Lago documents, but even if the case somehow fizzles—and that’s not a sure thing by any means—a lot of the political damage to Trump has been done. The American public can’t now unsee all the evidence of his culpability that they’ve seen.
And none of this can convince Trump to stop behaving like Trump. This past weekend’s rally in Pennsylvania offers a good indication of where he’s headed this fall. It was, even for him, an unhinged and vile display, during which he used every fascist trick in the book:
• He portrayed himself as both the victim of smears and a martyr absorbing slings and arrows for his followers: “They’re trying to silence me and more importantly they’re trying to silence you. But we will not be silenced, right?”
• He relentlessly lied about political opponents, in this case Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman: “Fetterman supports taxpayer-funded drug dens and the complete decriminalization of illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, and ultralethal fentanyl. By the way, he takes them himself.”
• He used false and extremist language about the sitting government and the media: “The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters, controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers, and the media, who tell them what to do.”
• He described Biden and the Democrats in terms that fit himself more aptly, while winkingly encouraging violence. It was jaw-dropping: “This is a nation that rejects violence as a political tool. We are still, at our core, a democracy. Yet history tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and the willingness to engage in political violence is fatal in a democracy.” Is he really that un–self aware, or was he, from somewhere in that twisted and turbulent brain of his, issuing a confession?
We have 63 days to go until Election Day. If Trump keeps this up—and presumably his rhetoric will get more heated and his lies more operatic—he’ll continue to shed swing voters. This is what’s currently worrying the GOP: If he’s losing these voters, Republican candidates for federal office and for governors’ mansions are likely to lose them too.
Nevertheless, it’s still a heavy lift for Democrats to hold the House. But if Trump’s toxicity continues to escalate, there are Republican pickups he’s putting in jeopardy. Some of the Trump-endorsed extremists might fail to win Senate seats (Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania is a likely possibility, and J.D. Vance in Ohio would be a thunderbolt). There are vulnerable Trumpers up for gubernatorial seats as well (Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Kari Lake in Arizona). It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Democrats might limit their House losses and hold or even add numbers in the Senate. Should things break that way, everyone in the political world will agree that Trump was a big liability.
And it will be under that cloud that the 2024 jockeying will start. Trump may even announce his candidacy right away, to preempt the possibility of an indictment. Frankly, there’s a nonzero chance that he will announce before November (I hope he does; it would be horrible for Republican candidates in swing states and districts). Republicans will be in a panic that they may be about to nominate a candidate who has alienated independent voters—and who may well be under indictment, which would help him in a primary but not in a general.
It’s painful in the extreme to watch fascism descend on the world’s oldest democracy. I despair about it every day. Donald Trump will destroy this country without a thought if doing so suits his needs and purposes. He will put us through trauma that may produce not just civil war but a kind of mass psychosis, a national mental illness. Poor Major Rathbone descended into madness after witnessing Lincoln’s assassination. He ultimately killed his wife and was committed to an asylum for the clinically insane. There may be a metaphor in there for what could happen to this country after Trump assassinates democracy.
But the good news is that the way things are going now, he may destroy himself and the Republican Party before he has the chance to destroy the country. It’s certainly what they all deserve.