Democracy is probably dead. Got it. But what will fill the power vacuum? There are all sorts of forces fighting now to feast on the carcass. A number of factors, particularly SCOTUS decisions, will ultimately decide who ends up standing on the bloated remnants, gorging themselves on it while the other contenders get only scraps.
The contenders for the festering prize are a motley crew. There are the corporations, the plutocrats, the republicans, the oligarchs, the Trump family, the religious right, corporations, and even the military (probably unwillingly) have a chance at coming out in charge. Or, do we end up with secession, or something even far darker? Whoever ends up running the show will decide what type of dystopia we are heading for.
A number of upcoming events will decide which scenarios are more likely, and which are less. Most of them involve the courts, and will almost certainly be decided in the next 4 years or so. In no particular order, here are some of the foreseeable the events that will potentially tip the balance to one faction or another.
- RFRA applies to employees. Can corporations limit religious expression in the workplace? The religious right and corporations will go toe to toe in the next 4-8 years whether a company has to accommodate employees with anti-LGBT beliefs, or if they can set their own internal policies for non-discrimination.
- State vs. Federal Rights: Conservatives have argued for states’ rights for years. Now that they control the federal government and most states, will they still support states’ rights? If they appoint justices who follow the old conservative model, they may get an answer they don’t like.
- Religious “freedom” vs. women’s rights. Does religious freedom allow businesses and employees to discriminate against women? A 6th Circuit court says yes, and would spell the end of most of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Is Korematsu still good law? Korematsu vs. US Navy was the 1944 SCOTUS decision that found the internment of Japanese Americans was constitutional because national security. Now regarded by most legal scholars as horrible precedent, Justice Thomas still believes it is good case law.
- Can the President have conflicts of interest? If Republicans in Congress are unwilling to set a boundary, there is almost nothing to stop Trump from using his position to amass even more vast personal wealth.
- Repeal of the Johnson Amendment: Trump has promised to repeal the law that prevents churches from endorsing candidates or materially supporting them. Once the Johnson Amendment is gone, churches will be able to funnel unlimited amounts of untraceable black money into the political system, while making a healthy profit on the skim.
- Courts uphold gerrymandering and voter suppression. Once a Party is guaranteed to win overwhelming majorities at the state and federal level, they no longer have to care about opposition from the left, or even from the chamber of commerce.
- Constitutional convention called. Currently, republicans control 32 state legislatures, if they flipped a few purple states (Nevada, Colorado), or took back Alaska, they could get the 34 votes needed to call a constitutional convention. At the convention, they would need 38 votes to pass an amendment. It is hard to see how they get the last 3 votes, but North Carolina style skullduggery could facilitate it. A constitutional convention would likely be meant to overturn Supreme Court decisions (like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell).
- Repeal of McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance laws. While the Supreme Court already struck down many of the provisions of McCain-Feingold in their Citizens United decision. Many corporations and corporate leaders would love to see campaign finance laws more or less done away with.
- Politicized / Puppet Supreme Court. It doesn’t matter whether the rulings make sense, or follow stare decisis, the law of the land will always favor the position of the people holding the reins of power with a puppet Supreme Court.
- Trump is able to establish firm control of the Republican party. There has been an assumption that Trump is too ADD, foolish, vain, hands off, etc… to get everyone to fall in line. However, he does seem to be bringing even his worst critics to heel one by one via combinations of flattery, intimidation, insults, and even humiliation (see dinner with Mitt Romney).
- Trump’s managerial style remains hands off. To date, Trump has shown little interest in the minutiae of governance, and actively encourages dramatic competition within his staff. To be a true autocrat, he would have to be far less willing to let his subordinates make decisions, and more engaged in detail level decisions.
- The federal government is willing to overthrow a legitimately elected state government. This seems like a far out there possibility. However, suppose the federal government demands that all states comply with a federal demand that they produce a list of transgender people and Muslims. Would California comply, even if the courts said they had to? Suppose they didn’t (as I suspect would happen), would the administration be willing to roll tanks into Sacramento? There will undoubtedly be some demands by the current administration that some blue states are unlikely to comply with.
Knowing these conditions can affect the results, here are some of the potential dystopian outcomes and how these decision points will affect
- Plutocracy: Rule by the wealthy
Trump’s cabinet is full of Goldman Sachs types. His tax plans are a gift to the 1%, and we can expect wealth inequality to balloon, and social mobility to plummet. The rich end up calling all of the shots, deciding what laws are passed, and who gets elected via a nearly inexhaustible supply of money and support for campaigns. There is no longer a public interest: just the interests of corporations and the 1%. If they seize this level of control first, it will be hard to wrestle away control. Researchers at Princeton believe we are already reaching this point.
The worst part is this is one of the less scary outcomes. Letting perfectly good workers starve to death or get shot at a gulag is a waste of perfectly good resources. The goal is to give them the minimum necessary to avoid starvation, and get as much productive work as possible from them while in the gulag.
Facilitating factors: Courts reject RFRA applicability to employees, campaign finance law is repealed.
- Theocracy / Ecclesiocracy: A state where all governance comes from a deity, or clergy
Imagine an America where churches can funnel (and skim) unlimited amounts of black money and effort into candidates and the Republican party. Employers must bow to the whims of conservative Christian employees, no matter how outlandish. States can impose religious tests on candidates, and the constitution has been amended to give “special consideration” to Christian beliefs within the court system.
Same sex marriage would also be illegal, as would abortion under all circumstances and probably even same-sex relationships. Being out as LGBT would almost certainly result in a co-worker asserting that it is against their religious beliefs to work with a sodomite or share space, and their beliefs would have to be accommodated.
In short, if you’re not in tight with the Christian right, you’re not going to come anywhere near the levers of power, much less hold a job.
Example States: Saudi Arabia, Iran
Facilitating factors: RFRA expansion to employees, repeal of the Johnson amendment, calling of a constitutional convention, “religious freedom” prevailing over Civil Rights Act protections for women, and federal control upheld over states’ rights.
- De facto One-Party State, Dominant Party System: is a system where there is “a category of parties/political organizations that have successively won election victories and whose future defeat cannot be envisaged or is unlikely for the foreseeable future.”
Imagine a country where only the Republican Party holds any power, but does not have one single leader guiding it. This is observable in North Carolina today, where gerrymandering and voter suppression have created a de facto one party state with veto-proof majorities in both houses. Researchers who try to quantify whether a state is democratic now say that North Carolina is no longer democratic, ranking somewhere between Cuba and Indonesia. The legislature’s behavior under these circumstances has shown them to be immune to economic (e.g. plutocratic / oligarchic) pressure.
Despite democrats receiving more votes than republicans overall, 67 out of 98 state legislatures are controlled by republicans, along with 34 governorships, both houses of Congress, the Presidency, and soon the Supreme court.
Facilitating factors: Politicized SCOTUS, upholding constitutionality of voter suppression and gerrymandering by SCOTUS, repeal / non-enforcement of conflict of interest laws, Trump is unable to lock down control of the Republican Party, and continues a hands-off leadership style.
Example States: Many African Nations, Syria, Tajikistan
- Oligarchy: is a power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people.
They are almost certainly wealthy, but not necessarily. This would flourish under a nepotistic Trump administration that limits real authority to a close circle of associates, while remaining somewhat hands off in terms of day to day details; exercising command by negation and using executive power to crush anyone who interferes with the activities of his designated favorites. These subordinates would most likely be his cabinet, but would also include the extremely wealthy colluding with his administration for mutual economic advantage.
The exact policies of the oligarchy would be subject to what silo of power the oligarch is in, and whether or not they are in or out of favor with Trump. The latter tends to be volatile (e.g. see the brief tenure of Chris Christie). There may or may not even be overarching themes from one agency to another, as oligarchs squabble between themselves for control; a chaotic system which Trump prefers and encouraged within his campaign staff.
This form of government would be corrupt as anything Tamany Hall could have dreamed of, and be full of settling old scores, jockeying for position, and an incoherent overall philosophy on governance. The effective result is a federal government that
Example States: Russia
Facilitating factors: Conflict of interest issues become a moot point (repealed or unenforced), Trump continues to maintain a hands-off approach, courts uphold federal authority over states’ rights
- Fascism (Autocratic Nationalism): is a form of authoritarian nationalism
Fascism usually requires a strong central leader from whom all authority is derived. Opposition parties are legislated out of effective existence. It includes powerful components of nationalism, state control, and loss of basic freedoms and guaranteed rights. There is usually a blanket indifference to the rule of law; instead relying on packed courts to agree with the government at all turns.
Unlike plutocracy and oligarch, fascism often derives its power from the unwavering, unquestioning loyalty and fervor of supporters of the government and leader. Oligarchy and plutocracy do not really need the support of the governed in any sense: they can crush opposition and ignore everything else. Fascism crowd sources control (e.g. brownshirts) of dissent to adherents.
Trump’s movement is undoubtedly fascist, but it remains to be seen if he has the personality to function as the autocratic leader necessary to create a truly fascist state.
Example States: Germany (1933-1945), North Korea, Albania (1945-1990)
Facilitating factors: Trump proves much more hands-on than expected, Trump administration able to assert control over Republican party (and hold it), Korematsu upheld, Federal authority upheld over states’ rights, Supreme court politicized, courts uphold voter suppression and gerrymandering, conflict of interest becomes moot, and puppet Supreme Court
- De facto Confederation (Pseudo-secession): is a union of sovereign states, united for purposes of common action often in relation to other states.
The United States started as a confederacy, but it proved unworkable without a stronger central government, which resulted in the constitution. States repeatedly sued the Obama administration over its laws and executive orders. Should a federal government overreach morally, (say, demanding California participate in rounding up Muslims), deeply blue states may simply refuse. While the Federal government could threaten California with loss of funding, California could in turn refuse to send its revenue to the federal government.
Given the dollar values associated with how much California could withhold, and how the state sends the federal government more than it receives, a situation could develop in which the federal government turns a blind eye to the fact that California picks and chooses which federal laws/ regulations to follow, as long as the revenue continues to flow in to the federal government.
This is one of the best possible outcomes, and also one of the most dangerous…
Example States: Sanctuary cities in the US, America (1781-1789), Switzerland
Facilitating Factors: Courts uphold states’ rights, Trump administration remains hands off, Administration is unwilling to overthrow legitimately elected state governments
- Stratocracy is a form of government headed by military chiefs. Also known as a junta
Given the long tradition of military non-interference in politics, this is one of least probable scenarios. However, the lines have been blurring with recently retired generals like Flynn and Mattis as part of the cabinet. Flynn had no qualms about using his military background as a wedge into politics.
The question remains why the military would overstep its traditional role. One possibility is that things swing way too far away from democracy, and the military performs a coup, holds new elections, and steps back. This has been done many times throughout the 20thcentury, and attempted again (unsuccessfully) in 2016, in Turkey. However, given the conservative leanings of military culture, and the deference towards civilian authority instilled in it, it is difficult to imagine what moral or competency line a federal government would have to cross in order to spark such an action.
Another, more plausible scenario is the military being used to bring down a secessionist / non-compliant state government. Until new (rigged) elections are held, the idea of a Governor-General appointed to oversee the reclaimed territory would make a certain amount of sense.
Example States: Confederate States after the Civil War, Myanmar, Turkey
Facilitating factors: States’ rights upheld, Korematsu upheld, Federal government willing to topple a legitimately elected state government, Trump administration proves more autocratic than expected
Most Plausible Outcomes
If I were to pick which of these outcomes were most likely, de facto one party state seems to hold a clear advantage. The conditions are already there, and we can see it working almost exactly as planned across more than half the US.
Following not so far behind is theocracy, with almost all of the conditions necessary to creating a theocracy being essentially fait accompli. However, should a constitutional convention be called, and if the 38 votes are there, this suddenly becomes the leader.
Plutocracy follows close behind theocracy. The rich definitely stay rich, but states like North Carolina have demonstrated that even the rich, and corporations, can safely be ignored by politicians, theocrats, and ideologues. Similarly, no amount of campaign money can overcome a base motivated by something darker (see Trump v. Clinton in terms of campaign spending).
After that comes de facto Confederation, followed by oligarchy. Red states have spent 8 years putting states’ rights justices in position to move on to the federal bench. They have also been straining at the leash of federal control for 8 years. There’s a lot of slack left in that leash now, and blue states will undoubtedly pull even harder as federal regulations go from bad to potentially authoritarian.
The reason oligarchy isn’t ranked higher is that President only has two terms, and is already 70 years old. While we might have oligarchy in the short run, unless one of his brood of children can win the Presidency after he wins two terms the motley assortment of power leeches surrounding him will be moving on in at most 8 years. The one party system or theocracy they facilitated with their Supreme Court picks will last a lot longer.
Full blown 1984 or Nazi-style fascism seems improbable: while his supporters are fascist, and his use of the media to spread disinformation is similar, Trump has never shown the ability to modify his behavior. He is what he is, and he lacks the intellectual focus to be the down-in-the-weeds control freak needed to run a truly fascist government.
Finally, crushing California militarily would bankrupt the federal government, and they know it. They could do it, but it would require a very specific set of circumstances, and a specific set of personalities in charge who are either blindingly ignorant of the consequences, or are ideologues who do not care.
Originally published at