The United States was fun while it lasted. But after 240 years, the American experiment is slipping away.
We live in a “flawed democracy” now, according to one study . That seems generous. The United States looks more like a post-democracy. Our government illegally keeps tabs on our communications. Our Congressional representatives serve in districts with boundaries they have drawn to serve their own interests, not ours. A supposedly non-partisan law-enforcement agency interfered in a presidential election. Apparently, so did an unfriendly foreign power. Republicans in 10 states have introduced legislation to criminalize peaceful protest—a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. There’s a well-traveled path between government and the corporate world, where tech companies are gobbling up and selling the intimate details of our personal lives, banks are rigging—or cratering—the global financial system and giant multinationals are operating like sovereign states. We the people, upon whose consent rests the legitimacy of our government, are being played for suckers by those who govern.
Enter Donald Trump. With his authoritarian bent, willful ignorance, susceptibility to conspiracy theories and predilection for belittling and bullying people who challenge or disagree with him (not to mention his propensity for flat-out lies), Trump represents the worst instincts of the American electorate. Though his unfortunate ascendance to the Oval Office is just the latest symptom of a democracy in decay, he may well prove to be the parasite that kills the host.
Pairing the hollowed-out institutions of our republic with Trump, a megalomaniac grifter whom the ACLU calls a “one-man constitutional crisis,” has the potential to end the United States as we know it. Since his inauguration, Trump’s team has manufactured one debacle after another, from Sean Spicer’s crowd-size lies, Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement neglecting to mention Jews, the purge of senior diplomats at the State Department, the flurry of poorly reasoned and hastily written executive orders, and the firing of an acting attorney general who declined to swallow Trump’s immigration poison pill. It makes you wonder what they’re doing out of public view, and whether there’s merit to chatter they’re laying the groundwork for a coup d’état.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it should be. Trump’s record of disregard for the law stretches back decades, at least to when the Justice Department named him as a defendant it’s a lawsuit against Trump Management, his father’s company, for racial discrimination. In the years since, there have been shady casino dealings, ethical concerns with the Trump Foundation and Trump University, his refusal to pay contractors, his groping of women and years of public statements presuming guilt for everyone from the Central Park Five for a brutal rape they didn’t commit to Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server. Trump does what he wants, whether it’s legal or not, and lets his lawyers clean up his messes afterward. He’s clearly brought that chaotic sensibility to the White House, and it’s already spilled over to Homeland Security officers refusing to obey a judge’s ruling regarding Trump’s executive order on immigration.
Now his administration is consolidating power in an unprecedented way. Trump’s continued insistence on non-existent voter fraud in 2016 seems like an early effort to begin undermining confidence in the 2020 election. Presuming we get to that point and he doesn’t find some pretext for canceling or postponing the election, his history of ignoring the law makes it easy to imagine Trump refusing to leave office if he loses. Not only would acknowledging defeat after one term be a savage blow to his outsized ego, there’s an excellent chance he and his advisors will want to prevent any scrutiny, even after the fact, of their actions. Even if Trump does go quietly in four or (God forbid) eight years, accrued power doesn’t tend to diminish itself, giving little incentive to Trump’s successor, whoever it may be, to reverse what Trump is attempting to establish as new norms: opacity, conflicts of interest, scapegoating his opponents, and his refusal, at a fundamental level, to tell the truth. Either way, how does American democracy recover when its citizens are so deeply divided we can’t even agree on basic facts?
Let’s say Trump attempts to seize even more power or he leaves a nation so polarized that there’s no common ground left. What happens next? Probably, the United States splits apart. This wouldn’t be pretty: there’s no constitutional provision to repeal the Constitution itself or to opt out of the union. Without one, any attempt to break away would be illegal under this country’s existing body of law. Then again, stealing elections or attempting to seize power outright are also illegal, so the Trumpists’ ability to maintain a chokehold over the entire country would depend on—and this is a crazy thing to write about in the United States—the loyalties of the military. If the armed forces were to back Trump, American democracy is over. If they kept out of it, the country fractures and America comes to an end a different way.
It certainly seems possible that states could try breaking away to go it alone, the legalities be damned. One poll indicates a third of California residents support peaceful secession. Their departure would surely spark other secessions by progressive parts of America, leaving behind a red-state hellscape straight out of Sam Brownback’s most deviant fantasies. States that left the union could band together under a new political arrangement, maybe something resembling a European Union in North America, with freedom of movement among members, open trade and a common currency.
Another option could involve groups of likeminded states—or even portions of states—breaking away from the country altogether in favor of new, smaller sovereign configurations. Journalist and author Colin Woodard suggested in 2013 that 11 distinct nations already exist within the United States, defined by their attitudes toward religion, guns, violence, immigration, racial differences and other issues. That seems like a logical starting point. In this scenario, people with similar cultural and political outlooks would band together in new nations reflecting their shared values. Woodard doesn’t envision those 11 nations declaring independence from one another, but that would be a way to broadly satisfy the competing demands of different regions with seemingly irreconcilable political and cultural perspectives.
If the United States does break apart, the biggest question is whether it could be accomplished peacefully or, as a young Alexander Hamilton wonders in “My Shot” in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, “Will the blood we shed begin an endless / Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”
Maybe it won’t come to that. We’re already seeing state and municipal governments maneuvering to resist the Trump administration. Officials in California, long a leader in environmental standards, are vowing to lead the fight on climate change regardless of Trump. Massachusetts enacted health care reform in 2006, nearly three years before Obama took office, and won’t give up on universal coverage just because the GOP has. They’re teaming up with Virginia, Washington and New York to sue over the immigration ban executive order. A growing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. Cities across the country are refusing to use municipal resources to enforce federal immigration laws, even as Trump threatens to deny them federal funding for unrelated activities.
We’re also seeing overwhelming, and deeply inspiring, shows of defiance that have risen against Trump since Election Day and especially since January 20. The strength and tenacity of the resistance movement so far has clearly come as a surprise to Trump and the nihilists surrounding him, and he’s petulant and undisciplined enough to let it provoke him in a way even the Republican Congress will have to repudiate.