How things could go very wrong in America

It Can’t Happen Here was the title of a 1930s novel about America. Fascism never came to America — nor is it likely to. But martial law, or something close to the militarisation of America’s cities, is plausible. In the past few days, residents of Washington DC have become familiar with the low-flying helicopters, sand-coloured Humvees, nightly curfews and uniformed men that go with military control.

Were these scenes unfolding in Hong Kong every think-tank in America’s capital would be scheduling emergency webinars. As it is, people are too dazed by the novelty to gauge the risk. The chances of Donald Trump being re-elected in November are not very high. That is the source of America’s danger.

But first, the good news. The Pentagon has no interest in breaking a 233-year habit to interfere in US politics. Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, frightened a lot of people earlier this week by referring to America’s streets as “the battle space” in support of Mr Trump’s call to dominate the protests.

On Wednesday, Mr Esper reversed himself and disavowed military control of America’s cities. This is likely to get Mr Esper fired, possibly within days. His statement was as close as you get to resigning without doing so. Shortly afterwards, the Pentagon said it would be withdrawing 1,600 US troops that had been moved to the Washington area.

Unfortunately, the bad news outweighs the good. That troop order was then itself reversed. As has been said before, Mr Trump is a weak man posing as a strong one. On Monday, his attorney-general, William Barr, ordered the police to clear the square in front of the White House so that Mr Trump could do a photo-opportunity by holding a Bible in front of the local church.

This was in response to mockery that the Secret Service had taken Mr Trump down to the White House bunker as protesters gathered around its perimeter. Mr Barr, who shares none of Mr Esper’s squeamishness, is pushing that perimeter further out. National Guardsmen stand sentinel over the White House’s expanded boundaries.

What is the point of all this? The key is to view these images through the lens of reality television.

Mr Trump wants Americans to believe that the White House is threatened by domestic terrorists, arsonists, thugs, looters and killers — words he has used frequently in the past few days. US stability is under threat, he claims. The president’s life, and those of decent law-abiding Americans, are threatened by the extremists on the streets. That is the gist of Mr Trump’s message. But it requires a visual backdrop. Hence the hyped-up situation in Washington.

A more sober assessment is that Mr Trump’s poll numbers are dropping. He is faced with the triple cocktail of a badly-managed pandemic, the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression and an inability to quell the legitimate anger behind America’s demonstrations.

Most of those protests are peaceful. There has been looting and scuffles with police. So far, one retired police captain has been killed in St Louis, while several protesters have been killed or maimed by the police. Moreover, most of the looting appears to have been carried out by criminals under cover of the chaos.

It is a very different reality to the one Mr Trump depicts. There is little prospect of him legitimately reversing his fortunes in the coming months. I have lived in enough democracies, including America, to know a doom-laden government when I see one.

Mr Trump was fortunate to have avoided a real crisis in his first three years. Now he has three on his hands. His instincts are mostly optical. He is threatening to use powers that he does not have, such as sending the army into the streets. But he is refusing to use powers he does have, such as marshalling a national response to coronavirus.

These are the actions and inactions of someone with little interest in governing. But Mr Trump does have a burning desire to be re-elected. In his mind defeat would lead to the dismantlement of the Trump Organization and his prosecution and possible imprisonment.

Faced with a choice between sabotaging American democracy or a future spent in and out of court rooms, I have no doubt where Mr Trump’s instincts would lie. It would be up to others to stop him. 

edward.luce@ft.com

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that a retired police captain was killed during protests in St Louis on Tuesday.