Between Tyranny and Civil War: Trump's Dangerous Tweet, Venezuela, and Game of Thrones (Contains Spoilers)

by Michael C. Dorf

Recently, Donald Trump retweeted a suggestion by Jerry Falwell Jr. that he, Trump, ought to get two extra years added to his presidency, because the Russia investigation improperly robbed him of his opportunity to govern during the first two years of his term. According to the Washington Post, White House officials said Trump was joking. Although Trump is not exactly renowned for his sense of humor, we can probably assume that he has no plans to seek two extra years.

However, as Prof Buchanan has repeatedly warned (e.g., here with links to prior warnings) there are reasons to worry that Trump could refuse to accept an electoral defeat through bogus claims of voter fraud and similar shenanigans. Speaker Pelosi takes this prospect seriously enough to have said that the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate needs to win by such a large margin as to render any contest by Trump untenable. And as the WaPo story linked above reminds readers, during a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump twice refused to commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost.

Thus far, most discussion of these episodes has focused on how Trump undercuts our democracy and thus brings us closer to tyranny. That is indeed a serious concern, but Trump's dalliance with non-democratic means of achieving and retaining power also risks what might be regarded as tyranny's mirror image: civil war and anarchy.

Anarchy and tyranny might seem to be opposites: the former is the absence of government, the latter an all-powerful government. Yet they are in fact closely linked. Outside the fantasies of utopians, anarchy does not mean anything like universal liberty. Rather, in the absence of organized government, one faces the de facto rule of the strongest and most brutal local warlords. Such conditions are what Hobbes had in mind when he characterized life in the state of nature as nasty, brutish, and short.

Autocrats often come to power or justify their remaining in power by promising order. They exercise a monopoly on force, displacing local warlords with their own rule. From the ordinary person's perspective, an autocrat's rule may be distasteful but preferable to rule by warlords. We might therefore distinguish a "mere" autocrat from a tyrant by saying that a tyrant is the sort of autocrat who rules so brutally that life under his rule is no better than life under anarchy.

Periods of anarchy typically arise in previously ordered societies as a consequence of civil war, in which the lines of authority break down. Various factors can lead to civil war: racial, ethnic, or sectarian religious tensions, economic struggles, and strong ideological differences can all lead to civil war, but so can the simple competition for power, at least where the lines of succession are unclear. As I've previously noted, one often overlooked virtue of democracy is that it generally prevents bloody succession struggles and thereby reduces the likelihood of anarchy. Here is how I put the point in 2007:
In autocratic societies, the death of the leader can be a perilous time, as rivals jockey for power. Sometimes open warfare breaks out among supporters of various candidate rulers. To be sure, there are systems of succession other than democracy for ensuring a smooth transition to power. Hereditary monarchy is the most obvious. Oligarchy is another solution; the death of one leader does not deprive the governing group of power. But neither of these is perfect, as intra-familial or intra-oligarchic violence can erupt. More broadly, in non-democratic regimes, the absence of a democratic pedigree does not deprive a ruler of legitimacy, and so there is a constant risk of a succession crisis.  . . . With no democratic criterion for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate regimes, it pays to back a winner. The risk of chaos is also high in nominal democracies in which the military lacks a strong commitment to civilian rule.
The very large downside of a power struggle should give pause to anyone who is otherwise inclined to want to displace the existing authority. Venezuela today is an instructive example. We can stipulate that the Maduro regime is corrupt, venal, and illegitimate; we can also stipulate that its policies have immiserated the country and would have done so even without external sanctions; and yet we can also worry that the 50+ countries (including the US, Canada, the UK, and most of Europe and Latin America) backing Juan Guaidó's claim to be president are risking turning a catastrophe into an even worse catastrophe: a civil war that could ignite great-power conflict.

Great-power conflict is almost always a risk in a civil war in a country of any significance. One or more sides will seek advantage through foreign alliances, which threatens to widen the conflict. Even a geographically confined conflict generates unspeakable misery and may exacerbate the worst aspects of a dictatorial regime. Bashar al-Assad was never the liberal reformer for whom some naive western leaders mistook him in the early 2000s, but he did not become the full monster he now is until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war (which, to be fair to Assad's opponents, he himself began by attacking peaceful protesters).

Does it follow that one should tolerate rather than topple tyrants? Certainly not. Overthrowing tyrants sometimes succeeds in bringing about stable benevolent rule. For example, the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyrant Hippias led to the golden age of Athens. Waiting for the death of a tyrant (as Spain did with Franco) can work, but depending on the nature of the tyrant's rule, that may be too much to ask.

What then am I suggesting? Simply that any patriot contemplating displacing the ruler should carefully think through the next steps.

Which brings me to Game of Thrones. In the fourth episode of the current and final season, we witness a conversation between Tyrion and Varys about who should sit on the Iron Throne if and when they succeed in ousting Cersei. I don't doubt the wisdom of seeking to oust Cersei, who is a sufficiently monstrous ruler to warrant a bloody war of removal. But Varys goes further. He suggests to Tyrion that if the "last war" succeeds, Jon Snow rather than (Jon's aunt and erstwhile lover) Daenerys Targaryen should sit on the Iron Throne.

Varys correctly notes that Jon, as Aegon Targaryen, has a stronger claim to the throne than does Daenerys (because of the preference in Westeros, as in medieval Europe, for male rulers). That's fair enough. If Varys is merely saying that whoever has the strongest claim under what passes for law in Westeros should rule, then, to the extent that the law of succession is clear, the argument for Jon promotes long-term stability.

However, that pretty clearly is not all that Varys argues. He also contends that Jon would be a better ruler than Daenerys, because Jon is less vindictive and kinder than Daenerys. Tyrion pushes back by praising Danerys's good qualities and also by questioning Varys's loyalty. Tyrion finds puzzling Varys's long-established loyalty to "the realm" rather than to a particular individual, here Daenerys.

Tyrion misses the better objection. It's fine, even admirable, to serve the realm. Varys's motto and attitude resonate with a common (and justified) criticism of Attorney General William Barr -- that he wrongly understands his job as serving Donald Trump rather than serving the People, the Constitution, and justice, i.e., the realm. What Varys overlooks is that serving the realm should not mean disavowing an existing leader simply because there is a potentially better leader available. If replacing the existing acceptable-but-suboptimal leader with a better leader would risk a civil war, then one should stick with the acceptable-but-suboptimal leader.

To be sure, as we learned in the fifth and penultimate episode of this final season, Varys was right after all. Daenerys was far worse than suboptimal. At least after something snapped, she was a bloodthirsty war criminal. So although Varys appeared to be applying a standard under which it was too easy to shift allegiances, even application of the correct and stricter standard ought to have led to a palace coup (although query whether Drogon would have permitted Jon to ride him into battle, especially after Jon acquiesced in dethroning Drogon's mama, and on Mother's Day no less. But I digress.)

What about Trump? He hasn't yet shown himself to be a bloodthirsty war criminal, but he is far worse than acceptable-but-suboptimal. However, so long as he can be replaced by peaceful means (i.e., by electing someone else or, much less likely, through impeachment), his presidency should not legitimately spark talk of a revolution. What makes Trump's even-ostensibly-joking flirtation with outstaying his term so frightening is that it calls into question the ability of the People to remove him peacefully and through lawful means. Trump has not yet plunged us into the state of nature, but his anti-democratic language is a potential first step towards the fiery path that leads there.