How Trump's Theocrats Can Punish Everyone They Hate

Perhaps the people who are most excited about a second, permanent Trump presidency/theocracy are the ones who will use it to ruin the lives of the people they hate.  There has been remarkably little alarm in response to the Trumpists' plan to put millions of people in militarized internment camps (with the goal, supposedly, of deporting them), but that is what The New York Times reported this past November.  And we can be certain that Trump's promise to his cultists to be "your vengeance" will include turning the criminal justice system into the weapon that he falsely claims it to be now, jailing the various "crooks, thugs," blah blah blah that he rambles about in his nonstop airing of grievances.

From the standpoint of Trump's political shock troops, however, this strategy presents a problem.  Jailing people, even on a wholesale level along the lines of the shameful internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, is frankly expensive.  I suppose that the plan would also be to set up "prison industries" to exploit the slave labor (which is exempted from the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude, not that legality will matter in that future dystopia), but even that has its limitations.

Besides, the people that the Trumpists hate include everyone except the Trumpists themselves (at least until they start turning on each other).  Everyone who is in any way deemed "woke" -- which can be anyone, given that that word has no meaning and thus can mean anything -- is a target.  I have no doubt that the architects of Trump's worst plans dream at night about being able to imprison (or kill) every last person who ever spoke positively about diversity or who chooses not to physically threaten LGBTQ+ people, but that is a lot of enemies.  How to enact group punishment on that scale?

Short answer: Take away their money.  That is, ruin them.  We shall see how smart those late night comedians are when their million-dollar contracts go away, right?  But what about the fact that those enemies of the state are already rich?  The idea would be not merely to take away their sources of money in the future but to make them broke right now.  And that, it turns out, would be surprisingly easy.  Disturbingly, shockingly easy.

The most recent episode of John Oliver's show exposed a modern international scam operation that goes by the unlovely name "pig butchering."  As a vegan (which is only one of the things that would put me on the list of the hated "woke," but I digress), I was pleasantly surprised when Oliver responded to his audience's revulsion at that imagery by pointing out that they are surely perfectly fine with the butchering of billions of real pigs.  In any case, that term is being used to describe scam operations that work through the unsolicited text messages that show up on our phones with messages like, "Hi Mom, did you change your phone number?  I'm trying to reach you."  This leads to elaborate financial scams in which the targets are fooled into putting their money into fake investments, only to quickly learn that their "deposits" cannot be withdrawn.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Oliver's story was that the crime syndicates that run these operations use slave labor to carry out these very personalized online courtships.  That is, this is not some dude finding some grandmother to fleece and then keeping the money for himself.  The victims are on both sides of the text exchange, and the money goes to the capitalists in this ugly capital-labor-customer relationship.

For present purposes, however, I want to focus not on who ultimately gains but on how the scam works logistically.  Oliver showed clips of victims who are far from the stereotypical trusting senior citizens of our imagination.  One person said that she was so vigilant that she not only did her own due diligence but even hired a lawyer to check whether the investment was legitimate.  On-app banking makes it especially easy to mock up interfaces that look absolutely real, and even extremely careful investigation cannot expose the lies before the damage is done.

Many people do not understand that "their money" is ephemeral, that the pixels on a screen showing the latest balances on their savings accounts could change without warning, or that money itself is a social contrivance that can be manipulated -- in the case of Oliver's scammers, not by formal government expropriation but by organized crime syndicates.  The fundamental fact about finance (and this applies to all finance at all times in history, not just the internet-era) is that it is an act of trust.  We try to earn more money than we need for current needs so that we can build up funds to buy things later.  But if the money vanishes, what can we do?

The short answer is that we turn to the government.  The scam in Oliver's story works because of gaps in government powers between countries, but when we invest in US assets (which can include simply putting our money in a savings account), we assume without even taking a moment to think about it that there would surely be a way to get our money back if, say, Bank of America suddenly told us that our deposit balance was zero.

What if the government refuses to help?  Worse, what happens if the government itself made the balance go to zero?  I am not talking about taxes but using the powers of the government to change what people own.  With that in mind, what will happen when Trump's theocrats are the ones who can wield those powers to go after the heretics?

A column in today's Times by Carlos Lozada carries this sub-headline: "The former president's allies don't want to destroy the 'deep state.'  They want to seize it."  He describes a new document from one of the leading far-right organizations that is openly touting its plans to create an American theocracy.  He notes at one point:

In the final chapter, a former Trump administration Justice Department official admits that “until there is a return to a constitutional structure that the founding fathers would have recognized and a massive shrinking of the administrative state, conservatives cannot unilaterally disarm and fail to use the power of government to further a conservative agenda.”

To be sure, the larger story that the Trumpists are telling is the same old stuff about getting the government off our backs, with the stated ultimate goal of "push[ing] Congress to return to its constitutional responsibility, restore power over Washington to the American people, [and] bring the administrative state to heel," but that very sentence begins with this: "But in the meantime, there are many executive tools a courageous conservative president can use to handcuff the bureaucracy."

Lozada identifies only part of what is worrisome about this: "The problem with wielding the administrative state as a tool, even against itself, is that it grows comfortable in your hands. Why loosen that grip? In Washington, 'the meantime' can last a long time."  The problem, however, is not "Washington," and it is not only that the power can be used for a long time and would never be relinquished.  We are not talking about a future in which inside-the-Beltway types slowly accumulate power.  Again, this is a theocratic takeover.

In 2022, I wrote a two-part column for Verdict in which I invoked "The Handmaid's Tale."  There, I did not focus on misogyny and the other scary-because-they're-so-believable parts of Margaret Atwood's cautionary story.  Instead, I pointed out that the flashbacks to the time when Gilead was first being established included a scene in which two financially independent women discover that their credit cards have been canceled, their investments and bank accounts seized, and that they had been ruined by unseen forces.  They soon learned that only men -- only certain men -- could own property, including financial assets.

If a theocracy is established in the US and Trump is listening to someone who says that he should "use the power of government to further a conservative agenda," that could involve not "handcuffing the bureaucracy" but unleashing its full power on the enemies of the state.  All insufficiently Trumpy Americans could be ruined without ever coming in contact with the government, even a civil proceeding.  Buy crypto?  Good luck with that.  Gold?  Get serious.  Transactions would need to be legal, so other than a dangerous and unreliable underground economy, nothing would work.

Money is there until it is not there, and if the people who are supposed to protect us become the self-righteous thieves, there will be nothing that anyone can do.  Are the stakes clear enough yet?