The mysterious closure of an observatory in New Mexico – by the FBI, no less. Anecdotal stories of massive military exercises featuring tanks, attack helicopters, and artillery in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, rural Michigan, Cape Cod, and elsewhere. A series of gas line explosions and fires in Massachusetts, blowing up dozens of houses – and bearing the hallmarks of a Russian cyberattack.
It could be the first stirrings of “The Storm,” the great unsealing of indictments against Democrats and pedophiles that mysterious Trump insider Q has been hinting at for a year.
But what if the exercises and explosions are actually the first strands in a spider’s web being woven by President Trump and his cronies to stay in power and crack down on non-believers?
What if they use Russian cyber hacking as an excuse to declare martial law, send troops into the streets, strip us of our freedoms, and quickly cancel the upcoming midterm elections – keeping Trump in power until he passes the crown to one of his children?
That’s essentially the level of paranoia being felt by liberals on social media, looking at the strange confluence of events through the lens of their resistance to Trump.
In fact, these events have almost no imprint so far in conservative conspiracy circles. QAnon believers aren’t talking about it, and there’s not a single thread on r/conspiracy about any of the exercises.
But on liberal Twitter? It’s turning into their version of Jade Helm, the much feared military exercises from 2015 that were about to usher in the government takeover of the country – only to pass with just a few WalMart closures.
It’s not just #resist Twitter that’s come down with a case of Martial Law Paranoia, either. A July op-ed in the New York Times laid out “Trump’s Road to American Martial Law,” while Salon used a quote from Trump ghostwriter turned foe Tony Schwartz to speculate about the worst case scenarios of the Trump years, including the president “temporarily suspending” the 2020 election and ordering a massive military crackdown.
So can Trump actually do this? Are these military exercises and the MA explosions the first notes of the ballad of President For Life Trump?
It is, of course, impossible to know what Trump will do going forward. Nobody knows, least of all Trump himself, it would seem.
However, at least some of these things are easily explainable. Military exercises are catnip for conspiracy theorists, and have been since at least the 9/11 attacks.
But they’re common, a regular feature of life near a major military base. Exercises happen all the time, and the vast majority pass without incident, other than a few reports from rattled people who don’t know what’s going on.
St. Louis, for example, saw similar exercises in 2017 and 2012. Neither saw martial law, mass crackdowns, or anything else unusual. Just like Jade Helm in 2015. They’re scary because they involve the military operating in a civilian environment, which makes us hinky by nature. But they pass without fanfare every time.
Such cries of “the president is going to declare martial law and never leave office” are common for every president of the internet age – and even before. They were all the rage with conservatives, particularly when Obama signed Executive Order 13603, which many speculated give him broad, sweeping power to suspend the laws of the nation.
Fortunately, Obama’s order did no such thing. It was merely a slight tweak of orders that have been signed by presidents for nearly a century, allowing them to delegate authority to various federal departments and agencies in both normal times and times of crisis.
What about martial law? Can Trump just send a tweet and turn us into a military dictatorship?
Individual governors can declare martial law in their states, but the president’s power to do so for the nation as a whole is severely limited by several laws, including the Posse Comitatus act, which forbids the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement.
It’s also not a power given to the president in the Constitution, which makes no mention of “martial law.” Trump would have to permission from Congress to invoke any sort of sweeping martial law, and such a thing has never happened.
The closest we came was when President Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, the right to be brought before a judge after being arrested. But the Supreme Court declared the action unconstitutional, and that military courts can’t try civilians if civil courts are still functioning.
Trump could also, in theory, use the national state of emergency that’s existed since 9/11 (and which Trump just renewed) to call up the National Guard as a national security measure.
But these forces answer to their state’s governor – and it seems unlikely that anyone in either any governor’s mansion or military authority is likely to heed the call of a Trump martial law tweet. We haven’t changed that much that quickly.
If the president can’t unilaterally declare martial law, can he at least suspend the election?
No, he can’t. I wrote a piece for Daily Dot about just this fear, and because the Constitution mandates that elections are administered at the state level, the executive branch has no authority over them. Trump could demand that the midterms be cancelled or the 2020 election “suspended,” but he has no influence over the bodies that administer elections.
He can’t invalidate, dispute, nullify, or refuse to accept any election result. If Trump loses the 2020 election, he simply stops being president at noon on January 20, 2021. Even if he refuses to concede, even if he barricades himself in the Oval Office and refuses to leave, his nuclear codes go dead and his authority ceases.
Likewise, if Democrats take the House back, Trump can’t stop the body from seating itself.
Put simply, our laws limit what a president can do by himself. If Trump tried to throw these laws out, it would almost certainly end disastrously for him.
This is usually the part where liberals chastise me for naively thinking our institutions will save us, and that Trump is so power hungry that he’ll throw out any law he needs to, dissolve Congress, suspend the Constitution, and “consolidate power” to the point where he alone is the ruler of our nation. And that Congress, the courts, the individual states, and the military will just stand aside and let him, because Trumpism has infected them all.
But while our Founders didn’t anticipate Trump (who did?!?), they built safeguards in to protect the nation from being usurped by self-proclaimed royalty. America just isn’t designed to be led around by a tinpot dictator – and Americans generally aren’t either.
Our institutions maybe haven’t saved us entirely, but they’ve held. So far.
Of course, our Constitution and governmental systems aren’t magic wands. And they aren’t infallible. If Trump could somehow get enough high-ranking officers, judges, members of Congress, and state officials to go along with a power grab, and enough of his supporters to militarize to enforce it, he might be able to get away with it.
And we know from QAnon that at least a small number of Trump followers seem like they’d be happy to throw out Constitutional protections if it meant smiting Trump’s enemies and protecting his power.
Naturally, this is a terrifying concept.
But right now, it’s just that: a theoretical concept, which would require so many safeguards to collapse and institutions to crumble that the America left standing would be too unrecognizable to predict. It’s certainly not enough of a concrete worry to consider not voting.
If we’re that far gone, then we’ll never have had a chance to stop it anyway.
And as for the observatory thing, well that’s obviously aliens.