In the early nineteen-hundreds, the American writer O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” in a series of short stories, most famously in one about the fictional country of Anchuria. It was based on his experience in Honduras, where he had fled for a few months, to avoid prosecution in Texas, for embezzling money from the bank where he worked. The term—which originally referred to a politically unstable country run by a dictator and his cronies, with an economy dependent on a single product—took on a life of its own. Over the past century, “banana republic” has evolved to mean any country (with or without bananas) that has a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power. I’ve covered plenty of them, including Idi Amin’s Uganda, in the nineteen-seventies, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, in the nineteen-eighties, and Carlos Menem’s Argentina, in the nineteen-nineties.
During the heated Presidential campaign of 2016, the term made its way into mainstream American politics, often glibly. President Trump invoked it in October, 2016. “This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments,” he told a cheering crowd in Florida. After the second Presidential debate, in October, Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, countered, “Donald Trump thinks that the Presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents.” The phrase has become an undercurrent in the national political debate ever since.
Over the past week, however, the President’s response to the escalating protests over the killing of George Floyd has deepened the debate about what is happening to America. The House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi—the third most powerful politician in the the land—described the experience of her daughter, a filmmaker and journalist, when men in fatigues used chemical agents and body armor to force her fellow peaceful protesters aside so Trump could walk to St. John’s Church, on Monday night, for a fleeting photo op where he waved the Bible. On Wednesday, Pelosi bluntly asked, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “What is this, a banana republic?”
The answer is no longer facile. Later that day, James Mattis, the former Defense Secretary, issued a scathing rebuke of President Trump, his former boss. Mattis described being “angry and appalled” at the use of the U.S. military against the American people and the description of American cities by his successor at the Pentagon, Mark Esper, as “battlespace” to be dominated. ”When I joined the military, some fifty years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” he said, in a statement to The Atlantic.
Pictures of National Guard troops arrayed in tight rows on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—a site that symbolizes reconciliation and healing after our Civil War—clad in camouflage, flak jackets, and body armor, added to the sense that America is in the midst of a defining national crisis. Mattis raged at the President personally, accusing him of deliberately trying to divide the country. “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,” he said. He went one big step further, demanding that “those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution” must be held accountable.
Scholars and current and former policymakers say that Trump’s historical legacy increasingly appears to be the undoing of American democracy. “We are far too complacent about the durability of our system,” Robert Kagan, a historian at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World,” told me. “So much of what makes our system work is the general fidelity to a democratic ethos on the part of everybody involved.” Trump has proved that “our system has within it the capacity to be subverted,” Kagan said. The brilliance of America’s Founders was designing a constitution with checks and balances to ensure that the instruments of power served the people and the Constitution—and limited the Presidency. “The founders hoped that Congress would be jealous of its prerogatives and the independent judiciary would be jealous of its role, and that each actor would have a certain devotion to the republican spirit—little ‘R’—and defend it against potential threats from a President more concerned for his own interests than the rights of the general population,” Kagan said. “The amazing thing is that, throughout our history, that really has sort of been the case.” No longer, he added. At the direction of President Trump, the core institutions that once insured the daily functions of the state and the peaceful transition of leadership have been seriously eroded.
At the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr overrode his own prosecutors in the sentencing of Roger Stone, a Trump ally. He urged that charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s first short-lived national security adviser, be dropped, even though Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. In the case of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, the President launched a Twitter tirade against Judge Amy Berman Jackson, including the false charge, “Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?” Corrections officials, not judges, determine how and where prisoners are held. “If they can do that to protect the President’s friends, they can also be used against the President’s enemies,” Kagan said.
The White House has been doing that, too. In just six weeks this spring, the Trump Administration fired four inspectors general, officials who investigate and report to Congress cases of fraud, waste, and abuse of government funds. At the request of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Steve Linick was fired while he was investigating whether the State Department was bypassing congressional approval to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and whether Pompeo and his wife assigned government personnel to do their personal errands. Trump removed Michael Atkinson as inspector general for the intelligence community in reprisal for his role in notifying Congress about a C.I.A. whistle-blower who charged that the President abused his power in trying to coerce Ukraine to take actions that would have benefitted Trump politically. “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress with an emergency, O.K.? Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you,” the President told reporters, in April. Trump also ousted Glenn Fine, the inspector general at the Pentagon who was to lead a new watchdog organization to police how the United States spent trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief. The President also fired Christi Grimm, at the Department of Health and Human Services, after its report outlining “severe shortages” of testing supplies, personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), ventilators, and support staff crippled the ability to adequately deal with the pandemic and “put staff and patients at risk.” On Wednesday, Scott Dahl, the inspector general at the Labor Department, retired—voluntarily, he said. Earlier this week, Dahl told a House oversight subcommittee about a “significant amount of fraud” in unemployment programs during the pandemic.
The protests have deepened the institutional crisis—and made it all the more visible and worrisome, even to career military officers long experienced in dealing with instability. The retired lieutenant general Doug Lute, a deputy national-security adviser under both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations and a former ambassador to nato, told me that he was worried about the implications of Trump’s use of the military for political purposes. “We’re just coming to grips with two decades of overmilitarization of our foreign policy,” he told me. “It may now be time to be concerned about overmilitarization of our domestic policy.”
Lute was particularly concerned when General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dressed in battle fatigues, walked with Trump from the White House to St. John’s. In six years at the White House, Lute said, he had never seen any senior officer wear a combat uniform to the White House. “That was extraordinary,” he said. Even when senior military officials assembled in the White House Situation Room to watch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, in 2011, they did not wear combat gear. “Intentionally or unintentionally, Milley signalled support for the President’s statement that we needed to crack down on street protests that were largely peaceful and law-abiding, and that Milley would be in charge,” Lute said. The message of intimidation was magnified by military helicopters flying low over the heads of protesters and military vehicles rumbling across Washington. “That’s not who we are,” Lute added.
The clock is ticking on the future of America’s democracy, David Blight, a civil-war historian at Yale, told me. “This unrest—it’s more than unrest, it’s a revolt—is truly astonishing.” In nine days, protesters have taken to the streets in three hundred and eighty cities over the death of George Floyd. “We have to find some way for electoral politics—ending just five months from now—to harness this, or where does it go? What’s left?” He compared the deep political dysfunction in Washington in 2020 to the eighteen-fifties, when U.S. institutions were torn apart and the country collapsed in disunion. “There was no center-left by 1860,” he said. To answer Pelosi’s question, Blight said, “We’re not quite there yet. But we may be on the verge of becoming a banana republic. It was correct of her to ask the question.”