"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist."
-- Hannah Arendt, "The Origins of Totalitarianism"
If the president thinks he can get away with firing special counsel Robert Mueller and turning the United States into an authoritarian Trumpistan, now would be the time to go for it.
Right now, I mean: immediately after his triumphal signing of the larcenous Republican tax bill and the Christmas congressional recess. Issue Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein his walking papers, and replace him with a more pliable Trumpist willing to send Mueller and his investigative team packing. Strike dramatically and decisively while most of the country is enjoying the holidays. And then brazen it out.
"There is no collusion. Democratic witch hunt. Puppet? You're the puppet!"
That's certainly how Vladimir Putin would do it, although he has the advantage of a Russian populace used to seeing inconvenient citizens shipped to Siberia or shot dead in the street.
Already, Trumpist media are urging him to act. In the alternative-reality world of Fox News, the impeccably Republican special counsel is described as leading a "coup" against the president. Sean Hannity charges that Mueller's investigation has America "on the brink of becoming a banana republic."
Trump favorite Jeanine Pirro says high-ranking FBI officials should be taken "out in cuffs," for crimes she's failed to specify.
Oh yeah, back in 2016, a couple of agents exchanged texts critical of Trump. For this, Mueller removed them from his investigative team -- thereby proving, in Foxified Bizzarro-world terms, his bias against Trump.
Back in May, the ever-pliant Newt Gingrich applauded the Marine combat veteran and former FBI director's assignment to head the Russia probe. "Robert Mueller is (a) superb choice to be special counsel," Gingrich said. "His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity."
As, indeed, it always has been. But one way or another, Trump corrupts everything he touches. As the evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election draws the special counsel's probe inexorably nearer the White House inner circle, panic has set in. Gingrich now argues that the entire federal criminal apparatus has become corrupted -- the "Deep State" and all that.
Sitting on his ample posterior watching cable news networks and guzzling a reported 12 Diet Cokes each day, Trump has himself dabbled in conspiracy talk. During a Pensacola, Florida, speech supporting the Senate candidacy of an accused child molester, he denounced the entire federal law enforcement establishment.
"This is a rigged system," he said. "This is a sick system from the inside. And you know there's no country like our country but we have a lot of sickness in some of our institutions."
What's clearly needed is a strongman to set things right. An American Vladimir Putin, one might be tempted to say.
So the question becomes, who's pushing whom? Are TV cheerleaders preparing the way for a planned action, or, as Josh Marshall writes on Talking Points Memo, merely "trying to goad Trump into taking the plunge"?
Seemingly, the latter. Recent reporting out of the White House depicts the president as oddly serene. Sources tell CNN that Trump has been "boasting to friends and advisers that he expects Mueller to clear him of wrongdoing in the coming weeks ... (and) telling associates Mueller will soon write a letter clearing him that Trump can brandish to Washington and the world in a bid to finally emerge from the cloud of suspicion" looming over his administration.
Supposedly, White House lawyers -- probably with his best interests at heart -- have so assured him. According to one source who speaks regularly to Trump, "Part of me is like -- 'Are you serious? You believe this?'"
Because if Trump does believe that, then he's actively delusional. Aides are said to be wary of a volcanic outburst when the president figures out what most observers already know: that the Mueller probe is nowhere near its end, and that letter ain't in the mail.
But this is about a lot more than Donald J. Trump. It's a serious counterintelligence investigation of a Russian attempt to sabotage American democracy. Trump's advisors have reportedly tried to persuade him that firing the special counsel would bring about a constitutional crisis threatening his presidency.
Polls show that Americans are taking it seriously. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs survey found that "4 in 10 Americans think the president has done something illegal when it comes to Russia, while an additional 3 in 10 say he's at least done something unethical. And 68 percent disapprove of his response to the investigations."
Which is exactly why it's now or never for a move against Mueller.
Another couple of guilty pleas or indictments, and even Trump wouldn't dare.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com