The Next 12 Months Will Decide the Future of the American Experiment

The American republic has lasted for more than two tumultuous centuries. But can it survive Donald Trump?

Black-and-white image of a person waving an American flag
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The year ahead will be no ordinary year.

One year from now, barring historically unusual scenarios, we will know the results of the 2020 election, and who will be the next president of the United States.

But the election is not all that’s at stake. The next 12 months will test the U.S. Constitution and determine the future of the American experiment. Will we manage to keep the republic entrusted to us by the Framers nearly 250 years ago? Or will we squander this imperfect but vital experiment in democracy, surrendering it to the forces of authoritarianism and division represented by President Donald Trump?

Melodramatic? To quote Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, The American Crisis: “There are cases which cannot be overdone by language, and this is one.”

Here’s what’s ahead in the next 12 months:

The Impeachment of Donald Trump

In the coming months, the House of Representatives will decide whether to vote for articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, and the Senate will likely vote on whether to remove Trump from office.

The impeachment of an American president has happened only twice before in history (to Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—Richard Nixon resigned prior to impeachment), and the Senate has never voted to remove a sitting president. The Constitution lays out no rules as to the process that Congress should follow, and the decisions made in the coming months could be precedent-setting.

The Constitution allows impeachment for treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors, but doesn’t elaborate, so Congress will have to decide how to interpret those terms in the 21st century. So far, House leaders have focused on Trump’s efforts to withhold congressionally authorized funds from Ukraine in an effort to pressure the Ukrainian government into helping Trump discredit a potential electoral rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The House could choose to take up other issues as well, including those investigated by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, such as Trump’s behavior during the 2016 election and his subsequent efforts to obstruct the Mueller investigation itself. House leaders could, if they wish, also examine Trump’s alleged violations of the emoluments clause or any other behavior they view as a “high crime or misdemeanor.”

With impeachment proceedings now set to go public, there will be several crucial moments for Republicans in Congress. When it comes time for the House vote, will congressional Republicans vote for the articles of impeachment? And, assuming the House votes to impeach (only a simple majority is required), will any Senate Republicans join Democrats in voting to remove Trump from office, for which a two-thirds majority is needed? If some Republicans peel off to support impeachment or removal, Republican voters may be more inclined to trust the process. If, on the other hand, Republicans in Congress remain uniformly opposed to impeachment, they will send a signal to future presidents that partisanship matters more than oaths to support and defend the Constitution.

Election Integrity and Fairness

There is overwhelming evidence that adversarial foreign powers—Russia, most notably—covertly influenced the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor, and now evidence is mounting that foreign adversaries hope to influence the 2020 elections as well. Yet U.S. electoral systems remain dangerously vulnerable to hacking and other forms of manipulation. Seventeen states do not have laws requiring the verification of vote tallies, and many states don’t require paper records of voter choices, making those choices impossible to verify. Although federal legislation and funding could rapidly improve election security, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to block most meaningful reform efforts. The ongoing failure to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the vote tally jeopardizes the most basic requirement of democracy: If people can’t be sure that reported voting tallies reflect actual votes cast, how can they be sure that the government truly reflects the consent of the governed?

Another animating principle of the American experiment is that the free flow of information allows citizens to make informed political choices. This principle is also now at risk, threatened by bad actors (both foreign and domestic) who intentionally spread disinformation online, facilitated by internet platforms that refuse to clamp down on deliberate disinformation campaigns. Twitter recently took an important step toward reducing the spread of disinformation online by banning political ads ahead of the 2020 election, but Facebook and other social-media giants seem content to allow their platforms to be used to disseminate falsehoods and whip up hatred. Here too, simple steps to verify information in political ads—undertaken voluntarily by social-media corporations or mandated by federal legislation—would greatly reduce the spread of online propaganda, and protect the ability of citizens to make informed voting decisions.

Meanwhile, GOP political operatives in many localities continue their efforts to prevent minorities from voting, both through the adoption of byzantine registration and voting requirements and through old-fashioned voter intimidation. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to seek approval from the Justice Department before adopting new voting procedures. Since then, it’s been open season for voter-suppression efforts.

At the same time, the Electoral College itself poses an ongoing threat to the democratic legitimacy of the 2020 election outcome. The past two Republican presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, both came to the White House after losing the popular vote to their Democratic rivals, and a recent University of Texas study found that in close elections, the Electoral College will favor GOP candidates 65 percent of the time.

This can be changed: 15 states and the District of Columbia have already joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Through the compact, states agree that they will award all their state’s electoral votes to whichever candidate wins a majority of the national popular votes, which would eliminate inverted elections in which the candidate with a lower share of the popular vote still ascends to the White House. The compact will go into effect only when states controlling 270 electoral votes join. Currently, the states that have joined control only 196 electoral votes—but if a few more large states come on board before November 2020, inverted elections will become a thing of the past. Barring this, the 2020 election may once again send to the White House a president who failed to win the support of a majority of voters.

The Supreme Court

Between now and the 2020 election, the Court will decide several cases with the potential to reshape the political and cultural landscape. The Court will decide, among other things, whether federal civil-rights law protects gay and transgender individuals from job discrimination, whether to overturn Roe v. Wade, and whether the roughly 700,000 people brought unlawfully to the U.S. as young children (the “Dreamers”) can now be deported by the Trump administration. Pending Supreme Court cases could also greatly expand or contract gun rights and the use of state funds for religious schools.

And then there are the cases directly concerning President Trump, which could affect the scope of executive power. Two cases involving Trump’s tax returns may reach the Supreme Court this year. In October, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Trump’s accountants to turn over his tax returns to New York County’s district attorney as part of a criminal investigation, and the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered Trump’s accountants to turn over his tax records to the House of Representatives. These cases will likely involve fast-track appeals to the Supreme Court, which will then be placed in a position to decide whether a sitting president must comply with subpoenas.

The Supreme Court is starkly divided along ideological lines, with five Republican-appointed justices and four Democrat-appointed justices. It’s even possible that President Trump will have the chance to fill another Court vacancy before the 2020 election. Public trust in the Supreme Court is declining. If the Court decides each controversial case by a slim party-line majority, the stature of the Court could be further undermined, and decades of settled judicial precedent could be called into question.

The Rule of Law

It’s also possible that none of this will matter, because President Trump and his more extreme supporters have already made it clear they won’t necessarily abide by court decisions, congressional votes, or electoral outcomes. President Trump has derided the Constitution’s emoluments clause as “phony” and lambasted congressional impeachment proceedings as a “witch hunt” and a “scam.” He has repeatedly “joked” about serving a (constitutionally impermissible) third term in office or getting an extra two years in office as “reparations.” He has suggested his base might “demand” that he remain in office, called on his supporters to use violence against journalists and protesters, and enthusiastically retweeted suggestions that his impeachment could spark a civil war.

All this raises various harrowing possibilities, some of them explored in David Frum’s recent Atlantic article, “America After Trump”: If Trump loses the 2020 election, will he step down, or declare the vote tally to be “fake news”? If he does lose and step down, will he go quietly, or will he declare that the election was “stolen” and tell his supporters to resist the new president-elect—by force, if needed? And if he wins in 2020, will America see an even more emboldened Trump use the instruments of governance, from the IRS to the FBI, to harass and persecute his political opponents in ever more overt ways?

The events of the next year will make these catastrophic 2020 election scenarios either more or less likely. If respected leaders—both elected and appointed, from both the public and private sectors, and from both parties—make it clear that they will never support efforts to subvert court decisions, election results, or congressional votes, Trump and his inner circle will be less likely to try it. If leaders remain silent, Trump will consider that a green light. But ordinary Americans matter, too: Politicians follow the polls, and corporations follow shareholders and consumers.

In 1787, asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created, Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” So far, the American republic has survived for more than two tumultuous centuries, through civil war, economic depression, two world wars, and a multitude of other challenges. But can the republic survive Donald Trump? The next 12 months will give us the answer.