To those who imagine Trump as Mussolini, this scenario will sound crazy.
But what stopped it from happening was not that Trump found his inner duce. The first intervention was reality: The president who sleeps away a year in office does not awake to find his ship on course for safe harbor. He finds it run aground and ripped apart, leaking its contents all over the country like the Exxon Valdez. The second was impeachment, the Russia investigation, and other accusations of criminality against Trump and his associates. Being much poorer than he claimed to be, then hiring cut-rate criminals to run his affairs, made honorable departure from office ahead of schedule—and without permanent taint—impossible.
George Packer: Donald Trump is trying to trick Americans into giving up on democracy
Now, as is true for many politicians before him, staying in office is the surest way to evade investigation, prosecution, and conviction. That fact informs my colleague Barton Gellman’s cover story in the latest Atlantic, which asks what will happen if Trump loses the election, then refuses—as he promises he will—to concede. I agree with Gellman’s premise that Trump will not under any circumstances concede, if conceding means acknowledging that he was beaten in a fair fight. But I see some leeway where Gellman does not, because just as there was an indolent way into the presidency, there is an indolent way out. What if Trump does not concede—and he continues not to concede, even as he packs his suitcases, swipes some White House–branded complimentary toiletries, and walks onto the South Lawn and into Marine One and waves farewell to the presidency?
I think this scenario is in fact the most likely one, if Trump loses the election. And it may even be his preferred scenario, better than an outright victory (which would require another four years of onerous employment), better than showing up on Inauguration Day and having to duel Joe Biden for the right to be sworn in. As for the prospect of civil war: Trump is a coward, and all evidence suggests that he would run from the responsibility, even more burdensome than normal service as president, of overseeing the violent fracture of America. A civil war sounds like a lot of work. The easiest path is also the most lucrative. Get on Marine One, protesting all the way, and spend the rest of your days fleecing the 40 percent of Americans who still think you are the Messiah, and who will watch you on cable news, spend their money on whatever hypoallergenic pillow you endorse, and come to see you whenever you visit their town.
The law would still be a problem: Leave the presidency, and immediately federal prosecutors will be falling over one another to nail to their wall the great orange pelt of an ex-president. One way out would be to self-pardon before leaving office, a constitutionally dubious maneuver that just might work. Another would be to resign in favor of Mike Pence, who, during a very brief caretaker presidency, would offer a Gerald Ford–like absolution, for the good of the nation.