Of all the questions that will be answered by the 2020 election, one matters above the others: Is Trumpism a temporary aberration or a long-term phenomenon? Put another way: Will the changes brought about by Donald Trump and today’s Republican Party fade away, or will they become entrenched?
Trump’s reelection seems implausible to many people, as implausible as his election did before November 2016. But despite the scandals and chaos of his presidency, and despite his party’s midterm losses, he approaches 2020 with two factors in his favor. One is incumbency: Since 1980, voters have only once denied an incumbent a second term. The other is a relatively strong economy (at least as of now). Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who weights both of those factors heavily in his election-forecasting model, gives Trump close to an even chance of reelection, based on a projected 2 percent GDP growth rate for the first half of 2020.
So far, much of the concern about the long-term effects of Trump’s presidency has centered on his antidemocratic tendencies. But even if we take those off the table—even if we assume that Trump continues to be hemmed in by other parts of the government and by outside institutions, and that he governs no more effectively than he has until now—the impact of a second term would be more lasting than that of the first.
In normal politics, the policies adopted by a president and Congress may zig one way, and those of the next president and Congress may zag the other. The contending parties take our system’s rules as a given, and fight over what they understand to be reversible policies and power arrangements. But some situations are not like that; a zig one way makes it hard to zag back.
This is one of those moments. After four years as president, Trump will have made at least two Supreme Court appointments, signed into law tax cuts, and rolled back federal regulation of the environment and the economy. Whatever you think of these actions, many of them can probably be offset or entirely undone in the future. The effects of a full eight years of Trump will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to undo.
Three areas—climate change, the risk of a renewed global arms race, and control of the Supreme Court—illustrate the historic significance of the 2020 election. The first two problems will become much harder to address as time goes on. The third one stands to remake our constitutional democracy and undermine the capacity for future change.
In short, the biggest difference between electing Trump in 2016 and reelecting Trump in 2020 would be irreversibility. Climate policy is now the most obvious example. For a long time, even many of the people who acknowledged the reality of climate change thought of it as a slow process that did not demand immediate action. But today, amid extreme weather events and worsening scientific forecasts, the costs of our delay are clearly mounting, as are the associated dangers. To have a chance at keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius—the objective of the Paris climate agreement—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that by 2030, CO2 emissions must drop some 45 percent from 2010 levels. Instead of declining, however, they are rising.
In his first term, Trump has announced plans to cancel existing climate reforms, such as higher fuel-efficiency standards and limits on emissions from new coal-fired power plants, and he has pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. His reelection would put off a national commitment to decarbonization until at least the second half of the 2020s, while encouraging other countries to do nothing as well. And change that is delayed becomes more economically and politically difficult. According to the Global Carbon Project, if decarbonization had begun globally in 2000, an emissions reduction of about 2 percent a year would have been sufficient to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Now it will need to be approximately 5 percent a year. If we wait another decade, it will be about 9 percent. In the United States, the economic disruption and popular resistance sure to arise from such an abrupt transition may be more than our political system can bear. No one knows, moreover, when the world might hit irreversible tipping points such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would likely doom us to a catastrophic sea-level rise.
The 2020 election will also determine whether the U.S. continues on a course that all but guarantees another kind of runaway global change—a stepped-up arms race, and with it a heightened risk of nuclear accidents and nuclear war. Trump’s “America first” doctrine, attacks on America’s alliances, and unilateral withdrawal from arms-control treaties have made the world far more dangerous. After pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement (in so doing, badly damaging America’s reputation as both an ally and a negotiating partner), Trump failed to secure from North Korea anything approaching the Iran deal’s terms, leaving Kim Jong Un not only unchecked but with increased international standing. Many world leaders are hoping that Trump’s presidency is a blip—that he will lose in 2020, and that his successor will renew America’s commitments to its allies and to the principles of multilateralism and nonproliferation. If he is reelected, however, several countries may opt to pursue nuclear weapons, especially those in regions that have relied on American security guarantees, such as the Middle East and Northeast Asia.
At stake is the global nonproliferation regime that the United States and other countries have maintained over the past several decades to persuade nonnuclear powers to stay that way. That this regime has largely succeeded is a tribute to a combination of tactics, including U.S. bilateral and alliance-based defense commitments to nonnuclear countries, punishments and incentives, and pledges by the U.S. and Russia—as the world’s leading nuclear powers—to make dramatic cuts to their own arsenals.
In his first term, Trump has begun to undermine the nonproliferation regime and dismantle the remaining arms-control treaties between Washington and Moscow. In October, he announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. While the Russian violations of the treaty that Trump cited are inexcusable, he has made no effort to hold Russia to its obligations—to the contrary, by destroying the treaty, he has let Russia off the hook. What’s more, he has displayed no interest in extending New START, which since 2011 has limited the strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. If the treaty is allowed to expire, 2021 will mark the first year since 1972 without a legally binding agreement in place to control and reduce the deadliest arsenals ever created.
The prospect of a new nuclear arms race is suddenly very real. With the end of verifiable limits on American and Russian nuclear weapons, both countries will lose the right to inspect each other’s arsenal, and will face greater uncertainty about each other’s capabilities and intentions. Already, rhetoric has taken an ominous turn: After Trump suspended U.S. participation in the INF Treaty on February 2, Vladimir Putin quickly followed suit and promised a “symmetrical response” to new American weapons. Trump replied a few days later in his State of the Union address, threatening to “outspend and out-innovate all others by far” in weapons development.
The treaties signed by the United States and Russia beginning in the 1980s have resulted in the elimination of nearly 90 percent of their nuclear weapons; the end of the Cold War seemed to confirm that those weapons had limited military utility. Now—as the U.S. and Russia abandon their commitment to arms control, and Trump’s “America first” approach causes countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia to question the durability of U.S. security guarantees—the stage is being set for more states to go nuclear and for the U.S. and Russia to ramp up weapons development. This breathtaking historical reversal would, like global warming, likely feed on itself, becoming more and more difficult to undo.
Finally, a second term for Trump would entrench changes at home, perhaps the most durable of which involves the Supreme Court. With a full eight years, he would probably have the opportunity to replace two more justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 at the beginning of the next presidential term, and Stephen Breyer will be 82. Whether you regard the prospect of four Trump-appointed justices as a good or a bad thing will depend on your politics and preferences—but there is no denying that the impact on the nation’s highest court would be momentous.
Not since Richard Nixon has a president named four new Supreme Court justices, and not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has one had the opportunity to alter the Court’s ideological balance so decisively. In Nixon’s time, conservatives did not approach court vacancies with a clear conception of their judicial objectives or with carefully vetted candidates; both Nixon and Gerald Ford appointed justices who ended up on the Court’s liberal wing. Since then, however, the conservative movement has built a formidable legal network designed to ensure that future judicial vacancies would not be squandered.
The justices nominated by recent Republican presidents reflect this shift. But because the Court’s conservative majorities have remained slim, a series of Republican appointees—Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and most recently John Roberts—have, by occasionally breaking ranks, held the Court back from a full-scale reversal of liberal principles and precedents. With a 7–2 rather than a 5–4 majority, however, the Court’s conservatives could no longer be checked by a lone swing vote.
Much of the public discussion about the Court’s future focuses on Roe v. Wade and other decisions expanding rights, protecting free speech, or mandating separation of Church and state. Much less public attention has been paid to conservative activists’ interest in reversing precedents that since the New Deal era have enabled the federal government to regulate labor and the economy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conservative justices regularly struck down laws and regulations such as limits on work hours. Only in 1937, after ruling major New Deal programs unconstitutional, did the Court uphold a state minimum-wage law. In the decades that followed, the Court invoked the Constitution’s commerce clause, which authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce, as the basis for upholding laws regulating virtually any activity affecting the economy. A great deal of federal law, from labor standards to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to health and environmental regulation, rests on that foundation.
But the Court’s conservative majority has recently been chipping away at the expansive interpretation of the commerce clause, and some jurists on the right want to return to the pre-1937 era, thereby sharply limiting the government’s regulatory powers. In 2012, the Court’s five conservative justices held that the Affordable Care Act’s penalty for failing to obtain insurance—the so-called individual mandate—was not justified by the commerce clause. In a sweeping dissent from the majority’s opinion, four of those justices voted to strike down the entire ACA for that reason. The law survived only because the fifth conservative, Chief Justice Roberts, held that the mandate was a constitutional exercise of the government’s taxing power.
If the Court had included seven conservative justices in 2012, it would almost certainly have declared the ACA null and void. This is the fate awaiting much existing social and economic legislation and regulation if Trump is reelected. And that’s to say nothing of future legislation such as measures to limit climate change, which might well be struck down by a Court adhering to an originalist interpretation of our 18th-century Constitution.
Democracy is always a gamble, but ordinarily the stakes involve short-term wins and losses. Much more hangs in the balance next year.
With a second term, Trump’s presidency would go from an aberration to a turning point in American history. But it would not usher in an era marked by stability. The effects of climate change and the risks associated with another nuclear arms race are bound to be convulsive. And Trump’s reelection would leave the country contending with both dangers under the worst possible conditions, deeply alienated from friends abroad and deeply divided at home. The Supreme Court, furthermore, would be far out of line with public opinion and at the center of political conflict, much as the Court was in the 1930s before it relented on the key policies of the New Deal.
The choice Americans face in 2020 is one we will not get to make again. What remains to be seen is whether voters will grasp the stakes before them. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s emails absorbed more media and public attention than any other issue. In 2018, Trump tried to focus attention on a ragtag caravan of a few thousand Central Americans approaching the southern border. That effort failed, but the master of distraction will be back at it next year. If we cannot focus on what matters, we may sleepwalk into a truly perilous future.
This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Trump’s Second Term.”
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