As of this writing, Trump seems highly likely to survive impeachment itself. Many Republican senators fear him even more than they hate him, making 67 Senate votes a high hurdle. Predicting impeachment’s effect on his electoral prospects is tricky, but even in the most favorable scenarios, Trump’s 2020 map is tough. His campaign seems to accept that he will almost certainly lose the popular vote again, and probably by an even bigger margin than in 2016. Trump’s most plausible plan for reelection is to hope that, by inflaming the racial fears of white voters, he can hold most of his 2016 states and possibly flip a couple of others. To do this, he must activate intergroup hatred on a scale not seen since George Wallace—and never considered by an incumbent president since Andrew Johnson.
It might work. The damage Trump could do in a second term would be substantial, and possibly irreversible—starting with the harm that would be done to the legitimacy of the American political system if he once again wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. If that happens, three of the past four Republican presidential terms will have lacked a popular mandate. This harm will be compounded if a Senate trial proves all charges against Trump, then acquits him on a party-line vote.
A second-term Trump would surely continue to rely on the countermajoritarian Senate—at this point it’s less democratically representative than the Electoral College—to cram through conservative judges who will act as umpires for a game that the American majority is not allowed to win.
The potentially baleful consequences of a Trump victory in 2020 are clear. But what if, as seems more likely at this point, he is defeated? If Trump loses, a cloud will lift from American politics. But the circumstances that produced him will not vanish—and the changes that he wrought will outlast him. Like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, when Donald Trump fades from the scene, his teeth will linger after him—but unlike the cat’s, those teeth will not be smiling. They will bite and draw blood for years to come.
There are two ways Trump could lose: by a little or by a lot. Those two possible outcomes will expose the country to two distinct sets of foreseeable risks.
1. Trump Loses Narrowly
Millions of illegals voted!
Black neighborhoods committed massive voter fraud!
If he loses by a slender margin in 2020, Trump will be enraged, and his litany of excuses will reverberate through two-fifths of America—ominously so, given Trump’s many comments about resisting defeat and his long fascination with political violence.
In 2016, Trump encouraged individual supporters to attack individual opponents—to have them “carried out on a stretcher.” Now his publicly expressed fantasies have expanded into a yearning for organized violence. In an interview with Breitbart News in March, Trump warned in a tone of pious regret of the crimes his supporters might feel forced to commit:
It’s so terrible what’s happening. You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you, I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.
This was not a passing thought. Trump had issued a similar warning at a campaign rally six months before.
They’re so lucky that we’re peaceful. Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump—how about Bikers for Trump? They travel all over the country. They got Trump all over the place, and they’re great. They’ve been great. But these are tough people. These are great people. But they’re peaceful people, and “antifa” and all—they’d better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way.
Trump’s suggestion that the military would intervene in U.S. politics on his behalf is, thankfully, as crazy as it is un-American. If the 2020 election is certified against him and he does not vacate the White House voluntarily, the Secret Service will arrest him for trespassing and the ushers will pack his bags and throw them onto Pennsylvania Avenue. But while Trump cannot effect a military coup, he’s not wrong about his capacity to inflict harm after November 2020, even if he’s defeated.