President Donald Trump is not much of a humorist, yet he never tires of joking that he might not leave office.
Toasting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in March 2018, Trump said: “He’s now president for life. President for life … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
At a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, two months later, Trump mused about getting an “extension” of his presidency beyond the eight-year constitutional maximum.
This May, he retweeted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that Trump should get a two-year extension of his first term as “reparations” for what Falwell called “the corrupt failed coup”—the special counsel’s investigation and related inquiries.
In July he tweeted jokingly (“just kidding”) about staying in office for “10 or 14” more years.
Even on the verge of an impeachment inquiry, in September, Trump enjoyed the familiar joke once more, this time with the head of the soccer association FIFA. “We’re going to have to extend my second term because [of] 2026,” the year the World Cup will return to North America, he said. “I’m going to have to extend it for a couple of years.”
Meanwhile, the president’s hopes of retaining office by legal means for even four more years seem to be dwindling. The impeachment process points toward a removal trial in 2020. The economy softened midway through 2019. As of early fall, the president’s net approval rating was deep underwater in the three states decisive to his Electoral College victory in 2016: negative eight points in Pennsylvania, negative 10 points in Michigan, and negative 11 points in Wisconsin.
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.
The period from Election Day to Inauguration Day will be especially dangerous. During those 12 weeks, Trump’s anger may prompt any number of acts of political and constitutional sabotage. His supporters will likely blame defeat not on Trump’s corrupt wrongdoing, but on the constitutionally authorized impeachment process that sought to hold him to account. After the transition, a narrowly beaten Republican Party will remain attracted to the politics of cultural reaction and revenge. Trump delivered proof of concept. The thought will occur to some ambitious person: What if Trump-style politics were executed a little more deftly, by someone with a stronger work ethic?
Conservative media, from Fox News to Breitbart to Newsmax and beyond, will amplify the vituperation. Conservative groups that lost their mojo apologizing for Trump—starting with the financially hard-pressed NRA—will jump back into the fight, infused with new resources from energized supporters. Most ex-presidents have practiced post–White House reticence, eschewing politics in deference to their successors. It’s hard to imagine Trump honoring that norm. It’s much easier to imagine him whipping up his supporters from the sidelines, or joining—or even starting—a conservative media organization.
If Trump loses the election narrowly, Republicans will likely contain their state-level losses—maintaining their ability to protect and possibly build on the gains from gerrymandering and voter suppression that they scored after 2010. This will tempt Republicans to continue trying to win not by convincing majorities of voters but by exploiting the anti-majoritarian features of the American political system. (In earlier times, the anti-majoritarian bias of the U.S. electoral system functioned as a more or less independent variable, sometimes favoring Democrats and sometimes Republicans. If John Kerry had won a few more votes in Ohio in 2004, he would have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to George W. Bush. But over the past decade, the anti-majoritarian bias has all flowed one way. Democratic votes systematically count for less than Republican votes at every level, from the presidency to the state legislature.)
In this scenario, congressional paralysis will continue and partisan divisions will deepen.
2. Trump Loses Big
If Trump loses badly enough, he might find himself suddenly shunned and discredited by his own party. When narcissists like Trump perform at a high level, they usually retain their popularity—but “when narcissists begin to disappoint those whom they once dazzled,” as Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has written in these pages, “their descent can be especially precipitous.”
Even a roundly defeated Trump will bequeath a hard legacy to his Democratic successor, however: fiscal deficits in excess of $1 trillion for years to come; no-win trade wars, not only against China but against the European Union and other friends.
The leading Democrats of 2020 have offered expensive plans for progressive reform. But under current fiscal and political conditions, a costly progressive agenda stands little chance of being enacted. Medicare for All? Student-debt relief? There won’t be money for those—nor, more pertinent, the votes in the Senate.
Like Bill Clinton opening his administration with “NAFTA because we hafta” and Barack Obama beginning by rescuing banks, the next Democratic president will be compelled to focus on an agenda—trade-restoring, budget-balancing, ally-coaxing—that is at best boring to the Democratic base and at worst deeply unpopular. The Senate won’t allow much more than that. Republicans will be locked in payback mode; even Republicans who never much liked Trump will feel entitled to do anything and everything to inflict retribution upon the party that dared try to impeach him.
“Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Elizabeth Warren at the first Democratic primary debate.
“I do,” she replied. “We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
That’s a plan, but it’s not a terribly plausible one. As President Obama discovered, the bully pulpit is not what it used to be. Even after Obama won a thumping national victory in 2008, senators from Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Idaho, and Oklahoma understandably felt immune to his pressure and exhortations, given that people in their states had voted heavily against him.
So what will a Democratic president do when his or her agenda gets blocked by an unrepresentative Senate? He or she will turn to things that can be done cheaply and without Congress.
Presidents can do a lot by executive order. Obama imposed the first restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions by executive order, although only after he won permission from the U.S. Supreme Court. For her part, the Democratic candidate Kamala Harris has vowed to sign executive orders conferring legal status on millions of unauthorized immigrants—not only the population of young “Dreamers” protected by Obama, but their parents as well—and expanding background checks for firearm purchases and banning the importation of assault rifles.
But executive orders cannot appropriate new money. They cannot enact new spending programs. What they can do is jab at the most contentious issues in American politics. At the risk of oversimplifying: The Democrats have a progressive agenda and a “woke” agenda. The progressive agenda could command a majority in the country. The woke agenda excites only committed liberals.
A majority of Americans say they would support a single-payer health plan, and a majority of registered voters say they would support some debt forgiveness for lower-income students, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. These numbers would likely shrink as voters confronted costs and trade-offs, of course, but at least they start big. The woke agenda’s support, on the other hand, starts small. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans favor removing Confederate statues from public places. Only about one-quarter of the country wants immigration levels to rise. Only one-quarter favors abolishing ICE.
Would a Democratic president choose to go this unpopular route, catering to the party’s left wing while potentially alienating the rest of the country? The answer may depend on what lessons the Democrats have learned from Republican behavior during the Obama and Trump years.
Since 2010, Democrats have watched their opponents crash through norm after norm, taboo after taboo. They watched Republicans push the country to the verge of national default in 2011 in order to impose their budgetary preferences on the president. They watched the Republicans engage in blatant racial gerrymandering in North Carolina and other states—and then watched the Supreme Court in 2013 strike down a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act. They watched a Senate majority refuse to even schedule a vote on a Supreme Court nominee in 2016. In recent months, they have watched Donald Trump’s Department of Justice thwart oversight and fight congressional subpoenas to assist him, and now are watching the spectacle of Republicans rushing to defend Trump’s second attempt to collude his way to reelection as no big deal, a mere technical infraction.
Having lived through all this, will Democrats conclude that what’s called for is a return to norms and normality? Or will they conclude that with opponents like these and with rules that are stacked against them, norms are for suckers? They might, quite plausibly, conclude the latter, imposing policies popular only among the far left via executive order or other means—thereby plunging the political system into an even deeper crisis in Trump’s aftermath. If neither side abides by the rules of democracy, then democracy effectively ceases to exist.
Recent experiments by political scientists have shown that a shockingly large percentage of Americans of both political parties are willing to countenance the violation of democratic rules and norms in service of advancing their partisan interests. Likely it has always been thus. Democracy has been sustained less by public opinion than by elite consensus. The Trump presidency has put that consensus brutally at risk.
Restoring American democracy to healthy functioning will take more than the ejection of Donald Trump from the White House. Shoring up the frayed political system will require leaders who can rebuild Americans’ trust in one another and in institutions, and reestablish historical norms. As Trump assembles fuel and flame to scorch the earth he leaves behind, that will not be easy.
This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “When Trump Goes.”