by Neil H. Buchanan
What will the country and the world be like if Donald Trump ever leaves the White House (voluntarily or otherwise)? How much permanent or long-lingering damage have he and the Republican Party already done to the country and the world? Joe Biden's fatuous claims that he can get us "back to normal" notwithstanding, what is realistic?
In my column yesterday, I described a best-case scenario for the mess that almost assuredly awaits us after the 2020 election results are in. Let me back up a step here to lay out some (but surely not all) of the possible circumstances under which Trump will eventually depart from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in a somewhat logical order:
(1) Between now and November 3, 2020, Trump is impeached and convicted and leaves office. (Zero chance of this, unless something big happens soon -- and probably not even then.)
(2) Trump is impeached and convicted but refuses to leave office, at which point he is forcibly removed from office (with the acquiescence of the 20 or more Republican senators who voted to convict).
(3) Trump loses the election, concedes, and leaves office.
(4) Trump loses the election, refuses to concede, but (per my relatively optimistic analysis yesterday) Republicans force him out, even though they were not willing to impeach him before then.
(5) Trump loses the election, refuses to concede, and Republicans back him (conveniently saving some of their own seats as well) by agreeing that the results were caused by voter fraud. He stays in office until one of the other scenarios plays out.
(6) Trump is declared the winner of the election, but there are all kinds of reasons to think that it is a tainted result, and Republicans step up and force him to go away. (Zero chance of this, even if the evidence of fraud is of the smoking-gun variety, e.g., Trump on video describing all of his team's fraudulent behavior.) A new election is held and a non-Trump becomes president.
(7) Trump legitimately wins the election, serves a second term, and leaves office in January 2025.
(8) Trump stays in office one way or another and refuses to leave in 2025, but Republicans (some of whom still want their turn as president) finally dump him.
(9) Trump stays in office until he chooses to leave or dies of old age/bad health.
Before continuing, we should all take a moment to consider just how shocking it is that this whole range of possibliities is even worth writing down. For any other incumbent president, there would be two options: Scenario 3 (lose and leave) or Scenario 7 (win, serve one more term, then leave). That longer list, and the reality that even nonpartisan journalists think to ask Trump about running for a third term, tells us everything we need to know about how different the world has become in the last two and a half years.
Let that reality wash over you, dear reader, and then continue reading.
As I have argued many times, I believe that we are already doomed to live through Scenario 5, no matter how big or small Trump's margin of loss is. Even if something better than that happens, however, what interests me here is how much damage has already been done and what we would be facing going forward.
Some of this, of course, would depend on Trump's post-White House actions (other than in Scenario 9). After all, if he leaves office one way or another but continues to be a disruptive force in whipping up hysteria and hatred, that is much worse than if he decides simply to go back to his old grifts and to leave politics behind.
So for the sake of argument, let us assume that Trump is removed from office in something like an orderly constitutional way (Scenarios 1-4), allowing us to say that "the system worked," and that he stays out of politics afterward. (In Scenario 6, Trump leaves office after the 2020 election, but only after inflicting so much damage on the system that we would be in a completely different sea of manure than we are already in.)
The point of this exercise is to determine what we could expect going forward into a post-Trump future. It is obviously not just about whether Trump will lose next year, although everyone is currently treating it that way. Even if everything goes well, there will be stains and scars and irreversible damage as we try to move forward. What might all of that include?
(A) We already know that all of the norms of politics have been shattered, but our constitutional norms and expectations have also been seriously compromised. For example, if Nancy Pelosi holds the line against impeachment proceedings, even she would admit that that this would set a bad precedent. Trump will have demonstrated that a president can ignore subpoenas, run an Administration with multiple offices either empty or filled by acting appointees, support a White House advisor who openly politics on the public's dime, and on and on -- without ever facing consequences (prosecution or impeachment).
The presidency's standards of conduct are being defined down to "whatever he wants to do, because at least a third of the Senate won't convict and the rest of the political actors decide that it's not worth it to try." There will be no remaining shred of hope that there is such a thing as nonpartisan adherence to the rule of law.
(B) The damage in the public's mind to the notion of a free and believable press is ongoing and cannot easily be rebuilt.
(C) The courts will continue to be filled by Trump/Republican rightest-of-the-right-wing hacks. The only way out of this will be either to impeach judges and justices or to add seats to the judiciary. Either route will result in at best tut-tutting from the likes of not only pompous prigs like George F. Will but most likely the editorial boards of The Washington Post and The New York Times. At worst, it will permanently politicize the courts in a way that even legal realists never contemplated.
(D) Foreign governments of all stripes (and their citizens) can never look at the United States in the same way again. There is a loss-of-virginity aspect to the Trump phenomenon. Before 2016 (and through Election Night), it was not imaginable that anyone like Trump could get near the presidency. Even if he is summarily dumped this year or next, and even if he goes quietly, no one can then confidently say, "OK, we know that that will never happen again."
This means that every foreign interaction, from trade to diplomacy to military action (both with enemies and potential allies) will be undermined by a sense of dread that any return to sanity after Trump will be followed by another swing of the pendulum and an even worse U.S. president in the future. Long-term planning thus becomes highly contingent and uncertain, with everyone making fall-back plans that would previously have been unnecessary, preparing to make defensive and mitigating moves at a moment's notice.
(E) This contingency planning will also have an economic cost. Although financial markets and U.S. manufacturers have thus far "priced in" the Trump circus, they are already facing the reality that they need to have their own fall-back plans. For example, the integration of the global economy has resulted in supply chains that cross borders, which is why Trump's threats against Mexico and China have freaked out so many business leaders and Republicans. The people who are directly being harmed by Trump's trade wars mostly include the farmers and white blue-collar workers who love him, but even if that were not true, the economy as a whole now has to adapt to a whole new set of possibilities.
And building back-up systems and other forms of insurance policies (not just literal insurance policies but figurative ones, such as putting money in mattresses or buying gold) is expensive. Indeed, economists would describe this as a "change in technology" in the sense that we will get a different (and lower) set of outputs from the same inputs, because so many of the inputs (brainpower, machines, and so on) will have to be diverted from production to dealing with a wider set of uncertainties than ever existed before.
The closest analogy to the aggregate impact of Trump, as far as I can see, is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The pre- and post-9/11 worlds differ in any number of ways, but the unifying aspect of all such differences is that a slew of economic, political, law-enforcement, diplomatic, military, and social resources have been diverted into something that had simply never before been necessary. Trump's impact on the world -- most obviously his loud claim that "we need to be unpredictable," but going far beyond that -- is similar to 9/11 in that he has forced everyone to contemplate the once-unthinkable in all aspects of life.
And all of this, to repeat the point, will be true even in the very best of cases where Trump is gone soon and makes no waves thereafter. Every other possibility is worse, depending on how delayed or ugly (or both) his departure from the stage becomes.
Have a great weekend, everybody!