What Could Be Worse Than the Trump Era?

by Neil H. Buchanan

With the mostly good news of the midterm elections now behind us -- good news that was diminished, of course, by the continued success of blatant racists in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, and elsewhere, to say nothing of the disappointment of Beto O'Rourke's near-miss in taking down Ted Cruz -- the political atmosphere has once again been taken over by full-on Trump craziness.  Undiminished support for a literally murderous Saudi regime?  Check.  Climate change denialism on steroids?  Check.  Cruelty toward asylum seekers and immigrants?  Double check.

With all of this insanity swirling around us, it seems like a good time to revisit the alternative reality in which Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election.  In May of 2017, I wrote a Verdict column in the form of a news report from another place in the multiverse where the press was assessing Clinton's first one hundred days in office.  Yesterday, I published a follow-up piece imagining the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections.

The premise of the column is that the Democrats had been wiped out in the midterms, dropping so many House and Senate seats that they fell below the Constitutionally significant one-third mark in both houses of Congress.  I do not go into as many details about the implications of that outcome as I might have -- such as the possibility that Republicans would then decide not to impeach Clinton, on the theory that they could simply override her vetoes of everything but still keep her in office to blame her for everything that goes wrong "under her watch" -- because there are simply too many cynical possibilities to fit into one column.

Moreover, my larger point is not that (as I supposed in the column) exactly enough once-thought-safe Democrats would lose their seats to bring their total down to 33 sitting Senators.  The thought exercise was designed to remind myself that this month's good electoral news -- as well as all of the good news in other elections during Trump's tenure, including the Democrats' huge gains in New Jersey and Virginia in the 2017 off-year elections -- would simply not have happened if good sense had prevailed on November 8, 2016.

Here, I want to explore the perverse possibility that the country will be better off because of Trump's having won and then imploded.  It is not, I should emphasize immediately, an effort to say that "it's all OK," but rather a matter of thinking about the classic radical-versus-liberal choice -- or, if you prefer, asking whether things must become worse before they can get better.  My answer: Because things are getting worse in any event, we might as well hope that something good will come out of it all.

The alternative reality in both of my Verdict columns was built upon three premises:

(1) The media would have responded to Clinton's election by turning its unfair double-standard while covering her campaign into an even more intense atmosphere of attacking her every move and hyper-scrutinizing everything she said, did, and did not say or do.

(2) Democrats would have begun to run away from Clinton immediately after she won, trying to prove their moderation and independence by agreeing with the self-styled centrist pundits who would blithely re-brand blatantly conservative policies as middle-of-the-road reasonableness.  (Just as one example, it is easy to picture many cowardly Democrats agreeing to compromise on voter ID laws, saying, "Of course we want to protect the integrity of the voting booth.  If people are not cheating, then this new law will not be a problem for them."  And there are many other policy areas in which that type of capitulation could have happened.)

(3) Republicans would have been in full attack mode, from election night onward, willing to do anything (including, as I wrote in yesterday's column, deliberately tanking the economy) to make Clinton's presidency a failure, and then to blame her for it.

In short, my supposition is that the press would have been as gleefully unfair as possible, the Democrats would have been as timid as possible, and the Republicans would have been as shameless as possible.

Why go through that thought exercise?  Again, it is partly a matter of saying that things could actually be worse right now than they are, even if Trump had been tossed onto the ash heap of history.  (It is impossible to imagine Republicans not eating him alive after losing to Hillary Clinton.  At most, he would have become a gadfly commentator, as he was regarding Obama's birth certificate, welcome on Fox News but not in any way a political force.)

Although I came out of the 2016 campaign surprised by how much Clinton had changed for the better and convinced that she could have been a very good president under the right circumstances, her own tendency toward caution and the Democrats' habit of unilaterally disarming (along with historical patterns in midterm elections) would have guaranteed that 2018 would have been an electoral feast for Republicans.

The idea, however, is not merely that things could be worse.  Rather, I find it very easy to imagine that a Clinton presidency would have, contrary to my intuition, been a long-term disaster for democracy.  Her presence as a rallying force for Republicans was so important that it could have caused the Democrats simply to become politically irrelevant, which would then have allowed Republicans to intensify their voter suppression efforts to keep Democrats from ever again having a chance to win enough elections to matter.  That is why it would have been a long-term disaster for Democrats, not solely a matter of surviving the Clinton presidency with minimized midterm losses.

To be clear, this possibility was not -- ex ante or ex post -- sufficient reason for me to vote against Clinton in 2016.  I was among the people who predicted (as a matter of degree, though not in many specifics) just how bad Trump could be.  And even though it was at that point still plausible to think that the Republicans would have stood up to Trump in ways that they have proved unwilling to do, the very idea of Trump as president for even a short time was simply too scary not to want Clinton to win, no matter how much of a backlash her election would have caused.

Yet here we are, almost two years into an accidental presidency that gets worse every day.  And even though this month's elections gave us reasons for hope, I did note in a recent column that I came out of election night thinking for the first time that Trump could actually win in 2020.  Until then, I had always imagined that he could not possibly even keep it close in his reelection bid, leaving only the (massive) concern that he might refuse to leave office when the time came.

And that concern is as serious as ever.  Even today, it is reasonable to worry that the most recent developments in the Mueller probe are going to trigger the constitutional crisis that has long loomed over the country.  Michael Cohen has made collusion and obstruction by Trump's campaign even more obvious, and Trump might soon lose all restraint.

Although only 37 Republican senators stood with Trump against a recent measure to end U.S. involvement with the Saudi war in Yemen, that was a symbolic vote that means nothing because House Republican leaders are blocking a vote.  Will the 14 Republican senators who defected on that vote be willing to take an actual stand against Trump when it matters to save the Constitution?  Will even a handful of them do so?  It seems unlikely.

The path toward a non-disastrous outcome of Trump's presidency, therefore, is treacherous and uncertain.  But it is at least possible that the U.S. political system could emerge from it with a stronger Democratic Party and a Republican Party that in one way or another regroups and turns itself over to actual adults for whom winning is not everything.

At the very least, no matter how bad Trump is, it is also possible to imagine a non-Trump world in which things are even worse.  A world run by Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and their gaggle of nihilists -- especially a world in which they do not have Trump to worry about and would thus be treated as something less than the radical anarchists that they are -- is not a world that we would want to live in, especially because it would be so difficult to get out of that world.  With Trump in office, as bad as he is, there might actually be a path forward.

Not that that makes me feel any better.