Possible Paths to Constitutional Redemption

by Neil H. Buchanan

For the past few years, I have been relentlessly -- some might say obsessively -- sounding the alarm about Donald Trump's threat to the rule of law.  Although many people agree (and how could they not?) that he has no respect for the Constitution or any other sources of law, there has been much more resistance to my prediction that Trump will refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election when he loses.  That refusal, to be clear, will take the form of Trump simply declaring himself the winner and Republicans agreeing with him and allowing the coup to happen.

Again, frequent readers of my columns know that I have returned to this theme many times.  (See, e.g., here.)  I have never denied that this is an extreme prediction, but sometimes the most awful outcome is also the most likely.  In any case, now having made that argument many times in many different ways, my resolution for 2020 is to try to describe how the future might play out given that Trump and the Republicans show ever decreasing signs of caring about anything other than his remaining in the White House.  What might happen to Democrats, public employees, schools, women, academia, the environment, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, and so on, in a post-constitutional world?

Those are the subjects of future columns.  But perhaps most importantly, it is useful to think about how we might eventually come back from this terrifying turn in American and world history.

A friend of mine recently suggested that the only hope for constitutional redemption would be for Trump to win (fairly) in 2020 and then succumb to ill health almost immediately thereafter.  Only then, she says, might there be a possibility of rebirth.  Below, I will explain my friend's highly plausible argument and then explain why I think that it does not quite get at the depth of the problem that Trump and the current Republican Party pose to the world.

Because Trumpism is, more than anything else, a cult of personality, the key question is what happens when the person around whom the cult was built is gone.  Will it be like Cuba, where the passing of Fidel Castro seems to have had very little impact on life on the island?  Or will it be like  Communist China, where the death of Mao caused a cataclysmic change in society that is still playing out decades later?  Or will it be something else entirely?

I have not conducted an exhaustive study of cults of personality that succeed in taking over national political systems, but my sense is that most of them are led by young, energetic men.  Benito Mussolini was not even 40 when he became Prime Minister of Italy.  Hitler was 42 when he became Chancellor of Germany.  Viktor Orban was two days short of his fiftieth birthday when he took over the Hungarian government.  Time being relentless, even if the two former dictators had not been killed, there would have been succession issues at some point -- but that point would have been decades into their dictatorships (see again Castro and Mao).

And Trump?  Not only is he the oldest person ever to be elected to a first term as President, but he is notably unhealthy.  His diet is a bad joke, he takes golf carts rather than walking even the shortest distances, and he has had to have his doctor lie about his height and weight to make him not qualify as obese.  We can also see the effects of aging and unhealthy living in his increasingly obvious cognitive failures, slurred speech, and so on.  His recent unexplained hospital visit surprised no one, and the White House's stonewalling about the matter only increased suspicions.

To be clear, it is possible that Trump will benefit for many years from being a rich American and availing himself of modern medical technology, but it would also surprise no one if he were to be stricken any day.  Whether one hates him enough to wish that fate upon him, dislikes him but would not wish that even on one's worst enemy, or actually likes him, this possibility looms large.  There is nothing pleasant about this, but it is a fact that he is now a 73-year-old physical non-specimen who has always had rage issues.  That is not a recipe for longevity, and things could go off the rails sooner rather than later.

This means that my friend's theory needs to be amended.  While she said that she was hoping (for the sake of constitutional democracy) that Trump would win the election and shortly thereafter pass on, she conceded that if Trump's body were to give out before the election, that would scramble everything in a way that probably is better (again, for constitutional democracy) than if it were to happen after the election.  Therefore, the theory goes like this: If Trump lives through the election, constitutional democracy would have a better chance of surviving if he wins rather than losing, and for his health to end his presidency during his second term.

As I noted above, I find this theory intriguing but ultimately not fully convincing.  Before getting to my objections, however, the argument in favor of the theory deserves a fair hearing.

My friend agrees with me that the result of Trump losing the 2020 election will be the kind of coup that I have long been describing, with Trump refusing to leave office.  That means that we could be less than a year away from a confrontation over the constitutional transition of power that will make the current impeachment battle look like tiddly-winks.  Even if that confrontation turns out in the anti-Trumpers favor -- with Trump somehow driven from power -- recovering from the (probably violent) crisis might not be possible.   Certainly, it would take decades to reestablish something like a functioning, trust-driven constitutional system.

And if things do not turn out well, then we will live in post-democratic times and have no idea what comes next.  Either way, it is arguably better for Trump to win (even if it happens again with a non-majority victory via the Electoral College, so long as it is constitutionally legitimate), because then we will not have to face an immediate crisis when he announces that the election is rigged, Fox News starts inventing facts about voter fraud, and his Second Amendment People start to fill the streets.

If Trump were to win and live a long time, of course, that would almost certainly be worse than having a big showdown in late 2020.  If he were to fulfill his actuarial destiny relatively soon, however, my friend's argument is that the ensuing crisis within the Republican Party would undermine their consolidation of power.  As she put it, there are most likely a large number of even the most fiercely partisan Republicans who hate the way things are and actually want to return to something like normal.

It is easy to imagine the virtual bloodbath that would engulf the Republicans within minutes of Trump's demise.  Whether his vice president at the time is Mike Pence or someone else (Nikki Haley seems to be auditioning for a usurpation of the number 2 spot), the many other ambitious national Republicans with presidential dreams -- Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Rand Paul, even Tucker Carlson -- would eat each other alive if they did not have the common enemy of the new, unelected president.

Even without that ugly scenario, however, the argument is that there is no post-Trump person to occupy the center of the cult of personality.  Donald Trump, Jr. is a nonstarter, obviously.  The one thing that Trump's rally crowds seem to thrill to is not just nasty stories about Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi but Trump's particularly weird renditions of those stories and his especially toxic brand of insult non-comedy.  Cruz, Cotton, and the others are plenty nasty, but none of them could keep a grip on the crowd that Trump enthralls.  And without that kind of person, the bond that holds the uncomfortable Trump-era Republican coalition together will be gone.

Again, I find this argument fascinating and utterly plausible.  On the other hand, I do not believe that Republicans quietly yearn for a return to something like pre-Trump normal, because they actually like what he is doing and love seeing their enemies frustrated.  Indeed, if they thought that they could succeed without Trump, they would have long since dumped him by suddenly finding their spines and saying, for example, that the Ukraine phone call was not "perfect."  I have argued on more than one occasion that it makes no sense for Republicans to keep Trump in office for the sake of tax cuts and hyper-conserative judges, because any Republican would do everything that Trump is doing in those areas.

Even so, it is one thing to affirmatively dump Trump (and thus face the fury of his supporters) and another to deal with a post-Trump landscape that is not anyone's fault.  Aside: There will definitely be a million conspiracy theories about Trump having been assassinated, but there will be so many semi-plausible perpetrators that no one theory seems likely to take hold.

In any case, now that Republicans have had a bit of a taste of one-party rule that brooks no compromise, I see no reason why they would try to return to normal.  There might not be anyone who can so blithely blow through any remaining constitutional limitations a la Trump, but Republicans now know with certainty that they can simply refuse to accept limitations because they say so.  Mitch McConnell and his caucus conspired to steal a Supreme Court seat long before they reluctantly jumped on the Trump bus, after all.  Trump simply showed how that works on steroids.

The reality would be that a legitimate win in 2020 by Trump would give legitimacy to Trump's successor.  At that point, and with at least one house of Congress still in Republican hands (the Senate not being likely to flip in an election that Trump wins fair-and-square), we would see the Republicans continue to create a one-party state and never look back.

How is that different from my worry that Trump will lose in 2020 and then refuse to leave?  At least in that situation, there would be far fewer people who would accept any of it as legitimate.  If there is any chance of redemption for democracy, the coup has to be blatant and shameless.  I do not see any non-ugly paths forward, but the least bad one of them all might well be the one that I have been fearing the most.