How bad is Brexit? How bad is Donald Trump? Which is worse? A speechwriter for David Cameron—the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who thought it a smart political move to call for the ill-fated public referendum to have his country leave the European Union—recently wrote a guest column in The Washington Post, making a strong case that Brexit is worse than Trump.
Although his case is strong, the speechwriter (Ian Birrell) is also wrong. The title of his piece, “Trump Is Terrible, But the Sabotage of Brexit Will Outlast Him,” captures the reality that Birrell has no delusions about Trump. This is simply one of those sad moments when we can compare two very bad situations and say that one is worse than the other. Sometimes, such comparisons are inapt because the two situations might be simply incommensurable, but the similarities between Brexit and Trump’s election (and their consequences) do allow for meaningful comparisons.
In a recent column here on Verdict, I revisited the question of what those of us who opposed Brexit and Trump should say about the people who voted the opposite way. The analysis there, however, was not designed to ask who made the worse decision. Instead, I argued that there is nothing elitist or condescending about pointing out that both sets of voters—especially in light of their insistence on not changing their views, despite all of the evidence that has accumulated since 2016 that undermines the good-faith explanations for their votes—seem to be quite comfortable with the blatant bigotry that was manifestly apparent at the time of the votes and that has become still more obvious ever since.
My conclusion there was that the people who opposed Brexit and Trump need to accept the fact that democracy involves some people losing elections and being disappointed. Lapsing back into rationalizations that “Brexit/Trump voters felt uncertainty in their lives, and we cannot judge them for that,” too easily becomes an excuse to say that only those aggrieved voters have a right to win elections. That is simply a misapplication of the notion of democracy, which necessarily requires that non-bigoted voters and leaders fight decisively to defeat the people who won in 2016 and try to reverse their damage. It is nothing to feel awkward about.
Here, by contrast, I will take up Birrell’s claim that Brexit is worse than Trump. As I will argue, what we feared about Trump’s seemingly impossible presidency in 2016 was a gross underestimation of how bad things have turned out. More to the point, Trump’s negative legacy is likely to be both worse and longer-lasting than Brexit’s.
The “But He’ll Be Gone Soon” Minimization of Trump’s Damage
Birrell’s column is a good read, and I admire the clarity with which he makes his case. Having said as many negative things about Trump as he could fit within his word limit, he summarizes the core of his argument nicely:
But at least Trump will one day depart the stage. Britain, by contrast, is in such a humiliating mess that it still has no clear idea how it will leave the European Union six weeks from now.
Would that we could be so confident! I am not saying that Trump will live forever, given that he is already 72 years old and (notwithstanding his ability to find physicians who are willing to write fiction) obviously unhealthy. But what will happen between now and when he “departs the stage”? And what will be the lasting damage from the time that he is still here?
One Type of Coup
During the 2016 presidential primaries, Trump’s obvious contempt for the rule of law and his dictatorial tendencies were on full display. Even his Republican opponents took notice, sounding warning bells that Trump was a would-be autocrat.
He insulted judges and the press, and he regularly undermined the public’s confidence in the pillars of our constitutional system. When he said, during his speech accepting the Republican nomination, that “I alone can fix it,” he meant it. More people should have been terrified by that brazen claim to absolute power and omnipotence.
In June of 2016, even before that speech, Trump attacked a US district court judge for being “Mexican,” giving the Republican leadership the opportunity to withdraw their support from his misbegotten candidacy. After some fits and starts and expressions of “concern” (they are always concerned), the party stuck with Trump.
Writing at the time, I wondered exactly why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was willing to continue to support Trump. I hypothesized that McConnell and his colleagues fancied themselves the puppet-masters who would be able to control Trump, rein in his worst impulses, and push through their radical economic and social agendas (including packing the courts) without allowing Trump to act on his most dictatorial desires.
As part of that analysis, I offered what might have seemed to some readers at the time a fanciful—if not overwrought—hypothetical situation:
After all, one of the most serious concerns about a Trump presidency is that no one really knows what would happen if Trump simply decided to stop playing by the rules. What happens if McConnell leads a group of congressional leaders to the White House to tell Trump that he cannot do something, but Trump simply refuses to meet with them. (Or maybe he would have them arrested?)
Pshaw, some readers surely scoffed. Our constitutional system is stronger than that! Even at that time, however, it was an important issue to raise, because Trump clearly had (and still has) nothing but contempt for the people who believed that they could rein him in. What made them think that he would be a puppet (for anyone but Vladimir Putin)?
My point there was based on the old saw that the people with the guns make the rules; and if Trump were ever to become president, he would be the commander in chief of the armed forces and would have the guns at his disposal to tell McConnell and his pals to take a hike. Just as Joseph Stalin famously sneered at the supposed power of the Roman Catholic Church, asking “[h]ow many divisions” the Pope commanded, Trump could ask of Republicans on Capitol Hill (and in the courts), “You might have impeached me, but I’m not leaving. What are you gonna do about it?”
This scenario, however, was decidedly less likely because so many members of the military are acutely aware that they take oaths to the Constitution and not the president. Most—indeed, almost certainly the vast majority—could be expected to say no to a Trump coup. The “deep state” (also known as patriotic public servants) would thus lose only if a committed minority of their number found a way to take over the government. One hopes that they would fail.
Will Trump Ever Leave Office?
But that is only one way that Trump could seize dictatorial power. What if he loses in 2020 but refuses to accept the results? Even if the election were a blowout, he could tell his followers that the sixty percent of the votes counted against him were all “fake news” and evidence of massive voter fraud.
In his blockbuster congressional testimony last week, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen confirmed everyone’s worst fears: “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Even during a presidential debate in October 2016, Trump refused to say that he would accept the results of the election, if he were to lose. How many of his supporters would flood the streets in November of next year if he were to tell them that their country is being stolen by socialists? How many would be armed?
Does that sound alarmist? One of Trump’s many enablers from Fox News said on-air last week: “We are in a civil war. The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war. . . .” He added that he tells his friends: “I vote, and I buy guns. And that’s what you should do.” This man is, incredibly, a former US attorney and thus ought to know better. Although he subsequently tried to (sort of) walk back those comments, he had already revealed the clear danger that Trump’s most fervent supporters represent.
Again, one can hope that the US political system is strong enough to fight back against such extremism, but that it is even imaginable—in a way that is simply not imaginable for even the most unacceptable alternatives to Trump in 2016, up to and including Senator Ted Cruz—tells us everything there is to know about our current situation.
And what about the possibility that Trump could eventually insist that he run for a third term, the Twenty-Second Amendment be damned? Would Trump decide to run and dare the courts to say that he cannot be on the ballot?
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani floated the idea that the upcoming mayoral election should be indefinitely postponed, due to the trauma of the terrorist attacks on his city. People wisely said no, and the election proceeded. If Trump did not run for a third term but contrived a crisis to justify staying in office, what would happen? That is how banana republics work, and Trump’s approach to the law already looks an awful lot like that of the strongmen who took over those former democracies.
Congressional Republicans, Where Are You?
But what about Cruz and the others? Surely, one would think that they would stand up and say that Trump has finally gone too far, that the Constitution must be defended. Would they not have every reason to stand up to Trump, if for no other reason than that some of them want to be president themselves some day?
In 2016, that might have seemed like a good argument. Conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks blithely commented that Trump would likely be impeached within his first year. There were even pieces in respected news outlets providing lists of senators who could be counted on to vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial. One analyst at the Brookings Institution claimed in mid-2017 that Trump was only six votes away from being convicted, assuring us that twelve Republican senators had “no fear of the President.”
Even if that claim were not fatuous then, it is certainly incredible now. Two senators who claimed to be willing to oppose Trump chose not to run for reelection in 2018 to avoid facing Republican primary opponents. And Trump’s former detractors, including not just Cruz but other fallen Trump challengers like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, are either pathetically weak in their responses or have become his biggest enablers.
Surely the best current evidence that the Republicans in Congress will not stand up to Trump under any circumstances is their willingness to do nothing to stop his emergency declaration to seize appropriated funds to begin to build his unpopular and pointless border wall. Only four Republican senators have decided to vote to stop the power grab—enough to pass a resolution of disapproval, but nowhere near enough to override Trump’s inevitable veto.
The people who are purported to be relatively independent of Trump, including Utah’s freshman Senator Mitt Romney (as merely one prominent and sad example), are notably missing in action. There simply is no more opposition to Trump among Republicans, when push comes to shove.
Back to the Brexit/Trump Comparison: Which Is Worse?
It is possible, I suppose, that even those supine enablers of Trump have their limits, and that they would finally stand up if Trump were to try one of the more extreme strategies that I described above. They might, in other words, actually force him to leave office if he loses in 2020 or after a (horrifying possible) second term ends in January 2025.
Even if that happens, however, the damage that Trump and the Republicans have already wrought (and will surely worsen in the next two years or more) will long outlast Trump. Ian Birrell, the British writer whom I quoted at the beginning of this column, claims that the long-term damage from Brexit will last, and he is unquestionably right about that.
But Birrell is wrong to think that Trump’s damage will not also outlast his time in the White House. The scenarios that I have described above might seem extreme, but every day that Trump is in office is a day that we have less reason to be sure that the other branches of government will stand up for the Constitution and against Trump
Even if Trump loses and leaves relatively quietly, the Supreme Court has already soiled itself by deliberately blinding itself to the open bigotry of his Muslim travel ban—this generation’s Korematsu. The 2017 tax cut and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were both successful only because Republicans abandoned long-held principles and norms in pursuit of immediate wins.
And if this fraudulent national emergency is passively blessed by congressional Republicans (voting against overriding his veto), even they have already acknowledged that they will have opened up a post-constitutional Pandora’s Box that will effectively turn the presidency into a monarchy.
While some Republican senators have warned that such powers would scare them if wielded by a future President Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, that merely means that they will have ever more reason to rig the electoral system to prevent any Democrat from ever winning another national election.
Brexit is an unnecessary and self-inflicted economic wound, and it exposed and exacerbated problems with the British political system. Trump, however, is in the process—very much with the help of the Republicans who once despised him (and might still hate him, but only in the quiet of their own minds)—of doing lasting damage to American democracy.
This is not a competition that I as an American would want to win, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the people who put Trump in office (and are keeping him there) have done much worse damage—most definitely including long-term damage—than Brexit could ever do.