Donald Trump’s presidency has already put the United States on a nearly irreversible path that ends with the destruction of our constitutional democracy. Readers should take note of the key word “nearly” in that sentence but not take much comfort from it.
In my most recent Verdict column, I discussed two ways that the next year could play out politically, either with the impeachment, conviction, and removal of Donald Trump in Congress or with his defeat at the polls in November 2020. In that column, I came to a counterintuitive conclusion, which is that the more peaceful of those two outcomes would be the impeachment/conviction/removal route, contrary to the idea that “the people should decide Trump’s fate at the polls.”
Why? Because if Trump loses next year’s election, everything we know about him makes clear that he will claim that it was rigged in some way or another, and he will simply refuse to leave the White House. Moreover, his enablers in the Republican Party—who have not found any of Trump’s transgressions of previous norms unacceptable—will have their own reasons to play along, resulting in dueling street protests and possible violence as Trump’s so-called Second Amendment people decide to “trigger the libs” in a gruesomely literal way.
By contrast, if enough Republican U.S. Senators were to vote to convict Trump after a trial—which they could do in the knowledge that the next president would be a Republican—the possibility of awful outcomes will be reduced (but sadly not eliminated).
I thus offered the idea that Republicans can save America from a truly grim future by choosing the less bad of two choices. Rather than guarantee a constitutional crisis when Trump declares the election invalid, Republicans should instead follow the Constitution’s prescription for dealing decisively with a threat to the republic.
In the short time since that column was published, however, it now appears even less likely that any but a tiny number of Republicans—most likely one or none—will turn against Trump. As an initial matter, it is useful to think about just what this extreme effort to rally around Trump means in the context of what we know now.
Moreover, it is essential to discuss a third possibility that I did not include in my discussion last time: What if Trump is declared the winner of the 2020 election? Is that not better than either a successful impeachment process or a Trump-led coup to ignore the voters’ will?
As it turns out, the answer is no. That third path is also likely to lead to the end of constitutional democracy—not only because of what Trump will do if reelected, but because of what the supposedly responsible voices in the Democratic Party and the media will do to pretend that Trump’s possible victory was the result of legitimate processes rather than a coup of a different sort.
The Amazing Disappearance of Any Possibility of a Senate Vote Against Trump
Before the House of Representatives held its recent hearings into Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine to assist in his reelection (and to legitimize the 2016 result by pretending that Russia did not significantly help Trump in his non-majority win), it already looked highly unlikely that any Republicans would end up opposing him.
After all, even Republican Members of Congress who are retiring could not bring themselves to vote yea on the Democrats’ proposed procedures for holding hearings. Not one of them could summon the courage to say, “You know, I am skeptical of the case against Trump, but this is not a vote about whether he did anything wrong. It is simply a vote on how the House will move forward in carrying out one of the most important powers that the Constitution vests in us. I might well vote against any articles of impeachment that emerge, but this is a vote in favor of embarking on a legitimate process.”
Instead, every single Republican in the House was so cowed by Trump that they could not allow themselves to be seen even to say that the House is empowered to carry out an impeachment proceeding. That is not a good start, especially while House Republicans have also stayed mum about all of the other ways in which Trump’s White House has been treating the House’s demands for evidence as optional.
Even so, there were many among us who continued to imagine that there was some line that, once crossed, would peel off Republicans in significant enough numbers to matter (and, perhaps, to create the momentum that would allow others among them to find their spines). Each day, I would wake up and say, “Well, maybe something will happen today that actually shakes some Republicans loose.”
Even at the time, I confess, that hope seemed rather naïve. After all, the notion was that a few Republicans would think something like this:
OK, so I stuck by Trump when he attacked John McCain’s heroism—not just once but even after McCain’s death. I stayed with him through the “pussy tape,” the attacks on the “Mexican judge,” the calls for violence at his campaign rallies, and the un-Americanism of the “Lock her up” chants. I even said nothing when he announced before the 2016 election that he might not accept the results if he lost.
I also was undeterred by the Muslim ban, the firing of James Comey and Trump’s admission on national TV that he fired Comey to end the Russia investigation, and his embrace of “alternative facts.” I winced but remained silent after Charlottesville and Trump’s “fine people on both sides” horror show.
Years of foreign policy disasters, from coddling of Putin to Kim to Xi and embrace of autocrats around the world, all while fighting with our NATO allies and breaking the U.S.’s word over and over again, did not move me. I did express “concern” when he abandoned our Kurdish allies to slaughter, but I still have not dared to defy Trump.
After all of that, however, I just heard something during the hearings today that finally makes me say that enough is more than enough. I have held my tongue for too long. I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but it has.
And what might I have thought such a one-step-too-far-moment would look like? Pretty much anything that we actually witnessed during the House’s hearings this month, actually. Every single Republican defense of Trump was demolished, in often dramatic ways that were almost exactly what people like me could only have imagined we would see, providing the thing (or, as it turns out, the many things) that should finally have brought Republicans out of their stupor.
What happened instead? Republicans almost without exception have embraced Trump even more firmly than before. Some of the U.S. Foreign Service’s finest professionals have warned that Republicans are making it more likely that Russia and others will continue to destroy our democracy, yet the Republicans have simply stood by while Trump called his accusers “human scum” and deep-state conspirators.
Again, it is not clear how any of us could have maintained a modicum of hope after all that has happened in the past few years. Many of us did not give up that last bit of hope, however, until now—and I will even admit that I continue to hold onto a fantasy that something really, really big will yet change things. A guy can dream.
In any event, it now is clear that only the most momentous of changes will result in our first-best choice coming true. Trump thus appears destined to survive impeachment and to be the Republicans’ nominee in 2020.
As I noted above, this means that the most likely outcome is a Trump loss at the polls followed by a Trump-led coup and possible-verging-on-likely violence. This, sadly, has been my prediction for the past few years, and everything that has happened has made this ugly prediction seem even more likely than when I first realized what we were facing.
What Happens If Trump Supposedly Wins the Election?
The reason that I have not thus far taken seriously the idea that Trump could win next year is that he is simply a terrible candidate. He threaded the most difficult needle imaginable through the Electoral College in 2016 to end up in Washington, and everything that he has done since then could not have been purposefully designed to be more likely to end in his defeat in 2020.
After all, Hillary Clinton’s vilification by Republicans and a pliant media in 2016 had resulted in millions of anti-Trump voters either sitting out the election or voting for protest candidates. Trump then all but set out to prove that when Democrats had said, “No, you really have to accept reality and vote for Clinton, even if you’re not enthusiastic about her, because Trump is that bad,” they were right.
Who among those who did not vote for Trump in 2016 has any reason to do so in 2020? He has done nothing but play to his base, and doing so makes it nearly impossible for anyone who is not already a Trump cultist to even consider voting for him.
Trump is more racist, more xenophobic, more sexist, more incompetent, more arrogant, more petulant and childish, lazier, more egocentric, more cruel, more of a bully, and greedier than anyone thought possible in 2016, which is saying a lot.
The most that Trump has offered to voters is the supposedly “great economy,” but that is both an inaccurate description of the U.S. economy today and no reason for people to ignore every other atrocious aspect of his presidency.
But now, especially because the Republicans have continued in their efforts to undermine democracy through voter suppression and disinformation, it is possible that even more people could be opposed to Trump next year yet that the number of them who will be able to vote will be too small.
Moreover, the Republicans’ refusal to repudiate Trump and his efforts to seek foreign assistance in the election means that the floodgates are now open for even more aggressive Russian efforts to turn next year’s election into a sham.
The net result of this is that there is a once-unthinkable scenario in which seemingly legitimate election results are reported on the evening of November 3 that show Trump winning reelection in one way or another. Some polling analyses have apparently shown how Trump could lose the popular vote even more decisively than last time but still pick up enough electoral votes to win, but we need also to consider the possibility that he could be declared the winner even of the popular vote.
Notice that I am using phrasing like “supposedly wins” and “be declared the winner,” rather than saying that he might legitimately win. That is obviously my intent, because none of the available evidence could lead anyone to think that Trump could win even on the lopsided playing field that existed last time, much less in a fair election. Any Trump win will only be possible through some kind of manipulation of the election.
And if we listen very carefully, it is already easy to hear the tut-tutting from people who dislike Trump but who view themselves as the voices of reason saying, “Now, let’s not be like the people we oppose and say that the only way we can lose is if the election is rigged. We condemned him for saying that, so we shouldn’t be hypocrites.”
But it is not hypocrisy to say, “He said in 2016 that a system that wasn’t rigged against him was rigged, but now the system is being rigged in his favor.” That is reality. We hope that the current rigging of the system will not be enough to lead to results that appear to make him the legitimate winner, but that might happen. And if it does, no one in their right mind should believe that the American people collectively said, “You know, I think he’s done a good enough job to deserve a second term.”
This puts us in a nearly impossible situation. Just as the Republicans succeeded in packing the courts (by holding a Supreme Court seat and dozens of lower court seats open) but are already benefiting when liberals chide each other for proposing “court-packing schemes” that are nothing more than trying to undo Republicans’ wrongdoing, we can readily count on liberals policing each other to “be the grownups” and accept defeat with quiet dignity and grace.
The problem is that people such as the editorial board of The Washington Post and politicians who view themselves as reasonable centrists are all too likely declare that anyone who questions the election results is engaged in conspiracy mongering. Rather than decrying the hijacking of our democracy, they are all but certain to say that we should all accept the results and fight harder next time. Except that there will not be a next time, at least in the sense that anyone but Republicans will ever be allowed to hold power again under the ever-narrower rules that they are continuing to concoct.
All of which means that this third possibility—a declaration of victory for Trump on Election Night—will be the cause not of bloodletting between conservatives and liberals but of an intramural battle among Democrats that leads to their self-neutering and final capitulation. Thus would we find the peaceful path toward a peaceful outcome, along with the peaceful end of the American experiment in self-government.