Two weeks ago, before Senate Republicans aborted their sham trial of Donald Trump, I thought of the title for this column: “How Much Worse Will Trump Become, and How Quickly?” My idea was actually not to look at the immediate post-impeachment situation but to think about next year and the years after that.
Given that Trump has made it immediately and abundantly clear that the lesson he took from the Senate’s whitewash of his high crimes and misdemeanors is that he faces no limits at all, it is tempting to dive right into his vindictive firings of the witnesses who responded to subpoenas and who then testified honestly in the House of Representatives. Or one might discuss his increasingly unhinged rallies and Twitter rants, his empty claims of vindication, and on and on.
There certainly is a lot to talk about, barely a week after the Senate’s verdict, so the “how quickly” part of my title has already been answered. Even so, I want to use today’s column to think about the post-election world in which we are likely to live, not the immediate damage that we face in the next few months or so. As bad as things seem today, there is reason to believe that it will be almost unimaginably worse a year from today and thereafter.
Moving Beyond the “Will He Accept Losing?” Question
Frequent readers of my columns here on Verdict and on Dorf on Law know that I have been a rather lonely—but persistent—Cassandra in warning about how lawless Trump is certain to become, in particular when it comes to his insistence on staying in the White House at all costs.
I honestly have lost track of how many times I have offered variations on the prediction that Trump will simply not leave office even after losing this year’s election, but one fairly recent example is this Verdict column from November 2019: “Alarmism Is a Necessity and a Virtue in the Age of Trumpian Attacks on the Foundations of the Republic.”
My argument, setting aside variations and important nuances, is ultimately quite simple: Trump has made it clear (as have others, including his former lawyer Michael Cohen) that he has no intention of accepting any election result that does not show him winning decisively. When he loses—by a little or a lot—he will declare the election rigged and refuse to abide by its results. He will not go peacefully.
Up until this year, the most common response that I heard from sympathetic-but-skeptical readers and colleagues was that “the system” in this country is too strong to let one deranged demagogue destroy it in four short years. Even as we watched Republicans repeatedly fall back in line after Trump’s defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, his toadying to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, his misappropriation of funds to build his border wall, and so on ad infinitum, the expectation—or, as Senator Susan Collins might say, the “aspiration”—has been that there was some limit to what Republicans would tolerate from Trump.
I acknowledge that there is very good reason for many people to pretend to disagree with me and to act as if they assume that Trump will leave office peacefully. After all, if we are even a tiny bit less than one hundred percent certain that Trump will refuse to leave, we might want to act as if we think that he will.
Living in (at least the pretense of) denial will prevent those who want Trump gone from becoming despondent and not even turning out to vote, and more importantly it prevents Republicans from acting as if this is all inevitable. It is important to force the Republicans to make the fateful choice to end American democracy (or not). Even if there is little doubt that they will do so, there is no reason to make it easier for them.
But after what the Republicans in the Senate did in the last month—truncating a trial and not objecting to even the most outrageous arguments from Trump’s lawyers, and most significantly refusing even to call relevant eyewitnesses—there is no longer any real doubt about the future.
Unless Trump’s supporters manage to suppress enough votes or hack election systems beforehand, he will lose the 2020 election (notwithstanding the predictable “Democrats in disarray” nonsensical narrative that is currently fashionable among pundits). What then? There is now virtually no question that the following predictions will come true:
- Trump will deny that he lost and will refuse to leave office.
- Republicans will enthusiastically support him. (Remember, 75 percent of Americans wanted the Senate to hear witnesses last week, and 90 percent of Americans want background checks for gun buyers, but Republicans do not care. This is no longer a majority-rule system—nor even a “huge-majority-rule” system.)
- The Supreme Court will not stop him.
- Even if the Court does try to stop him, Trump will channel Stalin’s “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” invocation of raw power and defy the Court.
There are then two possibilities. First, Trump’s opposition acquiesces and hopes for the best. Second, they do not acquiesce, and we have what amounts to a civil war (quite possibly one in which the word war is not rhetorical). I do not even want to think about the second possibility, so I will spend my remaining time here thinking about the first.
The Post-Election End of Democracy, and Much More
In all of my prior writings in which I have warned about Trump’s upcoming internal coup, I have had little if anything to say about what happens afterward. The prediction itself was horrible enough, and describing how it would happen was counterintuitive, so my argument ended at this assertion: A once-unthinkable thing is now inevitable. In essence, my story always stopped on January 20, 2021, when Trump will usurp the presidency and his enablers will inaugurate him (with or without protests in the streets).
To be sure, I have made a few predictions about the democratic process itself in the post-coup world. One reason for Republicans to go along with Trump—beyond their devotion to his continued power—is that many of them will have lost their own elections this November and will thus be happy to agree with Trump that this could only have happened if the election truly were rigged. Codependency is a powerful thing.
The Republican Party’s embrace of Trump amounts to an emphatic decision to ignore its own “autopsy report” after the 2012 election, in which party leaders essentially said that being competitive in future elections will require them to become less racist, less sexist, less nativist, and so on—or at least to do a better job of sounding less bigoted.
I am hardly the first person to observe that the naïve premise of that autopsy was that Republicans could only think: “Demography is destiny. We can’t win elections in the future unless we adopt a message that most of the changing population can embrace.” At some point, however, they instead made the group decision to win elections by fighting demographic change, not adapting to it. Voter suppression is their answer. They were already well practiced at it, so it was only a matter of turning the volume up to eleven.
Sadly, then, we can expect competitive, small-d democratic elections to end after this year. Yes, it will take some time, and some state and local governments will continue to be allowed to be run by Democrats (if for no reason than to allow all problems to be blamed on the opposition), but the U.S. will become a one-party state in all but name.
Again, I and a few others have at least mentioned this outcome as a post-2020 inevitability of Trump’s refusing to leave office. But what does it mean to live in a one-party state? It sounds bad, and it is, but what does it actually mean to say that we will soon face a future of permanent Republican rule? What does that mean for people’s day-to-day lives?
After all, brutal dictatorships like Stalin’s Soviet Union or Pinochet’s Chile—even Hitler’s Germany—were not an unending horror for every person in those countries, from one second to the next, day after month after year. Many people suffered horribly, but as Trump’s supporters might as well be arguing: “What about all of the laws Trump didn’t break (this week, anyway)?” Or, in this context, what about the people who will not directly be affected by Democrats being prevented from winning elections?
Thinking about this question, of course, must of necessity involve thinking about how things will change over time. It will take Trump and the Republicans some number of years to do all of the things that they surely will do, if only because they will go through a process of breaking the habit of thinking that something might stop them. “That’s right, we can do this now, can’t we? Why were we still restraining ourselves?”
Firing Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland is only the tip of the iceberg. Senator Rand Paul has already gone to great lengths to try to unmask the whistleblower who reported Trump’s fateful phone call to Ukraine’s president—even to the point of submitting a question during Trump’s trial that included the name of someone Paul believes to be the whistleblower. (Chief Justice Roberts refused to read the question, so Paul simply did so outside the Senate chamber in front of TV cameras.)
Paul and the Republicans might succeed in punishing that poor soul—and consider the extra dose of tragedy if Paul’s suspect is a Richard Jewell-like patsy, although it will be tragic even if it is not a case of mistaken identity—before the election, given how rabidly they are pursuing vengeance against him or her.
Even if they do pull off that dirty deed this year, however, they will need to wait until they comfortably control all levers of government to effectively end whistleblower protections entirely. They might leave some hollowed-out version of those protections in place simply for show (although at some point it becomes unclear who the audience of such a show would be), but once there are no Democrats with actual political power, there would not even be a vestigial reason to allow whistleblowing to harm Republicans’ opponents.
And it is not merely whistleblowers who are on the line. Just this week, four career attorneys quit the government’s prosecution team in the case against Trump’s corrupt associate Roger Stone. One quit his job as an Assistant United States Attorney entirely. But Trump and his people will view this as a good thing, because two of those lawyers served on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff and are angry because Trump’s political appointees in the Justice Department are trying to let Stone off with a light sentence.
It would not end there, of course. The Republicans do not merely dislike whistleblowers or “Mueller’s team of angry Democrats” but the entire idea of government employees acting independently and according to neutral rules of law. The larger and most obvious move, then, will be to end civil service protections—again, perhaps with some window dressing but most likely without bothering even to go through those motions.
Beyond the end of competitive elections, then, the people most directly affected—with their day-to-day lives changing either by being forced to leave their jobs or to work in a radically different environment of fear—are government employees. The four million people who work directly for the government are supplemented by five million contract employees who work for the government in all but name. Ending protections that those nine million workers have long taken for granted will be a high priority for Republicans post-2020.
And this is only the beginning. In one or more future columns, I will explore how an unbound Trump presidency and a full Republican takeover of government—with no hope for reversal—will affect other Americans beyond government employees, even those who would not particularly notice or care that elections have become empty rituals.
Although it is almost a cliché to say this when offering dystopian predictions, I do feel it necessary to say it explicitly here: I hope that everything I have written here is wrong. I truly do.