It is fair to describe my mood with respect to politics these days as utterly despondent. And by “these days,” I mean roughly the last four years. In mid-November of 2016, for example, not even two weeks after the shocking results of the presidential election had turned our future upside-down, I wrote “The End of Genuine Law and Order in the United States?” here on Verdict.
In the first paragraph of that column, I asked whether Donald Trump “represents the end of the line, an extinction event for American constitutional democracy.” I concluded that column with these words: “If Republicans do not stand with Democrats to prevent presidential overreach—and there is absolutely no evidence that they will—we could soon learn just how fragile the rule of law truly is.”
That was more than three years ago, and everything that has happened since then has shown that Republicans will not stand up against Trump to safeguard the rule of law or the U.S. constitutional system. That is why I have written two columns this month (here and here) in which I simply take it as a given that the rule of law has effectively ended in this country, asking instead what it will be like to live in America after Trump refuses to leave office and Republicans happily enable his internal coup.
I plan to write more columns about what that future might look like for various people in a post-constitutional America. Today, however, I will take a break from my role as the Eeyore of the Verdict columnists and try to find reasons for optimism in what seems to be an unrelentingly pessimistic time.
The good news is that there is some good news. Unfortunately, the bad news is that the odds of things working out well—even taking into account that good news—are still exceedingly long. Even so, we might need to lean on even the slimmest of reeds in these times.
The Importance of Pretending that Trump and the Republicans Have Not Already Ended the Rule of Law
With Trump’s recent decisions to turn the Department of Justice into his own personal revenge machine and to end the analytical neutrality of the intelligence agencies, even the most Pollyannaish among Trump’s detractors are starting to see the writing on the wall. Any idea that Trump would get bored by being President or would quit in frustration (two notions that have wafted about in conversations among some insistently optimistic liberals) is long gone. Trump is unbound and determined to stay in office for as long as possible, and everyone can see it.
Even so, it is absolutely essential that everyone at least pretend not to believe in analyses like mine. I argue, after all, that Trump will simply declare the 2020 elections invalid if he loses, and Republicans will go along with him. Moreover, I argue that this will happen even if the election results show a landslide against Trump and Republican senators, because they will have all the more reason to say that the results were rigged.
Thus, if the election is close, Trump will say: “I could have accepted a clear loss, but this razor-thin margin is just too convenient, and it tells me that the Democrats in Michigan, Florida, and Arizona were up to no good. Rigged! I’m not leaving until we get to the bottom of this fraudulent election.”
And if the election is not at all close, Trump will say: “I could have accepted a close loss, but a blowout? No way. The people love me. I got 46% of the vote last time, and now I’m supposed to believe I’m down to 41% and that I lost every swing state? Not a chance. Rigged! I’m not leaving until we get to the bottom of this fraudulent election.”
Even so, I completely understand why leading Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi do not want to acknowledge any of that, and especially why she would say that it is important for Trump to be beaten soundly at the polls. If there are any Republicans who stood by Trump through the recent impeachment process but would draw the line at literally ignoring election results, then the best chance we have to gain their support is to give them as little room as possible to say, “Well, this was pretty close, right?”
At an even more basic level, those of us who fear Trump’s power grabs really do not have any other choice. Impeachment ended with all but one Republican in the Senate voting to acquit Trump on both charges, so all of our chips must be placed on this year’s elections. What else can anyone do?
And if we are relying on this election—an election in which Trump’s base will turn out in force—the only way forward is for Democrats to get everyone to believe that this is the most important election in American history. Saying, “Professor Buchanan is right that Trump and the Republicans will ignore this election’s results” risks depressing turnout—as well as all but guaranteeing an epidemic of personal bouts of depression, as people give up hope.
In other words, I get it. On the other hand, telling ourselves that there might still be a chance to stop Trump does not make it so. If my analysis is correct, we are fooling ourselves to think that anyone can do anything to stop this runaway train from crashing through all remaining constitutional barriers.
Even if we know that we have to sound as if we believe that all hope is not lost, however, it would be nice to have actual reasons to think that this is not all wishful thinking, that working hard in this election is not a bunch of busywork to distract ourselves from a grimly foreordained future. Where might we find some optimism?
Trump Still Bothers to Lie: Does That Mean Something?
Perversely, there might be a glimmer of hope to be found in Trump’s continual lying. In a widely discussed news conference from India earlier this week, for example, CNN’s Jim Acosta once again got under Trump’s skin by asking a two-for-one question, first asking whether Trump would pledge not to accept foreign help in an election and then segueing into a question about Trump’s purge of his now-departing intelligence director.
First, it is notable that Trump is bothering to participate in press interactions at all, especially with reporters who have not pledged fealty to him. Although it is true that dictators like Vladimir Putin also give press conferences at times, they often do so in order to make themselves look as open to the press as American and European politicians are. If all hope for the anti-Trump forces is lost, why would Trump think it worth his time to call on Acosta and argue with him?
Second, however, it is fascinating that Trump told whoppers about both parts of Acosta’s question. He claimed that “I want no help from any country, and I haven’t been given help from any country,” even though every investigation by more than a dozen intelligence agencies concludes the opposite. Even the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee concluded unequivocally that the Russian government “sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump.”
Even Trump’s repeated claims that the Mueller report exonerated him have been, at best, based on that report’s conclusion that Mueller’s investigators could not say with confidence that they could successfully prosecute a criminal conspiracy charge against Trump. That is far from saying that there was no conspiracy, of course, but more importantly in this context, the report left no doubt that Trump had received help from a foreign country. The only question was whether he conspired with the foreigners.
Moreover, Trump claimed in response to Acosta that “I want no help from any country,” even though he has solicited such help openly. Trump is thus returning to his pattern of directly contradicting himself whenever he thinks it convenient to do so.
Similarly, Trump told Acosta that he did not actually force out the director of national intelligence, because the man was supposedly due to leave the job on March 11, so this was just a matter of Trump recognizing reality and moving on. This is absurd on multiple levels, but the point is that Trump thought it worth his time to come up with that lie and then repeat it more than once.
I have never understood how so many of Trump’s supporters are able to believe that he always tells the truth, when he says contradictory things so often. (One small example: denying and then admitting paying off Stormy Daniels.) But given that they are more than willing to do so, and given that the Senate has given Trump a complete pass on blatant abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, why does Trump not now simply say, “Yes, I received help from Russia and am actively soliciting it again; and yes, I am replacing disloyal people with loyal toadies”?
The optimistic answer is that Trump does not see himself to be in the clear in the way that I do, that he still worries about his position and the firmness of his support and thus needs to continue to gaslight people. That is a sign of weakness, not strength.
On the other hand, it seems even more likely that this is simply a matter of habit. After 73 years on the grift, Trump lies as a matter of course and without a moment’s reflection. He might not actually be thinking, “Oh, I’d better lie because telling the truth would threaten my support.” He might just be doing what comes naturally, even though he no longer has reason to do so.
Nonetheless, I am willing to count this as at least a possible source of optimism. If Trump ever begins to tell the unadulterated truth, then we will know for sure that the end has arrived. His continuing to lie does not necessarily mean that he is not a dictator-in-all-but-name, but it might mean that. Optimism!
The Non-Republicans Who Still Have Not Fallen in Line for Trump
Where else might we turn for optimism? Surprisingly, Rep. Adam Schiff, fresh from the frustration of prosecuting an ironclad case against Trump in the Senate’s sham of a trial but nonetheless losing, offered some hope in an appearance on one of the late-night talk shows earlier this week.
Schiff started, of course, with the call to win the 2020 elections, exhorting the large majority of Americans who oppose Trump to register and vote. As I noted above, I support that approach even though I feel somewhat despairing about the exercise.
What surprised me, however, was that Schiff found another reason for hope. First, of course, he lauded Senator Mitt Romney’s lone, courageous stand to vote to convict and remove Trump from office. That Romney voted to acquit Trump of obstruction of Congress complicates matters, but there is no denying that Romney did something truly patriotic, and Schiff was right not to mention Romney’s incredibly weak excuse for the second vote.
The additional reason for hope, however, was not merely that one Republican had voted to convict Trump but that several uncertain Democrats had also voted to convict (on, I would add, both of the articles of impeachment). Schiff named West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Alabama’s Doug Jones, the latter of whom is up for reelection in a very Trump-friendly state this year. Schiff also observed that many House Democrats had put themselves in political jeopardy by voting to impeach Trump in the first place, because they are from districts that Trump won in 2016.
This, as the saying goes, is not nuthin’. When an autocrat is consolidating power, one sign that the end is near is that the rats start abandoning a sinking ship. Manchin is an obvious candidate for this role, given that his state is the most pro-Trump in the country and that he had broken with Democrats and voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a Supreme Court seat. Manchin has always worried Democrats for this very reason.
And it is even more notable that there were no Democratic defections on the Senate vote when one considers that Manchin and Jones could have thought of this as a “free vote,” that is, with the Senate nowhere near the 67 votes needed to convict, what difference would it make for one or two Democrats to cover their political backsides by voting to acquit—or maybe abstaining?
Moreover, Trump desperately wanted to be able to claim that his acquittal was bipartisan, yet even the wobbliest of Democrats voted to convict. They might have had some politically calculating reasons to do so, but the bottom line is that they voted to support a slam-dunk case that proved that Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors. That has to count for something.
In my next column, I will continue to discuss the possible reasons for guarded optimism in these unhappy times. For now, it is worth holding on to the two reasons discussed here. Trump is still lying rather than thinking he can get away with telling the truth, and even the most potentially unreliable Democrats have not (yet?) decided to stop opposing Trump. Maybe they know more than I do, in which case my day just became a bit less gloomy.