For the past four years, I have been writing with increasing levels of alarm about the fundamental threat to the rule of law that Donald Trump and the Republican Party represent. Despite my fears, is there reason to suspect that all is not lost?
Perhaps, but I am still deeply pessimistic—almost to the point of despondency. Even so, I attempted in my Verdict column last week, and I will try again here, to find some basis for even slender hopes that we might yet be saved. There are some positive signs, but not many.
For those readers who have not been reading my columns all along, the “elevator speech” version of my argument is this: Trump will lose this year’s election but refuse to accept that result, and Republicans will gladly allow and enable him to claim that he is the rightful king … um, President. Short of violence in the streets, nothing in our supposedly robust constitutional system will stop this.
I will soon return to my ongoing series of Verdict columns about what life will be like after all of this plays out in late 2020 and early 2021. (My two columns thus far discussing post-constitutional life in America are here and here.) Even so, I am trying mightily to find reasons to hope that the future is not already written.
The Case for Optimism Thus Far
In last week’s column, I offered two reasons to believe that Trump is not necessarily going to get away with an internal coup. The first is that he continues to tell obvious lies at the same rate that he has been lying all along. If he were confident that he is now untouchable, we might expect him to be less concerned about getting people to believe things that are not true but are temporarily convenient to him in a political sense.
In other words, if he were beyond the reach of politics as we have known it, Trump would have no reason to play political games. I was initially tempted to add that he would have no reason to continue to vilify the press, but there is at least a strategic reason for him to keep up that noise. He will, after all, need to keep Republicans in line when he needs them to back his unconstitutional power grabs later this year and beyond, so cowing the press is still necessary.
Even that, however, could be a reason for optimism of a sort, because a true despot might not bother with any of that. But even that is actually not so. Disinformation is not only for the dictator-wannabe but for the dictator who wants to stay in power. Until Trump can simply outlaw independent media, undermining its credibility is an effective interim strategy.
As I added last week, however, the more likely explanation for Trump’s continued campaign of nonstop lying is that he does not know any other way to act. He cannot tell the truth because he does not know how to be honest. Still, a time could come when he throws off all pretense and simply starts telling truths that are shocking in their bluntness (even more unabashedly racist, sexist, nativist, elitist, and so on than he has been all along). That we have not yet seen that happening is indirect evidence that we have not hit—and might never hit—rock bottom.
The second reason for optimism that I offered last week is that Democrats have not started giving up and changing sides. Even the most wobbly right-leaning Democrats from bright red states are not finding convenient reasons to push to the head of the queue for the lifeboats as the great ship Democracy sinks. Again, that seemingly small thing says a lot.
Other Reasons for Optimism: Trump’s Reactions to COVID-19
Note that the heading of this section says that Trump’s reactions to COVID-19 are a reason for optimism, not the virus itself (which is frightening in the extreme). The point is that Trump is doing everything possible now to say that the Democrats and their handmaidens in the supposedly liberal press are playing up fears of coronavirus in order to “take Trump down.”
This conspiracy theory proceeds along two tracks. The first is that the actual virus itself is being hyped simply for political gain. Democrats will quite rightly argue that Trump has been botching the U.S. response to the possible pandemic, pointing out in particular that an administration that directly cuts funding for the CDC’s anti-pandemic programs and that generally rejects science and independent expertise is directly responsible for an inadequate and even exacerbating response by the federal government.
Democrats will also (again, quite rightly) argue that the American health care system’s many profit-driven flaws are making the country more vulnerable to the virus. If we, for example, had already adopted a system of universal health care that eliminated co-pays and other out-of-pocket payments, that would have made it possible for people to see their doctors and not to try to save money by taking their chances with the virus on their own.
Similarly, if we had enacted better labor laws (of the sort that Democrats generally support and Republicans fiercely attack as “anti-business”), people would be less tempted to work even when they suspect that they might be sick.
The Virus and the Economy: Trump’s Bragging Point Becomes a Drag
The second track is a possible pandemic’s effect on the economy. Trump measures his manliness as president by pointing to the stock market, which has continued a rise that began early in the Obama administration, when the former President and a Democratic Congress steered us away from a possible second Great Depression. Trump thus panicked when the stock market underwent a historically steep correction last week.
But the stock market is not the economy, no matter what Trump thinks. As I noted in a pair of Verdict columns last August (here and here), the economy has not been nearly as strong as Trump claims—it is, indeed, somewhat weaker than it was in Obama’s final years in office—so even those who are inclined to give a President (too much) credit for the state of the economy should not think that “the Trump economy” is anything to write home about.
Moreover, I added, the notion that voters would and should use even a truly strong economy as a reason to ignore everything else that Trump has done in his years in office—treating the children of immigrants as expendable pawns, endorsing and enabling white nationalists, undermining the health care system, creating an atmosphere in which American children bully each other over racial differences, and on and on—is simply immoral.
But the specific point here is that Trump views the possibility of a weakening economy as a threat to his reelection, which is why he has been frantically trying to say and do anything to get the Federal Reserve to save him (which the Fed does not have the tools to do) and to blame—again—the Democrats and the press in advance for a failing economy. Trump’s default is to take credit and deflect blame, which all politicians do, but not in the way that Trump does as second nature.
Returning to my earlier argument, then, we are again left with the question: If Trump thinks that it is worth his time to shift blame for a sinking economy onto his opponents and the media, then can we not conclude that he thinks he has something to worry about? Are these truly the actions and words of a man who is confident that he is going to stay in office no matter what?
It is possible, however, that Trump views it as preferable to stay in office after actually being declared the winner of the election in a normal way. If so, he would secretly know that he will never leave office, but he would still want the validation that comes from a (relatively) clean win at the polls.
To be honest, however, that line of thinking seems a bit nuanced for Trump. He thinks that he “won” the impeachment confrontation because he is still in office, even though he is only the third President in history to be impeached and even though some of his own party’s senators said that he was guilty and wrong but should be punished—if at all—at the polls.
Similarly, Trump insists that his fateful phone call with Ukraine’s president was perfect, and he repeats endlessly that the Mueller report was a full exoneration, even though that report made it clear that he would have been indicted on multiple criminal counts were it not for a contestable claim that sitting Presidents cannot face prosecution.
In other words, Trump is not the kind of person who cares about how he wins, only that he wins. He settled the Trump University fraud case and simply treated it as a cost of doing business. He is a serial bankrupt who “wins” not by turning around his businesses but by sticking suckers with the bills and then moving on to the next scam.
Trump might, as some observers speculate, desperately want to be accepted by the elites who shunned him from his earliest days as an outer-borough huckster. He seems especially obsessed with how The New York Times in particular covers him, all but begging for positive stories and petulantly throwing tantrums when they do not oblige. (Weirdly, he is now even suing The Times for an obscure and otherwise forgotten editorial that described the Ukraine situation accurately.)
Even so, Trump is the ultimate bottom-line guy. He loses the popular vote in 2016 but still becomes President. How to respond? Claim that the popular vote was tainted and that his sixth-worst-in-history Electoral College victory margin was a historic landslide. Yes, the editors of The Times join nearly every other sentient being in laughing at him about those things, but he is still President.
In light of all that, it is good news indeed that Trump is responding to the COVID-19 situation by acting as if it threatens his hold on the White House. No matter how he stays in office, he will view that as a win.
To put the point in the form of a syllogism:
- A man who has no reasons to worry would not worry.
- Trump is worried.
- Ergo, Trump has reasons to worry.
While that is almost trivial in its simplicity, it is also true. Trump acts like someone with something to lose, which means that he is not counting on a sure win.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are in a somewhat sensitive but still very promising situation. So long as they are not happy about the possible pandemic itself (and they surely are not), they are in a position to benefit from all of the Trump administration’s embarrassing gyrations and from any economic harm that the mishandling of the outbreak might cause.
Early in the Obama years, one of the President’s top advisors grimly noted that a good politician should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” The idea was that even the most horrible things—in Obama’s case, entering office with the economy in freefall and the future seriously in doubt—can create opportunities to do things that mitigate the damage of those horrible things (and to deal with other problems as well).
No one with a conscience could have been happy that the economy was harmed so badly in 2009-10, especially because so many human beings’ lives were ruined or seriously harmed. Even so, once a crisis has struck, it is essential not to let any new opportunities go to waste. Given how difficult it has been to get anything negative to stick to Trump, the coronavirus outbreak might be the thing that finally causes everyone to see him for what he is and has always been.
Beyond the reasons for limited optimism that I noted in last week’s column, then, we are in the very perverse position of saying something like this: “We never would have wanted anything like the COVID-19 outbreak to happen. But it did. If this is the thing that ends Trump’s ability to act with impunity, then at least something good will have come from this tragedy.”
Returning to the bottom line one last time, the more fundamental point remains that Trump continues to run scared, defaming his perceived enemies and engaging in frenzied blame-shifting. For those of us who worry that he has taken us beyond the point of no return, his panic should be cause for some unexpected calm.