Understandably, the rush of recent events has made it nearly impossible to think about anything other than the global coronavirus pandemic. Even so, it is helpful to continue to do the things that we have always done, both to prevent ourselves from becoming obsessed with (and panicking about) matters largely beyond our control and because there are still good reasons to believe that this will be a relatively brief—if bleak—juncture in human history.
As we all know, however, life before the recent outbreak did not offer many reasons for optimism on multiple fronts. Because I spend my time thinking about policy issues and the ways in which the political and legal systems work (and fail), I have expended a great deal of effort over the last few years fretting—to put it mildly—about the future of the rule of law in the United States and elsewhere.
Last month, I decided to try to find reasons for optimism within this grim environment—an environment in which Republicans have made clear that they will allow Donald Trump to get away with seemingly anything, including declaring a false national emergency last year in order to divert funds to build his foolish and wasteful border wall, as well as inviting foreign governments to pervert the American electoral system. As long as Trump’s fans love Trump, the Republican Party will happily look the other way when Trump violates laws and norms that his party once claimed to hold dear.
I surprised myself when, in writing those columns, I actually was able to find some reasons for optimism. In today’s column, I want to return to the question of whether the political system is already so completely corrupted that it is beyond redemption. And if it is not too late, what might bring us back from the edge of the abyss?
The Case for Pessimism
I framed my two most recent Verdict columns within the context of my increasingly urgent claims over the last four years that Donald Trump represents a possible extinction event for constitutional democracy in this country. Yes, that is extreme language, but even so it is barely adequate to convey the dangers that we have been facing.
One of the Republicans’ many disingenuous arguments during the recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump was that “the people”—not the Senate—should be able to decide his fate. This, of course, completely ignored the Constitution, but I suppose we were not supposed to notice that.
The claim, in any case, came in two parts. First, impeachments “undo elections.” Well, yes, an impeachment followed by a conviction would remove a president who was president, tautologically. Second, because the next election is set to happen later this year, the argument was that we should wait to let the voters render their verdict. If taken seriously, this would simply say that no first-term president could ever be impeached, but again, we were not supposed to notice that.
The bottom line, however, is that the Senate Republicans’ near-unanimous decision to give Trump a free pass on everything that he has done has left the rest of the country with only one hope, which is that Trump will lose his reelection bid and be forced into retirement (or back to reality TV).
As I have argued over and over, however, this assumes that Trump would actually accept losing and would then leave office. We have every reason to believe that he will not do so, however, which raises the question of what to do if he simply declares that he was the rightful winner of the election (because of imaginary voter fraud or some other fantasy designed to prop up Trump’s fragile ego) and refuses to leave office.
Note that when I say that Trump will not “accept” the results of the 2020 election (unless he is declared the winner), this is not equivalent to Trump’s claim (which his supporters mindlessly parrot) that Democrats have never “accepted” the results of Trump’s election.
In 2016, President Obama did not say that the election was invalid, nor did he try to stay in office or announce that Hillary Clinton would be his successor. Subsequent investigations of Trump and the impeachment process itself might, at worst, reflect a possible feeling among some people that “I can’t believe that Trump is actually President,” but again, no one has done anything to subvert of the legal system. When Trump was acquitted after the Republicans’ sham impeachment trial in the Senate, no one tried to have Trump arrested or stripped of his powers.
People have, often reluctantly but still definitively, accepted that Trump is in the Oval Office. Even people who tweet “Not my President!” mean that rhetorically, not literally.
My claim that Trump will not accept a loss in 2020, then, is not merely a prediction that he will go to his grave saying, “I’m sure I should have won reelection, and I just can’t accept the idea that I lost fair and square.” I am saying that he will actually do something to act on that belief, not merely by challenging the election results within the law but simply by saying, “I won because I said so, and I’m not leaving. What are you gonna do about it?”
And because we know that the Republican Party will do nothing about it—both because they are afraid of Trump and because many Republican incumbents will themselves have lost, thus giving them a personal stake in going along with Trump’s declaration that the election was invalid—we also have every reason to think that there will be a constitutional crisis when Trump refuses to leave office.
Beyond everything that Trump is doing while he is in office—including his efforts to rig the election for his own benefit—my fundamental fear has long been that Trump, once in office, will never leave. All of the institutional checks that were supposedly rock-solid to prevent such defiance have one by one been revealed to be inadequate to stand up to Trump’s relentless assault.
The Case for Optimism Thus Far (Within the Pessimistic Reality)
As noted above, however, my two most recent columns have been devoted to finding reasons to think that this worst-case outcome—the end of the rule of law—will not come to pass. In the first column, I noted that Trump is continuing to tell lies like someone who does not think that he has everything in the bag, and I also observed that even red-state Democrats are still not bending the knee to Trump.
The second column extended that logic to Trump’s chaotic and childlike response to the coronavirus outbreak. I emphasized there that I was not saying that the virus outbreak itself is a reason for optimism (because that would be monstrous) but that Trump’s reaction to the outbreak is dooming his chances for a miraculous election victory (given his abysmal approval ratings from Day One) in November.
Again, if Trump were truly secure in the idea that he will stay in office no matter what happens on November 3, one might think that he would be calmer about this and not frantically accuse Democrats of politicizing a public health crisis that Trump himself is treating exclusively as a political issue.
I have to admit that I actually did a better job than I originally thought possible of convincing at least myself that there is some reason for optimism. I did note that Trump’s erratic and self-serving lies might well be more a matter of habit than anything else. Maybe he is so used to acting like a desperate huckster that we should infer nothing from his unchanged habits.
I can add here, too, that Republicans’ efforts to slime Joe Biden by beginning a series of Benghazi-style investigations of Hunter Biden might not be a matter of political desperation (and thus evidence that they might not eventually agree to help Trump stay in office at all costs). Like Trump, Republicans have developed a set of habits and strategies (including political character assassination) that now simply come naturally. They seem to positively enjoy smear campaigns, so perhaps what appears to be obvious desperation is not actually evidence that they are worried about the outcome but instead merely means that they do not know how to play politics as anything but a concerted effort to destroy their opponents by any means necessary.
Even though it felt good to write in those columns that Trump and the Republicans are acting as though they are afraid of losing, I therefore conclude that my optimism on that front might be misplaced—even though I would like it to be true.
The Optimistic Version of Pessimism
If I am right that Trump and the Republicans will, when push comes to shove, do whatever is necessary not to leave office (and setting aside the very scary question of whether that would lead to civil strife and even violence), what would happen next?
Prior to my attempts to find reasons for optimism, I wrote the first two (here and here) of what will become a series of Verdict columns asking what life will be like in a post-constitutional America. I focused initially on public employees living at the mercy of an unpredictable president, and I then predicted that there will probably be efforts by Republicans to make the emerging Banana Republic of America continue to look like a constitutional system.
Before returning to thinking about the day-to-day realities of life under a de facto dictatorship, I want to note here a particularly odd form of optimism that perversely mines the depths of pessimism.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, the political scientist Lee Drutman argued that Trump’s rise is not a reason for pessimism but optimism, because “from the long arc of American political history, I see the bright flashing arrows of a new age of reform and renewal ahead.”
That sounds good! He offers as reasons for optimism the indisputable fact that many people have become engaged in politics who never were interested before, and he also notes that certain political reforms (such as “ranked-choice voting”) now seem to be growing in popularity.
While those would normally be reasons for optimism, however, they strike me as the equivalent of noting that people are now more interested in tending a community garden (and have recently started using organic fertilizer) while failing to note that the ground has become toxic or that the garden is in the process of being bulldozed by developers.
Or to drop the metaphor, Drutman is focusing on ways in which the people are trying to improve democracy but not noticing that democracy itself is being taken away from them. Because “the long arc of American political history” has not yet seen the rise of a dictator (or dictator-adjacent autocrat), this would amount to saying that because something has never happened before, it can never happen at all. Donald Trump’s presidency itself disproves that comforting thought.
Yet Drutman does offer one more morsel of hope: “When political conditions become intolerable, people eventually stop tolerating them.” Even that might not be true, but if it is, the word “eventually” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.
It is true, for example, that Hitler’s prediction of a thousand-year reich was off by two orders of magnitude, but those were a pretty awful eleven years (and only ended after millions had died, both civilians and soldiers). Similarly, the Soviet Union eventually broke up—but Putin’s Russia and the varying types of autocracy now found across the former Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact countries offer some reason to suspect that post-intolerable regimes are not guaranteed to be tolerable. China became less “communist” after the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, but no rational person could point to that country today as a beacon of hope for a rebirth of democracy.
Yes, people do often find political conditions intolerable, and some even heroically put themselves in danger to try to make things change. The origin of the United States of America saw the signers of the Declaration of Independence “pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Their courage bequeathed to us the long arc of American history through today. As hard as I try to be optimistic, we might be very near losing what they fought to give us. Knowing that eventually another group of heroes might rise is comforting in a vague sense, but I wish we had reason to believe that it will not need to come to that.