What if Trump Wins?
Until last week’s disturbing Republican Convention, I was able to place the specter of a second Trump term in the back of my mind. In the midst of a pandemic and open conflict over racial justice, it was literally unthinkable. And, thanks to those crises, it’s been easy to imagine a Biden presidency. The polls have been soothing. As it stands now, Biden holds an 8–9% lead in national polls, with leads from 5–8% in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona. Trump has bled support in nearly every category of voter, including, thanks to his fine work on the pandemic, elders. Unemployment is over 11% and tens of millions are out of work; by election day, 200,000 people will be dead from the Coronavirus. While the election is still nine weeks off, those are tough headwinds for any candidate to overcome, especially one who hasn’t polled near 50% since he took office.
And yet. Trump filled out an inside straight to win in 2016, and with a few good breaks, such a repeat is plausible — indeed, Nate Silver gives him a one-in-three chance of doing so. We all have protective membranes in our minds that filter out emotionally painful content, and I’ve been hiding behind mine, trying to take solace in those positive poll numbers. The Republican convention,offered a sneak preview of a second term, however, and it’s one filled with an even more aggressive assault on all the president’s enemies — and democracy itself. In the convention’s wake, it has been useful for me to think the unthinkable and prepare for this dark possibility.
The Past as Prologue
One of the weirdest features of the Trump era is the surprise people register when Trump does exactly what he said he’ll do and what he has always done. He is a man with abundant mental health issues revolving around his own narcissism and lack of empathy. He uses power, lies, and publicity to achieve his own narrow goals, always at the expense of others. He sees the world as zero-sum and feels victorious only at the failure, humiliation, or diminishment of others. He is cunning but not smart, unable to comprehend complex issues, think strategically, or plan for multiple outcomes. He uses the techniques of a bully, particularly bigotry and sexism, to divide and polarize.
He has displayed all of these propensities, floridly, for four years. He has demonstrated how he’ll govern both temperamentally and in terms of public policy. It is fairly easy to anticipate his future term because it will merely continue the pathologies, corruption, incompetence, and narcissism of the first term. They will all just continue to evolve and, thanks to a servile Republican Party unwilling to check him in the legislative or judicial branches they control, worsen. Below I look at these categorically, and although they seem very grim, I ask you to also note how they do form a continuation of current practices and are the most plausible assumptions.
The consequences will be profound in terms of policy. Trump has begun to move away from Congress as the vehicle for new laws and what he can’t jam through a (likely Democratic) House, he’ll enact through executive orders. Where executive orders won’t work, he’ll use other measures to destroy programs he doesn’t like. As the head of the federal government, he has great latitude to damage agencies. A list of possible actions could be very long, but here are a few that seem likely to certain:
- He’ll fatally cripple Obamacare, scale back the postal service, effectively eliminate the IRS, and end all government oversight.
- He’ll end immigration except where it can be rigged to allow educated Europeans entry.
- He will crush immigration coming across the Southern border, using visible acts of cruelty to fire up his base.
- He will begin dismantling public education and target universities.
- He will drastically scale back welfare programs.
- He’ll end the few remaining protections for unions.
- He’ll not just end environmental policies, but aggressively promote ones that pollute. He’ll get rid of many national parks, and open public lands to extractive industry.
- He will amp up racist language and coddle local jurisdictions that pass laws targeting BIPOC citizens.
- He’ll get one or two more Supreme Court seats. Many states will outlaw abortion. The courts will gut regulations restraining corporations.
- His recent payroll tax deduction was an ominous sign that he wishes to target social security. No doubt Medicaid is on the list as well.
- He’ll continue to use tariffs and trade laws to benefit favored industries and punish foreign enemies (who in many cases merely hamper his business interests rather than threaten the US).
- Following the examples of the pandemic and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, he will mishandle crises, blame others, and use the chaos to target enemies.
One could go on and on. The really scary thing is that most of these are destructive acts, which are far easier to implement than passing new legislation. In many cases, he can just direct agencies not to spend money — something the Court has already signaled they’re cool with.
Destroying Democratic Structures
The election happens at a particularly dangerous moment, as the US enters a census and redistricting year. The GOP has already hobbled the census, which will deliver an inaccurate count heavily favoring Republican states. The Supreme Court has actively ruled that political gerrymanders are legal, so Republicans will extract even more house seats from a diminishing minority. Redistricting will certainly marginalize BIPOC voters, but the courts won’t touch it unless the GOP is stupid enough to hold a press conference announcing their racist intentions.
States will pass creative laws to disenfranchise Democratic voters, many blatant in their intent, and the Court will allow them. The GOP will continue to use the propaganda of “election fraud” to further corrode people’s confidence in elections.
The Senate will continue to approve incompetent, radical, and partisan justices who will rule in favor of White minorities, Christians, and big business (those favored by the president, anyway).
I wouldn’t be surprised if the economy rebounds from Covid and continues to perform decently. The US economy is incredibly large and strong and won’t collapse the second Trump is re-elected. Instead, Trump’s corruption will lead to a mini version of the post-Soviet land grab, with Trump-favored oligarchs reaping huge government windfalls. Income inequality will worsen, and poverty will return as a major issue, but the economy overall will list rather than capsize. Trump has many tools to support it, particularly if he ignores deficits.
Trump has no real interest in foreign policy, and is antagonistic to diplomacy. Foreign policy is merely an avenue for advancing his own interests. Like everything else, those include a welter of private grievances, domestic policy goals, business interests, and personal affinities.
A review of his first term reveals these patterns. He befriended foreign despots partly because they’re familiar and friendly to him, partly because he has foreign deals cooking in their countries. He scrapped the Iran deal in a fit of pique against Obama. He is genuinely friendly with men like Putin and Modi.
He’s too lazy to be interested in war or realpolitik, but he loves military cosplay. Being surrounded by generals and tanks thrills him. The campaign’s current focus on “law and order” has nothing to do with rule-breaking and everything to do with authoritarian displays of state power. I would expect him to continue his ad hoc foreign actions while scaling up the visible elements of his military authority. No one will restrain him from sending parades through Washington or appearing with the head of every police union in the country.
It’s worth noting that his mere reelection will alienate the US from allies, damage that will take decades to undo. Europe has been waiting cautiously to see what happens in this election, and they will regroup without the US if he wins. They must. American international leadership will be over.
Propaganda on Steroids
Trump is embarrassingly bad at most things, but in one realm he has a kind of cunning genius. He understands a sucker. Throughout his life, he learned how to manipulate the media to give him exposure, and he’s used it to appeal to the base interests of his target audience (variously customers, media consumers, voters). Most politicians try to appeal to everyone and reflexively avoid alienating chunks of voters. As a grifter, Trump never tried to appeal to everyone — his tactics involved finding and exploiting those willing to buy snake oil. It happens that this also makes him a perfect, instinctive authoritarian.
His current campaign is a master class in Trump propaganda. Having allowed the country to slip into chaos, he is now running on a law-and-order campaign, arguing that if Biden is elected, the country will … slip into chaos. This argument is not meant to convince everyone or even most people. It is a racist, nationalist appeal to his base (the suckers), one focused on increasing their engagement. It is obvious, crude, and possibly effective.
He is now beginning to learn the lessons or authoritarianism as well. Before becoming president, he’d run his grifts as long as they were lucrative and then bail, usually amid a cloud of lawsuits. As President, he’s learned that lying and propaganda have several benefits. They undermine the authority of the free media. They create an environment in which facts are political, in which there is no objective authority, and this weakens his opposition. And hislies, particularly the obvious ones, become a demonstration of power because no one can stop him from telling them.
In a second term, we can expect Trump to undo the protections of speech and who may wield it. He will continue to attack the free press and more fully ignore those who don’t offer Pravda-like coverage. He and the judiciary will weaken media protection, going after individual reporters and media outlets. He will allow increasingly militant supporters to threaten and attack protesters while using “freedom of religion” and other excuses to carve out zones of free speech. It will all be a steady, slow erosion such that political enemies take risks speaking out, while supporters are given bigger and bigger platforms to spread Republican Convention-style lies and propaganda.
The Constitution creates a system of checks, and I base all these predictions on the assumption that congressional and judicial Republicans will support Trump. While that is an assumption, it’s extremely difficult to imagine the counterfactual — especially after the display we witnessed at the RNC. Republicans understand that they are not popular. They recognize that they do not hold majority support and are becoming less popular.
Consider: both the Senate and Electoral College were designed to benefit small (and importantly, pro-slavery) states. That’s how the GOP has managed to “win” two of the past five elections despite receiving fewer votes, and why, despite having received more than 12 million more votes, Senate Democrats remain in the minority. Add the incredible gerrymander following the 2010 election, and the House is disproportionately GOP as well. Those elections mean the judiciary is also skewed; in the past fifty years, Republican presidents have appointed 11 of 15 justices to the Supreme Court. The last time a Democrat appointed a Chief Justice was 1946.
Trump offers thee GOP a way forward when all other roads lead to doom. Their survival depends on supporting Trump, suppressing the vote, and keeping judges in their pocket. They will take it.
It’s easy to predict what Trump will do. It’s more difficult to guess what the opposition does. In particular, what do these actors do?
- Blue states in the Northeast and along the West Coast, which are dominated by Dems. Will they begin a soft succession by ignoring Trump? How will the federal government react if they do?
- Citizens, particularly in purple states dominated by Republican legislatures. In cases where a majority are Democrats and are ruled by minority Republicans, will they tolerate state support of Trump’s excesses? Will Americans take to the streets?
- The media. They have been woefully unprepared for Trump, and have been instrumental in normalizing his behavior. Will they continue to do so?
We have seen a number of cases where fragile democracies have slipped into authoritarian rule under men like Trump. We haven’t seen many cases where citizens managed to stop it, and so far, America’s performance hasn’t inspired confidence.
Will the US have fair and free elections in 2024? Our status as a true democracy will be tested within four years: it’s that stark. If Trump is re-elected, he will, through instinct and intention, undermine the norms and structures that make democracy possible. In 2024, we’ll have an election. There’s a real question whether it will be like the 209 that have come before it, or something like the “elections” Vladimir Putin allows.
It seems unthinkable to suggest this, and yet given the players, the actions they’re taking right now, and the stakes, I can’t see how there’s any way to avoid it. If Trump is re-elected in 2020, American democracy will be on the line.