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Looking back from 2020: Three Trump Presidencies

Philip A. Wallach

With Donald Trump’s historic Super Tuesday wins now in the books, it is getting quite difficult to see a path to someone beating him for the Republican nomination—indeed, if he were a normal candidate who performed similarly, we might well see him as the presumptive nominee.  So now it is time to start thinking seriously about what a Trump presidency would mean.  Anyone who cannot imagine relatively benign outcomes simply lacks imagination.  Here are three paradigmatic scenarios viewed from the end of Trump’s first term.  The question for voters as they begin to weigh Mr. Trump as a general election candidate is how they view the relative probabilities of each.

1. America made great again: Trump succeeds as figurehead and negotiator

As Donald Trump steamrolled his way to the Republican nomination and then the presidency, many wise men warned of the end of the republic. The truth has been less sensational but more surprising: the Donald has been a success.

Trump’s famous bark is much worse than his bite. Yes, his crudeness is excessive, and yes, his forays into racism are an unfortunate misstep in our country’s long, slow struggle for meaningful equality. But, as the man himself says, lighten up! By leading Congress to build the Great Southern Wall and sharply restrict low-skilled immigration, Trump has restored a sense of national solidarity bigger than any racial differences. Just as restricted immigration from 1920-1965 strengthened America’s sense of itself, assimilation in the 2020s and beyond will be about growing together. Cosmopolitan elites are disappointed America won’t be all things to all people, but our newfound appreciation of American greatness is good news for ordinary working class people of all races.

On domestic policy, Trump has taught America the art of the deal. He scrambled seemingly immovable partisan lines of conflict and forced seemingly unattainable compromises. Obamacare is dead, long live Trumpcare! Hardly diametric opposites, of course, but Trump’s version can adapt with support from both parties far better than its predecessor. We have an overhauled tax code, and if it doesn’t solve our long-term fiscal problems, well, Mr. Trump never claimed to be a miracle worker. Reasonably balancing the needs of business and low-income households is nothing to sneeze at. Across the administrative state, Trump has used a light touch and left the details to an able crew of pro-market economists, with fine results.

Trump’s foreign policy record has been the biggest surprise for the naysayers. He has substituted epithets for drone strikes wherever possible, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Precisely because other world leaders judged him crazy, our allies have done more to provide for global defense and containment of ISIS—just as Trump said they should. Trump’s swaggering engagement with Putin and others has sustained widespread peace, at least for now.

As President Trump likes to frequently remind us, “Haters gonna hate.” And our dear, unconventional leader gives his detractors plenty to pick on. But as he launches his reelection campaign, it seems hard to believe that anyone can mount a serious challenge. It’s morning in America again—a Great, Huge morning, if we’re being honest. Despite the smart set’s lingering reservations, we shouldn’t look a gift-horse’s ass in the mouth.

2. Congress made great again: Trump’s failure and the return of America’s first branch

As Donald Trump rolled to victory over what seemed to be the corpse of the old Republican Party, he promised that nothing would slow him down in his quest to remake the country: no party, no faction, no intransigent Congress of losers. As Trump’s reelection bid is overshadowed by his impeachment trial, the dominant mood is, understandably, schadenfreude. But, more importantly, the resurgence of the GOP and of America’s Congress as forces to be reckoned with should inspire a renewed appreciation for the genius of America’s Constitution, which has proven far stronger than even Trump’s braggadocio.

From his Inauguration Day onward, Trump’s willingness to flout the limits on executive power proved too brazen for even the notoriously divided Congress to ignore. Whereas Presidents Bush and Obama at least offered fig leafs for their executive power grabs, Trump thought that his unconventional base of support put him above all that.

The First Branch begged to differ. Partisan differences took a back seat to institutional prerogatives—and, wonder of wonders, Congress rediscovered its spine, passing a bevy of laws over Trump’s vetoes and thereby diminishing his ability to dictate the agenda. Members of both houses made it clear they were ready to meet unlawful actions with impeachment, and we will soon see whether they make good on that threat. Whatever the result, Trump is now a wounded animal.

Historians will rightly rank Trump among the worst of America’s presidents, alongside Andrew Johnson and John Tyler—the only previous incumbent to try and fail to win his party’s nomination, who will soon be glad for Trump’s company. But as we look ahead to the 2020s, it is hard to avoid feeling that he has done America a great service by unjamming a stagnant government and providing an object lesson in the dangers of our past trajectory. Congress is great again, and that will last well beyond the failed reign of King Donald.

3. Just sad: How Trump exploited American democracy’s weaknesses

Summer 2015 was an innocent time: many of us were outraged that media would give Donald Trump the time of day, so obvious was it that he was beneath even the degraded dignity of American politics. Now we know: if it screeds, it leads, and not only in irrelevant TV ratings. The country was hypnotized by Trump’s showmanship, and he has been the ringmaster of American politics ever since. Nobody has yet discovered a way to dislodge him.

During the Trump years, most of us have learned H.L. Mencken’s definition of democracy by heart: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” The humor has drained away as “the common people” turn their anger toward a growing list of scapegoats when things go wrong. We all get it now, in both senses.

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Over and over again, Trump has proved capable of wielding his unconventional base of support to run over institutional barriers we previously thought sacrosanct. He has brought the trend of executive branch consolidation of power, which was clearly present during his predecessors’ terms, to its logical end, and few of history’s absolute monarchs could hold a candle to the power he now wields. Even as he has performed this evisceration of our constitutional structure, he has continued to nostalgically sing the praises of America’s founders. Anybody who expected that he’d eventually have to start making sense to retain his support has been sorely disappointed.

As Trump goads his supporters on in their occasional bursts of hatred and even violence, the Founders’ fears that unmediated democracy would turn into mob rule ring in our ears. Any day now, our right to criticize the government may become just another parchment barrier to fall in the wake of Trump’s overgrown FBI or his legions of unhinged supporters. Four years on, it isn’t too late for America to wake up from this nightmare and return to its constitutional roots, but it’s getting harder and harder to imagine how to do it.