What comes after Trump?

What if America can’t just go back?

Just after administering the oath of office to Gerald Ford in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger turned to Hugh Scott. Scott, a senator from Pennsylvania, had been one of the Republican leaders whose visit to the White House a few days before had helped convince Richard Nixon that his congressional support was crumbling and his impeachment was only a matter of time.

Grabbing Scott’s hand, Burger exclaimed, “Hugh, it worked. Thank God it worked.”[1]

Burger’s celebration of the triumph of the constitutional system highlights the deceptive fragility of democracy. The durability of American democracy can give it an air of inevitability. It’s tempting to think that if a government of laws and not of men has been around for nearly 250 years, it can easily survive long after we’re gone.

Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey has brought comparisons to the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, along with the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General after they refused to fire Cox.

There’s a sense among some pundits that Trump is just a fluke, a venting that the electorate had to get out of its system before it can move down the road of social progress that the Obama era seemed to symbolize. There seems to be a feeling that once Trump is gone, the country will just fall back to the way things were before.

But what if it doesn’t? What if it doesn’t get better after Trump?

What if, instead of being an anomaly, Trump is the start of a new era? What if the next president, regardless of which party he belongs to, doesn’t just revert to the model of presidential behavior that came to be standard since FDR? What if the next president doesn’t buy into the idea that the president should be restrained and responsible, putting the country before himself and reacting to events with measured analysis? What if he doesn’t return to the endorsement of the international programs and alliances that have defined the U.S.’s role in the world since World War II? What if he continues the exploitation of the White House and the presidency to enrich himself, his family, and his friends? What if things don’t just go back to the way things used to be?

Trump has proven again and again that he’s anxious to put America First in campaign rhetoric and trade negotiations, but not in his personal behavior. He’s all about Donald Trump. The integrity of the FBI is nothing if it refuses to serve his purpose. Steve Bannon and many on the alt-right have made no secret of the idea that they’d like to do away with many of the cultural institutions and paradigms that have shaped American life and society over the past 60 years. The alt-right has contempt for the idea that thinking about someone other than yourself in your private life and about anything other than America in public life are noble ideas that have long-term benefits. The ideas of empathy and toleration are foreign to them.

One of the aspects of Trump’s win that will remain to be seen is how much it turns the presidency into just a high-stakes position in America’s celebrity culture. The president has been a celebrity since at least the time of Teddy Roosevelt. And he has always exploited that celebrity to push his political agenda. David Halberstam wrote about an exchange between JFK and Andre Malraux in which the Frenchman asked why the president tolerated the irreverence and criticism that the American television news could bring. “Kennedy said that he didn’t mind as long as he got equal time. Then he laughed. He laughed because he knew he always got far more than equal time.”[2]

Trump came to politics from reality TV with an understanding of how to exploit that spotlight, but with an unprecedented ignorance of policy and the legislative process. He was apparently the only person with even the vaguest understanding of the subject matter who didn’t know that health care reform would be complicated. He was dumbfounded during a debate about why Hillary Clinton didn’t just ignore her 99 Senate colleagues and solve the problem of carried interest tax provisions singlehandedly.

After Trump’s success, how many other celebrities will look at politics as an easy way to extend their brand? Will Kanye, et al look at Trump and think, “I can do that. I’m more popular than he is.”?

So far, Trump has been frustrated by the reality that the energy he whipped up on the campaign trail hasn’t allowed him to bypass the system of checks and balances designed by the founders, or the other two co-equal branches of government. But the authoritarian tendencies he displayed during the campaign and the fondness for strongmen like Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte haven’t gone away. They’re lying fallow, waiting to be brought back when the situation allows for it.

That’s the point of uncertainty with Trump. What would he do in an emergency? He’s broken so many customs and political precedents in his time as a candidate and in office, it’s hard to imagine what he would do in any given situation. What if there’s a large-scale terrorist attack, a dirty bomb that levels part of a major city? Would Trump declare martial law, in the name of protecting the homeland? It’s a comforting thought to tell ourselves that the Constitution is strong and durable, that it could survive a challenge of that magnitude. But in a crisis, when people are scared, the law is largely what either the majority or the people in power say it is. And once we start down that road, there’s no guarantee that we’d ever find our way back.

Authoritarianism never announces itself by its real name. It comes clothed as Safety, Security, or Order. Tyrants never sell themselves to the public by saying they’d like to give themselves and their friends more power. They pitch themselves as the one who can do what needs to be done, the one who can solve the problems that the country faces. They paint themselves as the hero against an enemy, an Other from which the country needs protection. Their success lies in convincing enough people to see the enemy in the same way that they do. Despite the popular perception, dictators rarely seize power through tanks outside the Parliament. They’re usually invited in through the front door by the popular vote.

The reality is that — whenever it happens, whether in two years, ten years, or further on — Americans will probably elect the man who ends the republic. So far, Trump’s opponents have been pleasantly surprised that their worst fears have been largely avoided by the president’s incompetence. To this point, at least, Trump has been less like Machiavelli than Barney Fife — a man with a pretense of power that he’s too inept to figure out how to utilize effectively.

But what if his successor isn’t? It’s only a matter of time until someone figures out how to harness the energy that Trump unleashed and combine it with a savvy political mind: an interior of political machination wrapped in a candy coating of populism. Does the alt-right have a character that can combine Trump’s message with an attention span for policy and an understanding of the legislative process?

That’s the true menace to the American people and the American experiment.

[1] Patterson, James T. Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. Oxford University Press. Oxford: 2005. p. 2.

[2] Halberstam, David. The Powers That Be. Dell Publishing: New York. 1979. p. 545

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