If the Trump administration goes as bad as we fear, this is how we’ll know.
I think last night was profoundly bad. The type of bad that we might not recover from. I’ve written elsewhere that I thought our country was better than this. But I still have a bit more to say.
There is a temptation amongst the prognosticating class to downplay the outcome, to explain why everything will, in fact, probably be just fine.
Maybe it will be. Maybe I’m overreacting. But if it isn’t fine, if this is what the end looks like, then here is what I expect will happen, in relatively short order:
- The economy will tank. Not as bad as the housing crisis — we aren’t primed with that kind of a bubble — but still very bad. Trump’s promises to make companies stay and “do great deals” simply don’t line up well with the complexities of modern economics.
- He’ll fail to pass most of his… promises (I can’t call them policies. He never proposed any policies). Maybe we’ll just get the Paul Ryan agenda instead. Or maybe when Trump doesn’t deport 11 million people and doesn’t build a giant wall, he will need explanation for what went wrong. And that leads us to…
- He will then start looking for scapegoats. He will have a quasi-state media apparatus (some hybrid of Fox News and Breitbart that becomes virtually the only station with White House access) that echoes that scapegoating. Life will get hard for the scapegoats. (This is the critical step that optimists will likely disagree with. If you believe in your gut that democratic governance still works, then that means Trump and his party will face a public opinion backlash if they overreach or if their policies outright fail. If, instead, he is able to avoid any blowback when the economy and his promises fail… if he is able to divert the blame to a scapegoat… then we no longer have functional democratic governance.)
- Critical government functions will fail. There will be more scapegoating. Think Hurricane Katrina. Trump is going to install supporters, buddies, and members of the Trump organization into key governmental positions. These are not people who know how to administer effective governmental programs. The government is complicated, and it provides actual, meaningful, critical services. There will be failures. And then there will be scapegoating.
- There will also be at least one nuclear war. Probably one that escalates globally. I don’t know whether we will fire rockets or retaliate with rockets. But we now have a commander in chief who does not understand the basic building blocks of nuclear deterrence theory or diplomatic relations. It is going to produce global instability. There will also be scapegoats for that.
- The supreme court will get a purely partisan appointee. Five justices will decide that staying in comfort by agreeing with government orthodoxy is right and just and exactly what the founders always had in mind. Our system of checks and balances will effectively lose its most important check. It will become unbalanced.
- Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will offer token resistance at best. The same goes for other Republican elites. They will be scared of Trump’s voters, and they will be aware that he’s more popular with those voters (and his quasi-state media apparatus) than they are. If these congressional leaders have shown no courage yet, I do not expect them to suddenly find their convictions in the midst of a Trump administration. More likely they will be focused on currying favor and making sure that their majorities remain secure in the next election. (There is always a next election to think about.)
- Republicans at the state level will continue to make voting more difficult in POC communities and liberal areas. All efforts to challenge these machinations will be quashed by the courts or ignored by election administrators. This is already happening in North Carolina and Wisconsin. It will be exported to every other state where Republicans hold a majority. As the American electorate becomes more diverse, the experience of casting a ballot on election day will become increasingly lopsided.
- In 2018, Democrats will lose seats in the Senate. They have to defend all the seats they gained in 2012, so it’s a very tough map to begin with. And this will serve as proof that Democrats are to blame for our lousy economy and our policy failures! It will further embolden the Trump regime.
- The unemployment epidemic feeds into the opiate epidemic, and also combines in interesting ways with the rise of VR gaming. More and more people will find some way to tune out the world around them, and basically never look back.
- In 2020, we will still technically have elections. But whatever Democrat is nominated will operate under a cloud of scrutiny, strategic leaking, and intimidation from operatives of the state. We will eventually look back on Comey’s October letter and say “that was the start of it all.” And voting access will be restricted in battleground states. Trump will be reelected by a larger margin than he was elected. Possibly by a comically large margin. All of the plainly unconstitutional actions his administration will have taken will have been ruled constitutional by his supreme court, while Ryan and McConnell try to turn the United States into a grander version of the Kansas no-tax, no-governance experiment.
There will be efforts at citizen resistance, and there will be efforts by wealthy elites to challenge him. But those efforts aren’t going to go very far. Trump is starting out with democratic legitimacy, with a resentful, heavily-armed base, and with the support of the police and federal agents. That gives him intelligence functions to root out “traitors” and “threats,” and gives his supporters the room to intimidate and quash peaceful resistance.
Here are our two best hopes, as far as I can see them:
a. (medium term — 1–2 years) Republican elites — from the Koch brothers to Lindsey Graham to Paul Ryan — come together and decide damn the torpedoes, they’re going to actually resist Trump. I don’t think this is likely, though. It’s asking for courage from the comfortably craven. It’s much more likely that they take their tax cuts and watch the world burn.
b. (short term — 3–6 months) Republican elites actually seize on some of Trump’s immediate, blatant violations of the constitution (acting on his enemies list, for instance) and begin impeachment proceedings. Democratic lawmakers stand with them and vote Trump out of office before he has done much damage. We then get 4 years of a Mike Pence administration, and maybe only two years of unitary Republican control. That damages the Republic, but probably doesn’t end it.
There is a third option, I suppose…
c. (short-to-long term, the work never ends) It is possible that, in the face of this democratic failure, the public en masse bands together and decides that our representative democratic form of government is worth saving, and we goddamn sure are going to keep it. I don’t know how that starts, and I don’t know how it effectively contests the concentration of government power and media propaganda that we are likely to see. But if you are looking for hope, cast your eyes to your fellow citizens.
Joe Hill famously told us “don’t mourn. Organize.” Perhaps we will head his call.
…But today, surveying the wreckage of what just occurred and thinking through what comes next, there sure seems to be good cause for mourning.