One constant theme of the Trump era is an unspecified anxiety about whether anything matters. Throughout 2017, Trump lied at an unprecedented scale. Did any of it matter? Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, then confessed on NBC News that he did so to relieve pressure from the Russia probe. Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, and each passing week gave the public a small glimpse into what his office was looking into. But with every breaking news story, the inevitable follow-up question was: Does any of this matter?
The 2018 midterms gave the public a clear sign that yes, Trump’s reprehensible behavior and the multiple investigations encircling him and his closest advisers have taken a toll on his presidency. He was elected with historically high disapproval ratings, and after two years he has made no headway in increasing his support and has arguably lost at least some of it.
Looking at Trump’s personal failings and the Mueller investigation only tells part of the story though. A full picture of why voter turnout was higher in 2018 than in any midterm since World War I needs to include the disability activists who led the fight to save what’s left of the ACA; the immigrant rights advocates who fought against family separation, detention and deportation; and the new crop of Democrats who won primaries and have already shifted the party significantly to the left.
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What does this mean for the 2020 election, and what does the 2020 election mean for the future of the country and the planet? The twin realities of an upcoming census — and the redistricting processes that will follow — and worsening climate change mean the next election could literally determine the fates of tens of millions of people. So, let’s look at a few possible scenarios we may encounter, come 2020.
Scenario 1: A Leftist in the White House
What would it mean to have a leftist, or at least a progressive, take the White House in 2020?
Such a president’s ability to accomplish their goals will depend heavily on who else is in government. Whichever party has the better year at the state level in 2020 will determine how new district maps are drawn, and will have a built-in advantage until the next census is taken in ten years. If Republicans are able to continue their nearly 10 years of extreme gerrymandering and stave off court challenges, Democrats will need to win overwhelming victories to keep or regain a House majority after 2020. And if Republicans win the House, a Democrat in the White House in 2020 will have almost no hope of enacting major legislation to address climate change or expand health care.
Just as worryingly, even if Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, the 60-vote threshold for the filibuster will give conservative senators a de facto veto on any progressive legislation. The only way around the filibuster is to write reconciliation rules so that certain budget-affecting legislation can pass with a simple majority. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin would support Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. The addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court presents additional risks to viable long-term progressive and leftist goals.
There’s another under-appreciated stumbling block that a left-leaning president would face: namely, career prosecutors, spies, top brass in the military, and others who make up the bulk of the government bureaucracy. Prior to Trump’s election, there was some acknowledgment on the left that there was such a thing as the “Deep State,” and that it was largely unresponsive to the public. Trump’s juvenile understanding of government and constant invocation of the “Deep State” to describe his enemies has led to an overcorrection of sorts. As a result, it’s difficult to honestly discuss how the military, CIA, FBI, DHS and others have interests that run directly opposite to a leftist platform. Any attempt to abolish ICE and drastically reduce the Pentagon’s budget will face huge internal opposition. Call that whatever you want, but a truly leftist president could face a real backlash from the national security state.
Even acknowledging all of those hurdles, the left is in a better position now than it has been in decades. The energy and organizational momentum favor the left, the incumbent president is beatable, and the public is engaged.
Scenario 2: A Mainstream Democrat in the White House
The Democratic Party being what it is, it’s entirely likely that the candidate will be from the establishment of the party and tack to the center. Should a center-left candidate win in 2020, the United States could end up in a situation like France is in now. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in 2017 but has waged war against the French working class while delivering huge tax cuts to the wealthy.
A centrist Democrat like Joe Biden might not go that far, but the problems the United States faces of poverty, wealth inequality and an inability to get health care can’t be fixed by tinkering at the margins while taking care not to upset the donor class. Running a centrist at the top of the ticket could also lower overall enthusiasm and hurt down-ballot Democrats. If the Democratic Party establishment continues to see itself as the responsible steward of the decline of quality of life in the United States, it will only create more fertile ground for the next Trump. Democrats need to develop an inclusive, populist message and deliver.
Scenario 3: Trump in the White House … Again
Prior to the midterms, it was much easier to assume Trump would win a second term, probably while again losing the popular vote. The Electoral College exists to privilege rural white voters, and the Bradley Effect, a theory that describes white voters’ reluctance to admit to pollsters that they intend to cast a racist vote, may also make it difficult to accurately gauge Trump’s likely performance on Election Day.
Even now, other factors appear to favor Trump. Although the United States is at war throughout the Middle East and Africa, Trump doesn’t have to face daily headlines about the deterioration of Iraq like George W. Bush did. The economy hasn’t entered a recession, despite the stock market’s recent downturn, and Trump continues to benefit from positive macro-trends he inherited from Obama. That doesn’t tell the whole story — wages continue to stagnate and 40 percent of Americans are struggling to make ends meet — but for now the market volatility hasn’t pulled the real economy into a downward spiral.
So it would be a mistake to count Trump out at this early stage. Yes, his administration is increasingly hollowed out, with acting cabinet secretaries in the Justice, Defense, and Interior departments, and as chief of staff. Trump’s lies are more numerous and preposterous by the day. That makes him a weak, beatable incumbent, but Trump also looked like a weak, beatable candidate in 2016.
Plus, in the meantime, Trump could take a number of actions to please his supporters. The next two years have potential to elevate Trump’s dictatorial impulses to new heights. A Democratic House will prevent him from doing much legislatively, and barring some unforeseen calamity he won’t have the chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice. Trump likes to feel that he’s accomplished things, and he correctly understands that his supporters want him to fight. His pitch is that he’s doing things typical presidents wouldn’t. To sell that, he’ll need to actually do something, which could mean escalating existing wars or starting new ones.
Congress has started to show some interest in performing its war oversight duties — the Senate recently passed a bill that would end US support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen — but the executive branch still has expansive war-making powers and discretion. Trump may also direct some of his frustration at the southern border, as in the run-up to the midterms. Although much of the country is horrified by the president’s actions at the border, they’re exactly what much of his base is looking for.
Realistically, we cannot rule out the possibility of another Trump term.
Scenario 4: Impeachment in the Meantime
One of the many wild cards over the next two years is the Mueller investigation, and what Congress will do with his eventual report. It’s unlikely that Mueller will try to seek an indictment for Trump himself. Whether or not a sitting president can be indicted is an open question, though some in the legal community think there’s no question the answer is yes, they can be.
Assuming that Mueller doesn’t test that proposition, it will be up to Congress to act, first in the House to vote on articles of impeachment, and then in the Senate for a trial, should the articles pass. There’s some debate among House Democrats as to whether impeachment is a worthwhile pursuit or not. Of the new class of Democrats, only 11 of 52 want to begin impeachment proceedings immediately. Seventeen say they want to wait until Mueller completes his investigation.
Regardless of what Mueller eventually files, there is simply no question that Trump and nearly every organization he has been a part of, including as president, is rife with white collar crime from top to bottom. If Trump is not worthy of impeachment, then no one is. His administration should be tainted with the stain that impeachment brings, even if the Senate doesn’t convict him.
One of the many tragedies of the tenures of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is that despite the widespread lawlessness and immoral policies both presidents carried out, neither administration is remembered with the disgrace that Richard Nixon’s administration is. That’s in large part because George H.W. Bush pardoned six Iran-Contra defendants, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and because Barack Obama didn’t pursue accountability for torture under the second Bush.
Presidents and their administrations are remembered for their extremes, both good and bad. When they are not held accountable for their worst decisions, their legacies — and therefore the political work their myths can do in the present — are bolstered.
There is a danger in pursuing impeachment. For one, it could rally Trump’s base. For another, if Democrats focus exclusively on the role of Russia, there’s a likelihood that the party will slip further into Cold War hawkishness. The way to avoid that — while simultaneously rallying the Democrats’ base and potentially depressing Trump’s — is to pair impeachment with bread-and-butter economic issues. Trump is a corrupt, selfish elite who is destroying the Affordable Care Act even as he tries to further enrich his family through tax dodging, insider dealing, and influence trading with Vladimir Putin — who is also a member of the elite.
Trump’s purported populism is a joke, and Democrats can make that clear by pursuing progressive legislation while flooding the media with all the business issues Trump desperately wants to hide.
Over the coming months and years, instead of focusing solely on opposing Trump or overstating Russia’s role in sowing racial divisions, Democrats should aim for meaningful advances like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. They should put those policies front and center, and explain why a corrupt and racist landlord-in-chief is standing in the way of them so he can make his family richer. Regardless of which of these scenarios comes true, if any, it is crucial to push for progressive policies in the immediate term.
The stakes for 2020 at the local, state and federal levels could not be any higher. Climate change is transforming the world, and a gerrymandered Republican House and minority veto power in the Senate through the filibuster would endanger the entire planet. Every election cycle, politicians say this is the most important election of a lifetime. In 2020, they may actually be correct.