At the tag end of Michael Cohen’s House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday, when the windbags were all aired out and the reporters were framing the lede, the star witness leaned into his microphone and dropped a dollar’s worth of doom. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump,” said Cohen, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Eat your hat, Ice Bucket Challenge. That woke me right up.
Say what you will about Mr. Cohen — and there is plenty to say about the disgraced, disbarred bagman who spent a decade as Donald Trump’s top lickspittle — but he knows his old boss well, probably as well as anyone living. When Bill Maher says Trump might not voluntarily leave office, something the TV host has been suggesting for a year, I laugh and then shiver a bit. When Trump’s long-time consigliere says it under oath during a congressional hearing, I start thinking about buying canned goods.
The idea of an amaranthine administration seems to have grown on Trump since he first rode down that golden escalator to inform us he was running for president because Mexicans are rapists. According to Cohen’s testimony, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was initially intended to be a giant infomercial to boost his brand as he sought to build skyscrapers in Moscow. He neither wanted nor expected to win. Toward the end of the race, however, the idea of losing suddenly seemed to grate.
In the fall of 2016 with the race nip and tuck, Trump began seeding his public remarks with claims that the election was being fixed in Hillary Clinton’s favor by a nefarious cloud of shadowy forces like, for example, “the dishonest and distorted media.” His sullen drumbeat — “rigged, rigged, it’s all rigged” — grew louder as the election approached, finally causing some reporters to ask if he would actually accept the result of the election no matter the outcome. “I will totally accept the result of this great and historic presidential election,” he told an adoring Ohio crowd on October 20, “if I win.”
Then he actually won, and the question of whether he was kidding or not was moot, at least for a while. Flash forward to 2018, and the issue became suddenly relevant again. Trump was speaking at a private Mar-a-Lago fundraiser that took place not long after China’s President Xi Jinping successfully repealed that nation’s term limits law. “He’s now president for life,” said Trump. “President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Again, har-de-giggly-har, right? Maybe? MSNBC host and self-anointed conservative martyr Joe Scarborough didn’t think so. “When Republicans ignore the fact that this man is talking about being president for life,” said Scarborough after Trump’s Mar-a-Lago quip, “if they think that Donald Trump is joking, then they’re fools. And I don’t think they’re fools. I think they know exactly what he’s saying.”
There are others who believe Trump lacks the intestinal fortitude required to become a despot. “Every waking minute for Trump is a struggle between his sadism and his cowardice,” wrote Drew Magary for Deadspin last August. “He’s caused irreparable harm to scores of people already thanks to both his policies (implemented by other people) and his outright neglect, and yet he can’t even bring himself to fire Omarosa in person. He admires genocidal dictators because they have the stones to commit wanton acts of murder he either can’t or won’t commit himself. He’s the greatest chickenshit who ever lived, and that’s probably the lone reason we haven’t all died yet.”
A month after the Xi comment, Trump was again mulling over the idea of remaining in office beyond his term before another friendly crowd. “I’m not looking to do it,” he told them, “unless you want to do it.”
What, then, do we make of all this? Sure, he pays fawning lip service to the most authoritarian leaders currently scalding the skin of the Earth, and will have yet another one to fall in love with if John Bolton and Elliott Abrams manage to throw Maduro out of office in Venezuela. Yes, he has run roughshod over constitutional norms at every turn, to the point that his own staffers routinely ignore him when he demands the law be broken for his own benefit. Senate Republicans have almost completely surrendered their constitutional role in government in order to please him, and the Supreme Court is stacked with right-wing justices who believe he is above the law.
There is an additional element of all this that makes Trump’s maybe-jokes and Michael Cohen’s somber warning anything but a laughing matter. This is the MAGA crowd, those hardcore believers who view Trump as some wild-eyed hybrid of King Cyrus, Ronald Reagan and Billy Mays come to save them all and own the libs. I absolutely do not doubt either their sincerity or the fact of their poorly fenced fury.
A great many of the hardest of the hard are avowed white nationalists who have been expecting a revolution for a long while now, and some of them are prepared, even eager, for a violent showdown. When Trump said “I’m not looking to do it, unless you want to do it,” that is who he was talking to, the ones who will have his back even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue, and especially if the one he shoots is a person of color. They “want to do it,” badly.
If a picture can speak a thousand words, this snapshot by New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter speaks libraries. There is young Jaden Rams with his father at a Trump rally in Grand Junction two weeks before the election. The moment captures him screaming, “Lock her up!” with the rest of the crowd, his eyes as vacant and lethal as fire. It is the story of our times captured in one jarring image. The boy is one thing, the father who made him into that screaming wraith is something else again. There are a lot of them out there, and they love their guns almost as much as they love their president.
It is easy to believe that Donald Trump won’t even make it to the men’s room if he tries to set himself up for life. Some would like to believe the Secret Service will snicker into their sleeves and then break him over their knee. Others are confident the FBI, the US Marshals, the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies will take some kind of action. For all their cowardice, one might assume Republicans in Congress will not volunteer to extinguish their own existence as a governing body.
That’s the idea, anyway. The truth, unfortunately, is that if Trump so much as twitches in that general direction, either after an election defeat or if Congress decides they’ve had enough of him and finally impeaches him, there will be bad trouble. Trump’s followers already refuse to believe anything the news media tells them if comes from outside the conservative information bubble, and are convinced the entire federal government is a conspiracy against them and their beloved leader. If those two entities correctly and lawfully tell Trump it’s time to go and he refuses to do so, people may well die.
If Michael Cohen is right, Trump will refuse to leave office either in defeat or through impeachment. He likes the power too much now, and the people who believe he is on their side will be on his side to the knife. It may also be worth noting that Erik Prince, brother of the sitting Education Secretary and a Trump devotee, used to have his own large, battle-tested private army. I’m sure he still has their phone numbers.
There is a legitimate concern that even discussing the idea of Trump seeking to be president past his term actually empowers him and his followers. Raising the specter, goes the argument, gives them a club to wield, a weapon of intimidation to add to their already formidable arsenal. This dilemma is real, but outweighed in the end by the dangers implicit in not sounding the alarm. Awareness of what he is capable of is the first requirement for any effective resistance. Trump is fully capable of doing this, and the people must be warned.
If all this sounds unduly paranoid to you, I invite you to close your eyes and think back on everything that has happened since that golden escalator ride nearly four long years ago. Ask yourself: Did you expect Donald Trump to win the presidency? At any point, even for a moment, has Donald Trump once put the best interests of the country before his own? Does a man who cages children to score points with his base have a moral center that can be trusted? Do you really think he is incapable of tearing the country to pieces in order to hold on to what he thinks belongs to him?
Now open your eyes, and keep them open. Donald Trump might be the most dangerous man ever to hold the office of the presidency, and only a fool would believe he will go quietly into that good night. Even if he does depart the office without leaving claw marks in the doorframe, he will still be out there afterward, causing trouble with a ready-to-go mob at his back. Genuine insurrections have a way of burning for a long time. People mistakenly think the Civil War ended at Appomattox, but in fact there were no less than six major battles fought after Lee’s surrender, and the fighting actually ground on for another 16 months.
Some will tell you the Civil War never ended, and a lot of those folks voted for Donald Trump. If he calls, they will come.