Donald Trump’s contempt for democracy and open sympathy for authoritarianism are visible in his recent comments about serving longer than he is legally allowed to. On June 16, 2019, he tweeted that his supporters might “demand that I stay longer” than two terms.
In fact, Trump has variously suggested that he should get two extra years as a consolation prize for the Russia investigation, that he will serve up to five terms, and that he will indeed only serve two.
Trump’s statements about presidential terms follow his usual approach to trying out anti-democratic ideas: Send up a trial balloon, rile his base up, make inconsistent statements, and then keep everyone guessing whether he’s serious or not. All the while, he achieves his primary aim: remaining the center of attention. After all, Trump is better at being a ringleader of chaos than getting policy passed. He exudes a cloud of constant uncertainty, which keeps both his opponents and allies constantly on edge. One never knows what he’ll say — or whom he’ll fire — next.
Some have responded to Trump’s latest statements on term limits by speculating about his mental state or making comparisons to Hitler. A more interesting approach might be to role-play several scenarios in which Trump actually does try to unconstitutionally break the term limits. These scenarios, of course, are a game of speculation, but they are instructive: Given the unpredictability of the Trump presidency and its anti-democratic actions thus far, it’s important to consider what “staying longer” would truly entail.
If Trump wins the 2020 election, he has four more years to maneuver before the 2024 primaries. This would be his window to prepare for a coup.
Trump’s first option would be to legally change the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms. But this seems unlikely; no serious attempts to overturn the amendment have gone very far. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump scoffs at this possibility, saying “the idea that there will be a massive push for overturning the 22nd Amendment so that Trump can remain in office seems at odds with his having both lost the popular vote in his only election to date and being approved of by only 40 percent of the country.”
What Trump does have is a small but aggressive movement of grassroots supporters — which I’ve dubbed Independent Trumpism — who enjoy cosplay and street brawls. But his total base is a minority of voters, and outside of the Christian Right faction, its members have shown little savvy in winning elections and enacting policy on their own. Also, if there is an upside to The Donald’s egotism, it’s that he’s shown no interest in fostering a political movement that can function independently of him.
In a second scenario, Trump might ignore the Constitution and remain in the White House, either by claiming he is entitled to an extra two years, running in the 2024 election, or openly declaring himself Supreme Ruler. In all of these cases, his fanatical base would be key. Trump would need to use the next four years to indoctrinate them with arguments justifying his overstay, and make sure they are prepared to physically defeat democracy’s defenders in the streets.
If he ran in 2024, Trump could either enter the GOP primary or run as an Independent. If somehow, he were able to finagle both running in and winning the GOP primary, he would likely have a larger base than if he campaigned as an Independent write-in. The latter would avoid some legal issues, as it would be difficult to stop him from speaking, even if he was not on the ballot. But it would pit him against a legitimate GOP nominee, lessening conservative support.
Trump also could simply refuse to step down. If he loses the 2020 election, he might attempt to stay — by insisting he has another two years owed to him, or claiming voter fraud — although this would be his weakest scenario. Alternately, during either this or next term, Trump could try to attempt to cancel the elections, a common occurrence in other countries. He could also declare victory in 2024 as a write-in — even if his votes weren’t even counted.
However, Trump’s best chance to remain in office past term is a national emergency; he might invoke the need for stability during the crisis. For example, when Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was New York City’s mayor, he attempted to use 9/11 as an excuse to extend this term for three months. And if a genuine emergency does not present itself, Trump may be tempted to fabricate one. But whether real or fake, an emergency could have the effect of dampening opposition to anti-democratic moves, while uniting his support base in a nationalist frenzy.
Trump would also probably have to overcome concrete opposition to remain in power. He could simply physically remain in the White House and resist any attempts to depose him. In 1991, a Soviet military junta attempted to do this in Moscow’s White House (after they had in turn removed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). This would likely give rise to a mass, pro-democracy movement which could attempt to force him out — just as the Soviet junta was removed by popular, pro-democracy forces led by Boris Yeltsin, which had surrounded the Moscow building.
Here, Trump‘s plan would rely on mobilizing his supporters, especially those he has called his “Second Amendment people.” There are currently hundreds of far-right militias and related armed groups, while progressives have only a handful.
In a scenario where Trump simply refused to go, the military would be the most important actor. Would it support Trump, remove him, or let the country fight it out? If the military abstained from rescuing Trump, it could result in a scenario similar to the Moscow coup of 1991, when the military largely stood aside. Militias might surround and defend the White House against a mass democratic protest attempting to take it over. And if Trump could both mobilize his armed supporters and win over most of the military, he would likely remain in power.
A mass resistance to dislodge Trump would require unity between the left, Democrats, and as many conservatives as they can gather — as it’s likely the GOP would split. Opposition forces would also have to decide whether to pursue a largely non-violent campaign, or initiate armed resistance. At least some city and state governments would likely resist a Trump coup, and the military might well step in to regain control, just as in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s army has defeated and occupied rebel cities like Aleppo as the civil war has dragged on. In the United States, such a scenario could spin out into a protracted civil war. Separatist movements could also take advantage of the chaos; amid a Trump coup, one could envision California seceding, not to mention Puerto Rico, Vermont and Cascadia.
While these are horrifying scenarios to imagine, none are likely. Trump’s militant base is a rag-tag collection of misfits who can barely stand to be in a room with each other. Many in the GOP are happy to shrug away Trump’s xenophobic Islamophobia as long as they get tax cuts, but will probably draw the line at mutilating the Constitution.
Yet Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, describes how such a Trump-coup scenario could arise. In it, Senator Buzz Windrip wins the election and immediately establishes a dictatorship. A lack of immediate opposition allows him to maintain power and he slowly tightens the authoritarian noose over society. Lewis could have been describing Trump when he wrote that one “could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.” (While Lewis’s book was fiction, Senator Windrip and his friends were based on several very real, very popular authoritarian demagogues active in the United States in the 1930s, including Huey Long and Father Coughlin.)
The rhetoric of democratic ideals is strong in the United States, although there are copious instances of those ideals’ failure to materialize in reality: indigenous genocide; slavery, segregation, and structural racism; the Red Scares; the Japanese internments; and much more. Who knows what the desires of a demagogue and his entourage might create if the stars align with a national catastrophe, a complacent military, an energized base, and a divided opposition? It probably won’t happen here — but it would surely be foolish to say it can’t.
This possibility, however small, should encourage us to throw our energy behind our own grassroots movements. Let’s not wait to see if the worst happens — let’s work to make that scenario impossible.