Donald Trump Is On the Ballot
His term, despite repeated predictions to the contrary, was never cut short.
In the spring of 2017, I appeared on a panel in New York City to talk politics. Shortly before I took the stage, an old friend came up to me to talk about the local and national scene. Inevitably, talk turned to the newly-elected president, Donald Trump. Where else could it go? The friend, an astute observer, made a prediction to me that he was sure, beyond any and all doubt, would come to pass.
“By the end of the summer, Trump will be gone. He won’t make it,” the friend said.
He vowed that Trump, so ludicrous and obviously corrupt, would be removed from office. I asked him how. The friend smiled.
“You’ll see. He’ll be gone.”
Scenes like these played out for me, again and again, over the next three years. In 2018, when I ran for office, well-meaning supporters at events would smirk when I said Trump would probably be on the ballot in 2020. You aren’t serious, are you? Trump was going to flee the White House. Or he was going to get impeached and convicted. No inquiry had been announced yet, but it would inevitably come. There was no way Trump could survive. Robert Mueller had to put Trump behind bars. Vladimir Putin’s puppet, they said, could not possibly survive another one or two or three years. At a dinner in 2019, family friends were genuinely shocked when I told them that impeachment, now underway, would inevitably fail. But the evidence is so obvious. He’s done for. Again, I asked politely, slightly bemused:
As an amateur student of American political history, I understood just how much power the president had been invested with, how the position, thanks to the foresight or ignorance of the Founders, mimicked that of royalty. There is an ongoing constitutional debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted. The Justice Department, when Richard Nixon was president, concluded he probably couldn’t. The Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter. I explained that this made the odds of an actual criminal indictment, while he was in office, unlikely. But the House will impeach him! And then the Senate will convict…
Again, I asked how.
For all the chaos of American politics, it has become, in a grand sense, more predictable. The political parties are far more polarized and ideologically coherent than they used to be. The Democratic Party is a home for liberals and leftists; the Republican Party is for social and most fiscal conservatives. Right-wing Southern Democrats are extinct, just as Northern liberal Republicans are off the scene. Negative polarization—the hatred of the other party—defines our presidential elections. It is why Nixon and Reaganesque landslides can’t really happen anymore, no matter how shambolic Trump remains. A Republican candidate can’t lose a state like Louisiana, just as a Democrat can’t lose California. Most states are simply not in play. In 1984, Reagan won forty-nine states. Such an outcome will probably not come again for decades, if ever.
This polarization has brought mostly unbreakable party discipline. The Republicans control the U.S. Senate. Regardless of the strength of the case the Democrat-controlled House built against Trump, the drive to impeach and convict a Republican president was absolutely doomed before it began. I argued this quite a bit to friends on the left who would reply one of two ways. The first—that Republicans would see the evidence and break with their party—I had no sympathy for. Such an argument was not chained to any current reality. Senate Republicans are accountable to their base, which loves Trump, and an alternate reality media complex in Fox News that will not brook such dissent. Trump brought the GOP to heel because he is popular among rank-and-file voters and promised to deliver on what really mattered: the judges. After Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch, an arch-conservative, to the Supreme Court in 2017, why would any Senate Republicans oppose him? Why would they after he rammed through Brett Kavanaugh in 2018? There would never be a way for a significant number of Senate Republicans to vote to convict Trump on anything. Impeachment, I long argued, is a political tactic, and that meant it followed the laws of politics, not jurisprudence. If Democrats held the Senate, Trump could have been convicted. They never did. Polarization, once more, was on display when Senate Republicans rapidly confirmed Amy Coney Barrett a little more than a month after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. No Democrat voted for her.
The second argument Democrats made to me was that Trump needed to be impeached for the sake of historical posterity, for the Constitution itself. They understood it needed to be done and it was the right thing to do. A point had to be made. Fair enough, I said. Though the COVID-19 pandemic would all but wipe Trump’s December 2019 impeachment and February 2020 acquittal from the national consciousness, it was still somewhat remarkable that it was never mentioned once at the Democratic National Convention. But if you believe that it was a vital, if doomed, gesture to make, so be it.
Undergirding all of this was the firm belief that somehow, some way, Trump could not stand for re-election. Something would have to give. Donald J. Trump, failed businessman and reality TV has-been, could not possibly survive four years and attempt to run for a second term. This is America, we have a Constitution, what is going on here, exactly? What sort of joke has been played on us?
The lesson of the last four years is rather simple. An antiquated U.S. Constitution offers few viable means for cutting short a presidency mid-term. Many on the left allowed themselves to fall prey to various delusions. Luckily, these did not preclude investing in the one way a president can be eventually removed: an election. Activism spiked and voter turnout is surging. Joe Biden’s plodding, forgettable campaign has better odds of triumphing than Trump’s because so many Democrats, understanding that Ukraine or shady business dealings or hidden taxes can’t undo a presidency, still invested in the ballot box. There was never a way to make Trump magically disappear, to banish him to Mar-a-Lago by the end of 2017.
In other countries, presidents or prime ministers can be brought to heel by Parliament or easily indicted by prosecutors. We are cursed with an imperial presidency. The next Congress should go about changing that. If Trump is defeated, we can create some distance from this era and attempt to learn from it. If he wins, we will do the same, under darker circumstances. Either way, in the 2020s, we should engage fully in the reality of the nation we live in, with all its constrictions and contradictions. There is no deus ex machina. There is merely Election Day, arriving as scheduled.