As Donald Trump’s presidency careens into its third year leaving a wake of avarice, cruelty and enduring damage to American democracy and America’s standing in the world in its wake, it is still difficult for many Americans to believe this can go on much longer. Some hold out for Robert Mueller III to be a deus ex machina whose findings will lead to impeachment and removal from office for the President, but that is very unlikely. Others believe that the Donald Trump will tire of the office and the ongoing investigations and resign after securing a promise of a pardon from Mike Pence, who as vice-president would assume the presidency in such a circumstance, but that ignores the likelihood that Trump would then face legal problems from state Attorneys General, particularly in New York. Still others believe that Trump will lose the 2020 election. That is a real likelihood, but there is no certainty that Trump would leave office even if he loses. Despite all this, Trump will not be President forever. Ultimately, an election defeat in 2020 could push him out of office. Similarly, if he is reelected, he would probably leave after his second term. Moreover, Trump is a man in his mid-seventies who is overweight, eats a poor diet and rarely exercises. There are some actuarial realities in that area that cannot be ignored.
The question of what America after Trump will look like is very important for the US but also for the entire world. If Trump serves two full terms as President, he will leave in the country in an almost unrecognizable condition compared to what it was in 2016 when he was elected. Corruption and greed will be institutionalized at the highest levels of governance, democratic institutions will be weakened to the point where they are facades rather than genuinely democratic, racism and other forms of bigotry will be the unofficial policy of the state as non-whites, non-Christians and LGBT Americans will feel increasingly unsafe, and the failure to address climate change may cause irreparable damage. Eight years of Trump will also mean that the US will be seen as having cast its lot with the dictators and authoritarians and walked away from the pursuit of global community and cooperation.
Eight years of Trump is the worst-case scenario, but even after four full years, the damage Trump will have done will be enduring. The world is accustomed to changes in American presidents leading to different foreign policies, but the America Trump has nurtured and presented to the world is qualitatively different. Regardless of what happens to Trump, we are now a country that sprays tear gas at young children and toddlers seeking asylum, whose president uses the office to directly enrich himself and his family, whose leadership rather than stand up to Vladimir Putin, who represents a clear threat to global peace and stability, seems oddly beholden to him, where the ruling party uses bigotry and division to the point of encouraging violence to keep its base mobilized and where a mentally unhinged, unstable semi-literate man was able to become leader. That is who we are now-a Democratic victory in 2020 might begin to change that, but it can never erase it
Many Americans, in fact the majority, will seek to absolve ourselves from this by saying we never voted for Trump and opposed him from the beginning. Millions of us even marched against him, donated money to candidates and causes associated with the resistance and exercised our First Amendment rights to criticize the President and his administration. We can be proud of that, but it doesn’t change the reality that this happened in our country and that we helped pay for it with our tax dollars. More pertinently, the rest of the world will forever see America as a country that went off the rails for a few years and did things that were cruel while its democracy teetered on the edge of collapse. They may not hold all of us personally responsible for that, but it will forevermore be part of how we will be seen.
The longer term impact of the Trump fiasco is something with which many Americans do not want to wrestle, but sooner or later we are going to have to. If we address this legacy by ignoring it and just assuming that a change of party in the White House, essentially the best case scenario, will heal our problems and signal to the rest of the world that we are no longer Trump’s America, we will not be addressing the legacy at all. The rest of the world will never quite trust America the way it did. Our allies will never see us as quite as stable, dependable and decent as they once did unless we embark on a very difficult and painful process of justice, reconciliation and truth telling. That will not be easy for a country where extreme national hubris is one of the few values shared by most politicians of both parties, but failing to do that will stunt our global reputation and our democracy.
Photo: cc/The White House