What sort of President will Donald Trump be? As the United States of America appears to have voted collectively to reside on desolation row, below are three scenarios, none of which offer any hope.
Scenario One: The Blind Commissioner
The first scenario is that, for all Trump’s bluster, he becomes a do nothing President, a media front man delegating work (rather like George W. Bush) while acting as a clown-ish, blustering super-Berlusconi. There may be some symbolic gestures around walls (or fences) but, rather than a radical ‘reconstructer’ of the political system, Trump could resemble a modern day Warren G. Harding, presiding over little but scandal and pro-business policy. The Trump Presidency would be, as it were, some kind of joke.
The serious question is then who gets the power? Does it go directly to his Vice President? His approaches to John Kasich reportedly involved a promise that the VP would be ‘in charge of domestic and foreign policy’ (and he would be in charge of ‘making America great again’). Handing power to Pence may reassure some, especially as he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban ‘offensive and unconstitutional’, but the VP carries his own controversial views on gay rights. But what if power instead goes to Trump’s newly appointed strategist Steve Bannon, journalist of the ‘alt right’ (the new ‘acceptable’ media euphemism for extremism, racism and sexism heavy with overtones of those who would ‘sell postcards of hangings’)?
Scenario Two: You’d Better Leave…
The second possibility is that Trump reveals himself to be so truly incompetent, incapable or overwhelmed with scandal that he leaves office. Formal impeachment is rare and legally complex, and a president must be shown to have committed ‘bribery, treason, or a high crime or misdemeanour’. Only two presidents (out of 44 so far), Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, have faced a full impeachment trial and both survived the Senate stage vote.
As this paper by Christopher Peterson points out ‘Trump has on several occasions promised to commit impeachable crimes as a matter of executive policy… For instance, he has said that, if elected, he would murder innocent family members of terrorism suspects and order the torture of suspected criminal defendants’. It goes on to argue that the Trump university scandal, made up of three ongoing cases, offers grounds already for impeachment. Much may depend on party politics and whether Republicans actually want a President Pence.
Short of impeachment it could be that Trump makes such a series of catastrophic errors that he cannot continue in office and has to resign. He is already historically unpopular and ‘large majorities didn’t believe Trump was honest, had the right experience or was qualified to be president’ and the White House has tested to destruction the skills of many more experienced and popular leaders, from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter. Power, as Robert Caro argues, reveals and it may well reveal supreme incompetence underneath the weird mixture of racism, sexism, fascism and love bombing that seems to make up most of Trump’s policies. The problem is exactly what magnitude and sort of crisis would be needed to convince a man capable of such egotism and dissonance to go? Resignation is very rare: only one president out of 44 has resigned-Richard Nixon who left under pressure of impeachment.
Scenario Three: the Riot Squads Are Restless…
The final scenario is the worst. Trump clearly has authoritarian, if not fascist, leanings, a bent reflected in some of his supporters. Those hoping power will normalise and calm him hope against the evidence of the last hundred years and of Trump’s own impulsive, vindictive personality. When Trump comes into office he will take control of the greatest surveillance apparatus and armed might the world has ever known. John Kasich’s former strategist John Weaver warned in a tweet that ‘the racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.’
This is not to say Trump will immediately introduce some sort of neo-fascism. There will be no heart attack machines or cyanide holes quite yet. But he may well erode and de-legitimize democracy from within. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, Trump’s ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’ was exactly how democracies were fatally weakened in the 1920s and 1930s.
As terrifying as the direct oppression is the lack of objective truth around politics. The truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century, and Orwell’s own fictional Oceania, sought to destroy ‘truth’ and create their own ‘moral universe’. Orwell defined freedom as ‘the right to tell people things they don’t want to hear’ and the ability to say ‘2+2=4’ while Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps were taunted by the guards not only with punishment but with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’. Hiding behind the jokes around ‘post-truth’ politics, Trump’s promised attack on free speech, his lies and the danger of fake news all offer a terrifying glimpse of an increasingly objective-less politics.
Who can stop him? The famed checks and balances in the US are particularly weak now, from the vacant Supreme Court to the Senate’s weaker filibuster. It may be that the US system’s propensity to gridlock will save us. But this relies upon Republicans in the legislature, unexpectedly offered the chance to undo the Obama era, choosing instead to fight and oppose their new nominee-something they were unwilling to do even when it was clear what kind of candidate Trump was.
Those with faith in constitutions forget that laws depend on public opinion. David Remnick quotes Orwell’s Freedom of the Park to remind us that laws rest on what the public thinks at any one time. The paragraph is worth quoting in full:
…the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.
The ringing declarations of the US constitution have co-existed with slavery for more than a century, and in modern times has sat, albeit uneasily, alongside internment and mass surveillance. The Trump win is a stark reminder that democracy is a fragile and new experiment. The US has been a democracy fully since 1964. Democracy around the world has ebbed and flowed: in the summer of 1940 there were only 13 democracies left on earth.
With the very notable exceptions of Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, craven foreign leaders are already normalising Trump while beating a path to his door, from May’s warm welcome (penned exactly 76 years after Neville Chamberlain’s death) to Boris Johnson, a man who ‘never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity for moral courage’. For all those normalising and relying on the wisdom of some long dead 18th century white men who wrote a constitution, I’d offer the warning of a 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley, who had seen his fair share of oppression: ‘Thou blindfold drowsie…that sleeps and snores in the bed of covetousnesse, awake, awake the enemies is upon thy back, he is ready to scale the walls and enter possession-wilt thou not look out?’