Once upon a time, America executed citizens for sharing intelligence with the Russians.
This is not to say that Donald Trump, Jr., or Michael Flynn should be put to death like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — if found guilty in a court of law, that is. But for all the chatter about how “this is not normal,” Americans have certainly acquiesced to a new sense of political normality, and quickly.
At the same time, if you’re a glass-is-half-full person, well, the glass is one-eighth full. That is to say, we’re six months through Donald Trump’s presidential term (should he make it all the way through, which might not be the case for any one of several plausible reasons). While on some days, the multi-part Russia scandal appears likely to derail the entire administration, it also threatens to become permanent background radiation, slowly fading to invisibility like the cosmic residue of a supernova. Prognosticators have been forecasting Trump’s Waterloo for two years, yet the answer that continuously swims to the surface of the Magic 8 Ball is “Reply hazy, try again later.” His survival skills owe as much to our underestimation of him as to the decay in political norms.
But how much permanent damage is the Trump presidency likely to do? From this vantage point, what is America likely to look like in 2020? We present two scenarios — neither of which involves freak events like, say, a bolt of lightning electrocuting the president’s foursome on the back nine at Mar-a-Lago.
And, oh yeah, we’re not wading into impeachment-land, because nobody wants to end up with President Pence.
Donald Trump limps along as an ineffective and deeply unpopular president, but the Democrats remain mired in disarray and the underlying structure of American democracy further corrodes.
The Russia scandal dogs the administration for months, but after months of hearings yield only evasive testimony from key figures, no smoking gun emerges. Fed up with the distracting “witch hunt” and admitting no culpability, Trump pre-emptively pardons Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and his son, but liberal fulmination over checks and balances comes to nothing.
A record 85 straight months of job growth slows to a halt, and a concerted Republican effort in blaming Barack Obama and the Democrats succeeds. The economy enters a nebulous phase that’s neither a proper expansion nor a recession, and Speaker Paul Ryan orchestrates a massively redistributive tax cut for the wealthy that blows a hole in the already wide deficit, leading to calls to abolish SNAP — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps” — and ultimately, to voucherize Social Security.
Beholden to corporate money, the Democrats fail to present a coherent alternative to neoliberalism, all but neutralizing any viable path for left-wing populism to take root in U.S. politics. As the senator who represents Wall Street, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quietly muffles any rhetoric that might upset his donor base. The party’s failure to recruit and support top-tier candidates in crucial races allows the GOP to play offense almost exclusively in 2018. What seemed like energetic opposition to Trump’s policies gradually dissipates in this absence of leadership. Ultimately, the Republicans lose a dozen seats in the House but retain control, while in the Senate, the party wins eight seats to secure a filibuster-proof majority (with Vice President Pence casting the tie-breaking vote).
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retires at the end of the 2018 term, and Justice Stephen Breyer passes away suddenly at age 80, making Trump the first president since Ronald Reagan to appoint three justices and steering the court in an arch-conservative direction for at least a generation.
An ambitious North Korean missile test successfully propels a rocket into the middle of the North Pacific, leading to panic in Seoul and Honolulu. The consequent crisis within the upper ranks of China’s leadership culminates in a soft coup and widespread dissent. A repressive crackdown that dwarfs the Tiananmen Square massacre tarnishes China’s image and amplifies a global economic slowdown.
Given the opportunity to project bellicose strength on the international stage, Donald Trump’s approval ratings rise considerably. Pundits proclaim that he “found his footing,” drawing comparisons to George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. When ISIS retakes the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the U.S. effectively re-invades, later expanding the theater of war to include Syrian air strikes, fighting the Assad government while escalating tensions with Russia.
Unified by a sense of purpose, congressional Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare, funding the transparent border wall, and all but dismantling the EPA. At the state level, cumbersome restrictions on voting fall disproportionately on African-Americans, low-income people, naturalized citizens, and students, suppressing turnout and baking in a GOP voter-registration advantage.
A spate of white-supremacist and neo-Nazi attacks against people of color causes widespread alarm, but dubious video of an alleged antifa riot at UC Berkeley allows Trump to make the case that liberals are the true threat to law and order, advocating restrictions on freedom of the press. Without net neutrality, telecom giants dictate what people read on the internet, and pro-Trump Sinclair Media gobbles up local television stations. A constitutional amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship gains momentum.
Trump’s failure to appoint qualified people to hundreds of government positions achieves two purposes: It allows him to rage-tweet against phantom Democratic intransigence, and since the sun continues to rise in the east, it implies that the bureaucracy was bloated and full of redundancies, anyway. Openly white supremacist candidates begin winning local races in the Midwest and in Appalachia, calling for the militarization of the police against Black Lives Matter protesters. With voter rolls purged, states like Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin move from purple to solidly red, further demoralizing activists. Unsubstantiated claims of Russian interference taint their legitimacy, but the federal government declines to investigate.
A corporatist, plutocrat-friendly Supreme Court takes the once-reviled “judicial activism” and repurposes it for the reactionary right, halting scattered liberal victories on issues like clean power and a living wage. The median worth of a U.S. senator quickly doubles. Insulated from popular will, a seemingly permanent GOP-held Congress becomes little more than a rubber-stamp for the billionaire class. A Category 4 hurricane devastates Central Florida, but FEMA takes the blame, letting the slow-footed administration’s clumsiness off the hook. More than a decade after the 2008 economic crisis, thousands of U.S. counties have yet to make a full recovery, yet voter turnout falls below 40 percent.
Worldwide, representative democracy loses its cachet. China overtakes the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 economy while sharply reducing carbon emissions, strengthening the case for technocratic authoritarianism. India, Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran see waves of nationalist fervor and ramp up their military spending.
Although his popularity never rises above 40 percent, Trump spends more than $1 billion against balkanized Democratic opposition, campaigning against the media and liberalism instead of against his challengers.
On Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Trump wins every state he won in 2016 plus Minnesota and New Hampshire. Although 15 million fewer people turn out overall, Trump narrowly wins the popular vote outright. He spends the next three months tweeting daily about how his thin margin would have been 10 times as big if not for the “illegals.”
Trump’s election — and the entire far-right populist project — comes to resemble a fluke, borne out of his quirky electoral college upset.
After Establishment-friendly liberals and neoliberals beat back populist challenges in Western Europe — and, in the U.K., Labour unseats the Tories in the next election, suspending Brexit — the xenophobic right loses much of its momentum. Neo-fascism starts to resemble the European debt crisis of 2011 and 2012, when it looked as though Greece might cause the entire European Union to implode. (As an added wrinkle to how distant that whole episode now seems, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of Southern European profligacy in cold yet moralizing rhetoric, tut-tutting. Her hostility to international cooperation was proto-Trumpian, yet by 2017, she is practically thrust into the role of Defender of the Free World.)
Domestically, Trump scores a few legislative victories, but they remain largely symbolic and arcane in nature: preserving Confederate monuments, abolishing small-bore workplace regulations. None of the more apocalyptic predictions of America becoming an illiberal post-democracy in the mode of Russia come true, owing to a combination of unified Democratic opposition, increasing GOP anxiety, and sheer incompetence. Attorneys general from progressive states successfully tie the Muslim ban up in lawsuits, and, on climate change, states and cities rise to fill the vacuum by enacting policies designed to decouple greenhouse-gas emissions from economic growth. Capitalism pitches in, too: Investments in renewable energy eventually make the cost of wind and solar power cheaper than fossil fuels, and advances in battery technology enable the storage of energy for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
Enacting his agenda piecemeal and by executive order, Trump satisfies his base with a few anti-trans bathroom bills or attempts to prop up the coal industry — but, as Barack Obama found, much of this can be undone by a determined predecessor. Any major endeavor that might consolidate “Trumpism” as a lasting political force — a trillion-dollar infrastructure bank, say — remains in limbo as small-government Republican ideologues nominally join with rabidly anti-Trump Democrats to thwart the president’s will. In the 2018 midterms, the GOP picks off three or four Democratic senators from deeply red states but loses two incumbents of its own, squandering a favorable map, while House Democrats win 28 seats to take back that chamber, ensuring gridlock for the latter half of Trump’s term.
Sensing that Trump is now political poison, skittish Republicans begin to put distance between the president and themselves, leading to intra-party conflict between the corporate wing and the nihilistic Steve Bannons of the world, whose plan to vanquish the administrative state fails to materialize. Meanwhile, capitalizing on the country’s restlessness, Democrats propose an ambitious agenda that includes universal Medicare, a carbon-neutral global economy, tax reform to halt a decades-long slide into oligarchy, a simplified path to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants, and a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.
Outside of the Breitbart bizarro universe, conventional wisdom dictates that the GOP is headed for an electoral catastrophe in 2020, including the loss of key swing-state governorships and legislatures. Since 2020 is also a Census year, this enables a reversal of the unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering that ensured artificial GOP control of Congress since 2010. Former President (and one-time community organizer) Barack Obama throws his weight behind a massive voter-registration drive. A brief, mild recession in 2019 does little of the lasting damage of the 2007-08 crisis but undercuts Trump’s ability to deliver on his promises, further depressing GOP turnout in the same industrial states that provided his margin of victory in 2016.
Holding the House, the Democrats win the Senate and the presidency in 2020, gaining full control of nearly 30 state governments. Once synonymous with ugly buildings, the name Trump becomes shorthand for “convincing bluster that ultimately leads to spectacular failure.” Coupled with demographic change and a renewed desire for global leadership in a multipolar world, the constitutional system that has undergirded the United States of America for nearly a quarter of a millennium proves itself to be resilient and capable of meeting 21st-century challenges. America effectively Marie Kondo’s the Republican agenda, thanking it for its years of devoid hatred before junking it into the waste bin of history. And, for the first time since 1976 — albeit by a very narrow margin — Texas turns blue.