Why things will get worse before they get better
I am on record admitting that I was one of those who got it very wrong in 2016. But given the stakes, I’m also on record stating that Donald Trump will lose for sure in 2020. The conviction stems from the belief that he has done enormous damage to American political systems, our standing around the world, and the very foundations of our nation’s culture. But the closer we get to a new president, the more I become convinced that things will get worse in America before they get better. Donald Trump has broken the mold of the presidency in ways that were unimaginable four years ago. We now must prepare for the reality that as an ex-president he is going to continue to disrupt American politics and society in ways that his predecessors never could have considered.
It is not a stretch to suggest that Donald Trump’s behaviors and personality alone will lead him to significant departures from the traditional role played by ex-presidents. But the reality is that once out of office he will continue to influence American politics and society in ways that no other former president has ever done. That influence will fall into four general areas: disruption of his successor’s administration, influence on his party, personal life, and international presence. Trump has already given indications that he will double down on the claims of corruption and conspiracy he has leveled at the election process in the past. But questioning the outcome of the elections and resisting leaving the White House is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact he will have on America as an ex-president.
When Joe Biden wins this November, he will quickly come to the realization that ex-president Trump is the primary threat to his administration. There is certainly a precedent for ex-presidents to criticize the individual currently in the Oval Office. But as Prof. Peter Loge put it, “Historically, recent presidents do not attack sitting presidents that often and when they do, they are measured.” From the moment Trump becomes a lame-duck he will not only attack the sitting president, but he will do so in the most unrestrained manner imagined. His disdain for the rules, laws, customs, and standards that have defined the US presidency since the country’s founding is well-documented. But it will be his complete rewriting of those rules as ex-president that really set him apart from his predecessors.
Trump will be the first ex-president to attack his predecessor’s policies aggressively and consistently, presumably daily. And he will do so using the most powerful weapon in his arsenal, his Twitter account. It is a weapon that he has used indiscriminately and at times to the detriment of his own message or standing. For the first half of his administration, he used it as a platform to attack his enemies and embolden his allies using rhetoric and spurious claims. But as things have deteriorated during the second half of his administration the attacks have become more subversive, purposely opening some of the oldest and most sensitive scars in American culture. From the promotion of white supremacist messaging and ideology to the use of clearly doctored videos and narratives, Trump has pushed his use of this weapon to the point of forcing social media platforms to flag and even sensor his messages.
What must be understood is that as destructive and hateful as his messaging has been as president, as ex-president he will add new levels of anger and resentment driven by having lost a second term. Once out of office Trump’s use of Twitter and Fox News to attack enemies, level baseless claims, and promote some of the most malignant narratives in American culture will be elevated beyond what we see even now. When everything else is considered, we may see the first attempt to censure an ex-president by Congress for behaviors and statements deemed a threat to national security and public safety. And the more Biden and a Democratic Congress attempt to roll back the legislative and cultural impact of the Trump administration, the more vocal and aggressive he will become. The hallmark of Trump’s administration has been an unrestrained attack on anyone or anything he perceived to be a threat to his political status. With that status removed he will see new threats and more targets, and he will attack them all with a venom that will surprise even his staunchest supporters.
Redefining the Republican Party
Trump’s rise to power was based primarily on his ability to capture and enhance the principle arguments and perspectives of the Tea Party. Considered a fringe political group aligned with libertarians and other right-wing politics, the Tea Party’s platform became the foundation of Trump’s assault on American politics. From erasure of Barack Obama’s legacy to new levels of anti-government and anti-immigration sentiment, he captured some of the more extreme aspects of the Tea Party’s conservative agenda and forced the Republican Party to adopt them. The result has been a Republican Party often at odds with itself as it wrestles with the chasm between Ronald Reagan’s legacy and Trump’s presidency. Through much of his administration, Trump has managed to keep moderate Republicans in line mostly through threats and intimidation. But the real test of his impact on the party will come once he is no longer in office.
Just as Trump’s vitriol will become louder once he is no longer constrained by the office of the president, his attempts to maintain control over the Republican Party will become more pronounced. His control of the party during his administration has been absolute with any dissension immediately rooted out and attacked with the same viciousness with which he goes after his Democratic opponents. The primary source of his power is the impact of his base as part of the conservative electorate, especially at the local and state political levels. Once out of office his practical impact on the party’s platform and leadership will diminish. But his ability to shape and control the Republican Party’s narrative will increase, especially as his base supporters go back to the “outsider” mentality that was the origin of the Tea Party Movement. The result will be a hard choice for the Republican Party between returning to Reagan-era Republicanism or moving forward with Trump as the face of the party for at least the next decade.
It will be a hard choice because Trump will make it so. There will be no compromise, no accommodation, and certainly no apologies for the past on his part. He will use the same ‘support me or pay the consequences’ approach to Republican leadership he’s had for the last four years. The difference is he will not have the powers of the presidency to back up his threats and thus he will rely even more on the social-cultural messaging and political power of his base. The result will be a doubling down of both he and his supporter’s previous efforts (e.g. attacking McCain, Bush Sr., etc.) to destroy the Republican Party from the inside. The most direct political impact of Trump as ex-president will be the conflict within the Republican Party over how to move forward to 2024. There has been a significant group of Republicans who have been biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to take the party back from Trump and his base. And it will be the legislative power of those Republicans pitted against the influence of Trump’s grassroots base on the party platform that will form a fight for the soul of the party.
The ‘Real’ Donald Trump
Perhaps more than any other president in modern times, Donald Trump’s personal life prior to his election was (and is) a significant source of problems. The number of issues swirling around the president before and during his presidency would’ve been a death sentence for any other politician. While they are too numerous to try and cover all of them here, there are some key issues that, like his enemies in the Republican Party, have been waiting for their opportunity to strike. Most are aware of the litany of lawsuits and investigations that have been leveraged against him and his business interests. But utilizing the office of the president as both a sword and a shield he has worked tirelessly to shield himself from the circling sharks, even suggesting that he had the power to pardon himself. Once he leaves office, he will lose those things, and plaintiffs, investigators, and whistleblowers will all fall on him at once, looking for vindication and satisfaction that has been put off for four years.
It cannot be underestimated the amount of trouble, legal and otherwise, that ex-president Donald Trump will find himself in very quickly. From Stormy Daniels to impeachment ‘Part Deux’, from Russian meddling to Saudi and Turkish favors, Trump’s legal troubles will unfold exponentially the moment he leaves office. There are course a variety of lawsuits that were put on hold when he was elected, as well as those that have developed over the last four years in anticipation of him leaving office. But the real trouble for Trump will be the potential of democratic control of both houses of Congress. Should the Democrats retain the house and gain control of the Senate during a landslide defeat of Trump in November, they will view it as a mandate in much the same way Trump viewed his victory in 2016. While Democrats have resisted narratives of revenge and righteous indignation during his term, ‘setting the record straight’ will become the focus of a Democratic Congress as it investigates and deconstructs the four years of the Trump presidency.
Every aspect of the Trump presidency will be under a microscope by a Democratic Congress, and we will all discover that what most saw as his abuse of power and perversion of American politics was only the tip of the iceberg. The investigations will run the gambit of presidential abuse of power including use of the Office the President for personal gain, manipulation of the judicial system to protect himself and allies, and relationships with foreign representatives that will arguably border on treason. America will have a reckoning with just how deep Trump’s abuse of power was during his administration, and more importantly just how many were involved in enabling his activities. In fact, America at some point will have to come to grips with the potential of an ex-president facing jail time related to his illegal activities while in office.
Reconstructing America’s Global Image
Americans have always been significantly biased towards domestic politics over international relations. But once Trump leaves office it will be hard to ignore the reality that his most significant damage to the country has been in foreign relations, not domestic politics. Much of his rampage against American political culture has been focused on reversing the initiatives of previous administrations. From the EPA to the Department of Justice he has forced key government agencies far from their original mandates and missions. But the foundations and structures of the agencies remain sound, and so the primary mission of a Democrat-led government will be reinstituting the frameworks of regulation and oversight he has dismantled. The difference for US foreign policy is that he has obliterated the foundations of some of America’s most important foreign-policy principles. So, as difficult as it will be for a Democrat president to heal the country in the immediate post-Trump era, there are aspects of our foreign-policy which have been damaged beyond repair.
There is virtually no area of US foreign policy in which the Trump administration has not either reversed or completely erased the principles upon which US leadership has been built since the end of World War II. He has attacked and undermined key international institutions such as the United Nations at every opportunity. He has distanced America from the principles of international law, human rights, and diplomacy that have been the benchmark of international relations since the end of World War II. But it has been his attacks on NATO, his denigration of entire regions such as Africa, his war of immigration against Latin America, and his failure to confront the regional bullying of China that has already created chaos across the spectrum of US foreign-policy areas. Further, he has emboldened pariahs and dictatorships from Russia to South Korea to the point that they have now “effectively realigned the coming world order.” The failure of the Trump administration to enforce US interests in relation to states like China, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia has created a much more threatening world, one the new president will have to navigate gingerly.
And it will be the inevitable ‘world apology tour’ that will uncover the depths of dangerous associations and relationships developed by the Trump administration with some of America’s most powerful adversaries. This is because attempts to repair or restructure these relationships will take place simultaneously with investigations into what will turn out to be Trump’s most egregious activities while in office. A fully led Democratic government will almost certainly revisit and deepen investigations of Russian election meddling. But more dramatically, there will be significant discoveries of inappropriate and potentially illicit exchanges between the Trump administration, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, with even China and North Korea being areas of potential misdeeds. It will be difficult for America to recover from some of the impacts of the Trump administration on culture and society. But it will be even harder to come to grips with the realities of lost leadership and prestige that may take generations to rebuild, if they can be rebuilt at all.
Trump’s Legacy: the “Gift” That Keeps on Giving
Someday textbooks will label the presidency of Donald Trump as the most impactful since FDR. Unfortunately, it will not be because he guided the nation through the Great Depression, or because he led the country to victory over the evils of fascism and Nazism. Instead, he will be remembered as a president that came closer to flirting with those ideologies than any other in modern history. He will be one of the most important presidents in US history precisely because of the damage he has done in four years to a system of US leadership that took eight decades to build. Donald Trump will go down in history as the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln, responsible for creating and exploiting divisions in America that most presidents worked tirelessly to reduce and eliminate. And he will be most remembered not for the things he did while in office, but for their lasting impact on America’s political conscience and historical role as the leader of the free world.
Given his history and the avalanche of impending investigations, Donald Trump may very well be the first ex-president to ever declare bankruptcy. Despite their own political and business aspirations, his family will also be under scrutiny on a level never seen in American politics or legal circles. This may in turn lead to him also being the first ex-president to ever go through a divorce. And all the while he will be relentlessly attacked by a Democrat majority seeking revenge for the four years of his presidency. The key however is that his base will remain unyielding in their support. In fact, the more he and his family are attacked the more they will circle the wagons in defense of him. And as has always been the case, the adoration and near deification of Trump by his supporters will only further embolden and energize him relative to the behaviors that have gotten him in trouble in the first place.
Trump is going to ‘Thelma & Louise’ his way through the rest of his presidency, pausing only slightly to step on the gas once he is no longer in office. And the whole time his base will be in the backseat cheering him on while most Democrats happily push the car forward. And so, no matter how hopeful I am about the end of a Trump presidency, I can only imagine that things will get worse before they start to get better… but at least the country will no longer be locked in the trunk.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of Political Science at Lincoln University in Missouri. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.