Ask yourself: if George W. Bush had been considered a successful president, would Barack Obama have been elected in 2008?
Looking back, it’s a bit difficult to see how Obama could have won absent Bush being regarded as an absolute disaster; the raw bigotry that Donald Trump exploited in his 2016 presidential campaign was obviously just below the surface in 2008, and the combination of a popular Bush and relentless right-wing race-baiting would have probably led to a President McCain and Vice President Palin even despite the economic collapse. In other words, a credible case can be made that Bush had to fail, and fail miserably, in order for Obama to succeed on November 4, 2008.
Assuming arguendo that Obama won the 2008 presidential election largely because of the catastrophic failure of Bush, one wonders if history will repeat itself in 2020 (or 2024); one also wonders if a Democratic president who comes after Trump can possibly repair the damage the 45th Commander-in-Chief has inflicted.
The subtext of the speculation about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders possibly launching a second presidential bid is that by the time November 3, 2020 rolls around, the country will be so sick of Trump that it would be willing to put a 78-year-old “democratic socialist” into office instead. (The prospect of a second Sanders run can’t be that far-fetched, considering the right-wing efforts to smear Sanders and his wife Jane as corrupt.) Even if Sanders were to do the unthinkable, would he–or any other Democrat who succeeded Trump–be able to heal even a few of the domestic and international wounds of the Trump years?
I’ve previously speculated that Sanders may be remembered as the Barry Goldwater of the left. Even if Sanders doesn’t run again, his influence will likely dominate the 2020 Democratic primary and beyond, and for understandable reasons. Sanders’s supporters are making the same calculation that those who pushed for a more conservative Republican Party made decades ago: that it makes sense to have a more ideologically focused party so that, when the reigning party suffers the consequences of a public backlash, the electorate will turn to the party currently out of power, which will then (theoretically) have the ability to fully implement its core vision of government. In other words, when the country finally gets sick of Trumpism, it will choose the only available alternative: a candidate firmly committed to the goals of a now-unequivocally-progressive Democratic Party.
Of course, even if Sanders or a “Sanders-esque” Democrat succeeds Trump, it’s not clear that such a President would be able to put together what the 45th President has smashed apart, even if that Democrat has a like-minded House and Senate by that point. Citizens United will not be overturned anytime soon, even if Trump is deprived of the opportunity to further contaminate the Supreme Court. The dark dynamic of a highly energized right-wing media machine, mainstream-media entities married to the cheating spouse of false balance, and a too-small progressive media infrastructure will likely continue to influence our politics well into the 2020s, to say nothing of state-level voter-suppression efforts. It’s quite possible that a progressive Democrat could be swept to the White House in 2020 or 2024, only to be swept right out four years later in favor of a Republican every bit as reactionary as Trump, only less incompetent.
Is this perspective too cynical? Could anti-Trump animus pave the way for the election of a Democratic President who can enact lasting progressive reforms? Could that Democrat shift the American political template to the left, just as Ronald Reagan shifted the American political template to the right? Or would the election of a progressive Democratic President in 2020 or 2024 just be a short-lived break, before cultural resentment and right-wing propaganda combine to force that Democrat out of power–and force America deeper into the conservative abyss?