This essay is part of a package imagining the policy consequences of a second Trump term. Read the rest of the essays here. And, if you enjoy what you’re reading, please consider making a donation—we’re a nonprofit media organization and rely on the support of our readers. In return for a contribution of $50 or more, you’ll receive a complimentary one-year subscription to our print edition.
I’m a big fan of violent suspense movies: The Bourne Identity, Fight Club, Winter’s Bone. But horror films? Not so much. The reason, I think, is that horror movies are all about experiencing the feeling of helpless terror, which isn’t my thing. The whole point of a thriller, by contrast, is to identify with protagonists who have enough agency and wit to assert some measure of control over the situation, no matter how dreadful.
To many people, the Trump presidency has felt like one long horror movie. To me, it’s been more like a thriller: disorienting, appalling, emotionally wrenching, but not disempowering. Almost every insane or diabolical decision the president has made has been met with countermoves—by the courts, civil servants, voters, Nancy Pelosi—that have frequently lessened the impact and fortified my faith that all is not lost.
The novel coronavirus is the latest case in point. Trump’s willful dismissal of the crisis in its early weeks will almost certainly result in many unnecessary deaths. But the wise words and prudent actions of others, from the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci to ordinary citizens, give me hope that we can “flatten the curve.”
Similarly, the possibility that Trump could be reelected is, for many people, like a horror flick too frightening to watch. The essays in our cover package certainly provide evidence for maximum alarm.
But there are reasons to think that a second Trump term would not be as apocalyptic as we might imagine. One reason is that the direst scenarios our essayists lay out—the end of Obamacare, a slashing of the safety net—are likely to happen only if Trump is able to continue to pack the courts with conservatives. But that presumes that the GOP holds the Senate. This has not been a sure bet since vulnerable Republican senators like Maine’s Susan Collins supported him in the impeachment trial. It is even less so now that the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee is moderate Joe Biden—and not Bernie Sanders, who down-ballot Democrats rightly see as a potential drag on their chances.
Another reason is that second-term presidents almost always find themselves in a weakened position. Sometimes it’s because foolish decisions they made in their first terms catch up to them in the second term—think George W. Bush putting the singularly unqualified Michael Brown in charge of FEMA two years ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes it’s because they let their reelections go to their heads and then act carelessly—as Bush did with his push to privatize Social Security, Bill Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky, and Ronald Reagan did with the
Iranian arms-for-hostages deal. Even presidents who appear invincible can suffer irreparable damage. Nixon won the 1972 election in an overwhelming landslide. He was gone in less than two years.
Of course, Trump has created more scandals in his first three years than any other president did in eight. What’s protected him so far, and what gives him a decent chance of winning reelection, is the rock-solid approval of Republican voters. Even in the wake of his mismanagement of the pandemic, that support remains (as of this writing) undiminished.
Will his base continue to back him unqualifiedly for four more years regardless of conditions on the ground? I doubt it. Recall that George W. Bush was also beloved by conservatives in his first term. But then, after being re-inaugurated, he tried (and failed) to privatize Social Security. Then Katrina hit. Then Harriet Miers had to withdraw her Supreme Court nomination. Between January and November 2005, Bush’s approval rating among Republican voters fell by 22 points.
Sure, Trump benefits from a hermetically sealed right-wing media ecosystem that recycles his self-serving nonsense. But that system was already a BFD during the Bush years—Fox News drew more viewers during the 2004 Republican National Convention than any other TV network. In the end, it could not save Bush from the real-world consequences of his own actions.
The parties are even more ideologically sorted today, and Trump plays to the racism and xenophobia of his base, which Bush mostly did not. So it’s possible that he will retain the loyalty of his supporters regardless of what happens in a second term—continuing mass deaths from the coronavirus, a brutal recession with few fiscal tools to fight it, and so on.
But if his numbers do begin to slip, it will be huge news. GOP lawmakers with their eyes on the 2022 elections will start to defy him. He will lash out and do more foolish, counterproductive, unconstitutional things. His base of support will shrink further. His party will get wiped out in the midterms. The House will impeach him again, and this time the votes will be there in the Senate to convict him. He’ll helicopter to Mar-a-Lago, where federal agents will be waiting with subpoenas. After a lengthy trial over crimes committed before and during his presidency for which he no longer enjoys immunity, he will live out his final days in prison.
Hey, it’s my movie.