It may be time to contemplate the political fallout in America if Donald Trump fails as president and the American people decide to expel him from the White House. The most likely result will be a pronounced lurch to the left. Get ready for an American version of socialism.
This certainly isn’t what this publishing enterprise, or I as its editor, would wish for the American people. But history unfolds according to certain patterns and cycles, and we must consult those patterns and cycles from time to time to ascertain where the country is going—or where it would go under particular circumstances. And peering into the future is pointless if it isn’t done with clear-eyed realism.
This is not to argue that the Trump presidency is headed for the skids. Although his early months in office have not been auspicious and he has shown signs of potentially debilitating personal and political weakness, past presidents have recouped from early fumbling to perform admirably in office. Bill Clinton comes to mind. But if we look at some fundamental propositions of how our political history unfolds, the conclusion becomes inescapable that chances are strong for a Trump presidential failure, and such a failure likely would pave the way for the rise of leftist politics of an intensity that we haven’t seen for a long time in America.
I shall make my argument through an exploration of some fundamental propositions of American politics.
Proposition #1: Presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent or incumbent party. This is a proposition I have been arguing for years, most notably in my 2012 book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. Whereas the pols and pundits see presidential elections as akin to horse races, with the outcome determined by stumbles, gaffes, debate performances, and the like, the American people generally (but not entirely) remain above those minor factors and ask, in their collective judgment, a single fundamental question: Has this president, or this incumbent party if the president isn’t running again, earned retention through a creditable performance in office? If the answer is yes, the minor factors generally don’t count for much; the president is retained. If the answer is no, again the minor factors fade into the background and the incumbent or incumbent party is tossed out.
This perception of how presidential politics works in reality led me, in early September of last year, to suggest in the pages of TAC that Trump very well could win in November, largely because of the nature of referendum politics “mixed with a generally unimpressive incumbent record” under President Obama.
Thus it seems axiomatic that, if Trump falters, voters will turn to the opposition party. Republicans may console themselves with the happy thought that the Democrats are likely to choose a nominee so far out of the mainstream that he or she can never get elected. It doesn’t work that way, as Hillary Clinton can attest.
Proposition #2: The political parties these days sit upon a knife’s edge of politics. The country is not only divided and polarized but also almost evenly split in its polarized politics. Only 2.1 percentage points separated the two presidential candidates in the popular vote last year, with Hillary Clinton getting 48.2 percent to Trump’s 46.1 percent. Four years earlier, Obama won reelection by only 3.9 percentage points. In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection by only 2.4 percentage points, and he captured the presidency in 2000 with an Electoral College victory while losing in the popular vote by a mere 0.5 percentage point.
This is rare in American politics. Normally, when the country is evenly divided to such an extent, an effective politician eventually emerges to build a new coalition that can propel the country forward in a new direction. Trump may have had an opportunity to do that, as he cobbled together during the campaign a new cluster of policy positions that appealed to disparate groups constituting a winning coalition (though barely). But doing that in a campaign setting is far less challenging than doing it in a governing setting, and thus far the president hasn’t demonstrated much capacity in this realm.
And thus the parties are likely to remain on that knife’s edge, meaning it won’t take many vote switches to transfer the White House back to the Democrats. If Trump loses the independent vote, he can’t survive, and current numbers could be ominous. In inauguration week, his approval rating among independents was 42 percent; during June it fluctuated between 31 percent and 34 percent.
Proposition #3: The watershed 2016 presidential election destroyed the country’s political status quo, and there will be no status quo ante. Politicians are always the last to get it when the status quo crumbles because they have so much at stake in it. But citizens get it, as they did last year when they used Trump as a blunt instrument to pummel the Republicans’ status quo leaders—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, even Ted Cruz, all oblivious to the depth of voter agitation as the campaign swirled around them. The voters got it also when they used Vermont’s Bernie Sanders to bludgeon Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. These weren’t idle actions on the part of the electorate. They represented a stark statement that the old ways weren’t working and they wanted politicians willing to lead the country in new directions, capable of addressing the polity’s festering problems—the hollowing out of the working class, the lack of sufficient economic growth, expanding economic inequality, the lingering immigration problems, the infrastructure crisis, the debt crisis.
Many Republicans seem to think that, as soon as Trump is out of the way, Republicans can go back to being Republicans, and the party of Reagan will rise again. It isn’t going to happen. The era of Reagan is long gone, as Trump proved, and whatever happens to Trump, the GOP will have to craft something new for a new era. Politics is always about the future, not the past.
Similarly, the Democrats had become so complacent, so comfortably mired in their old nostrums, that few could foresee Clinton’s electoral humiliation, much less to an opponent of the likes of Trump. Any Democratic politician who hopes to have a chance at the nomination in 2020 will have to break with the old politics of identity pandering and condescension toward middle Americans. He or she will have to start with the daunting task of recapturing the American working class, still the bedrock of today’s politics.
Proposition #4: The Democrats will go left, big time. The party is in serious trouble, largely because it clung too long to the status quo politics of Hillary Clinton and her enablers in the party establishment. Now with four post-November congressional election defeats, and with nary a victory of any kind to tout, the party is headed for a raucous time of reassessment and redefinition. It seems inevitable that the party will fall back on the time-tested (though never fully successful) rubric of liberal populism.
The central cry of the populist is the need to smash institutions of entrenched power that, in the populist view, distort the American system to benefit themselves at the expense of the broad mass of citizens. The central target of liberal populism is the wealthy—in today’s political lexicon, the so-called 1 percent. Large financial institutions and big corporations also are found in the crosshairs of these populists. Their main goal is to redistribute wealth, which means they must enlist government as their ally. And they evince few concerns about powerful labor unions. They want to enlarge federal transfer payments, increase income taxes on the wealthy, make payroll taxes progressive, increase estate taxes, and bolster business regulation. All this would lead the nation, under Democratic leadership, toward European-style socialism.
Prominent liberal populists of today include University of California at Berkeley’s Robert B. Reich, a former Clinton administration cabinet secretary; Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren; and Paul Krugman of Princeton and The New York Times. Their views have a long, intermittent tradition in American political history, as evidence by William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s, Huey Long in the 1930s, and George McGovern in the 1970s. The next Democratic presidential candidate almost assuredly will be of this tradition to one degree or another, perhaps to a very extensive degree.
Proposition #5: Trump seems headed for failure, but it is too early to predict it. As noted above, sometimes presidents get off to a bad start but then recoup in time for a successful reelection. And that can’t be ruled out with regard to Trump. But the catalogue of negatives is expanding. So far he has proved incapable of moving legislation through Congress. By this time in Ronald Reagan’s first term, the president was poised to get both this big tax initiative and his potent budget legislation through Congress. Momentum was on his side. Not so with Trump, who has yet to score anything approaching a serious legislative victory—or to demonstrate any serious political momentum. Further, the president is saddled with the so-called Russia investigations. Whatever one thinks of the merits of these multiple inquiries (and there certainly doesn’t seem to be much substance behind all the journalistic and partisan bombast), such an investigation by an independent counsel constitutes a serious danger to any president. Then there is the president’s tendency to sound off inappropriately and in ways that undermine his own political standing. We must not omit his foreign policy tendencies (far different from his campaign rhetoric), which leave a haunting feeling that he could get lured into major military adventures in Syria, on the Korean Peninsula, against Iran, or against Russia.
These lapses and weaknesses don’t give reassurance of a steady hand at the nation’s helm. It remains to be seen whether he will grasp the helm with more firmness in time to avoid a Jimmy Carter fate.
Proposition #6: Trump holds the key. Given the above propositions—referendum politics at the presidential level; the parties’ knife’s edge parity; the crumbling status quo; the Democrats’ leftward thrust; Trump’s struggles—the fate of America is wrapped up in the fate of the Trump administration to an extent rare in history. If he succeeds, he will be positioned to lead the nation into a new era driven by a new dialectic of politics that serves as the bedrock of a new governing coalition. Tall order. If he fails, the Democrats will ride to power under a likely banner of liberal populism and European-style socialism. Can they govern successfully under that banner? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take power under it.
Thus, if Trump can’t get his act together and galvanize the independent vote through presidential performance, his greatest legacy could be the most pronounced leftward lurch in the country’s history.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.