vision 2020

Hellscape 2021: Why a Second Loss to Trump Could Produce an Existential Crisis for Democrats

Democrats didn’t see Trump’s first win coming. They have no excuse for not contemplating the world a second one might produce. Photo: Harald Sund/Getty Images

Now that it appears Donald Trump may escape any immediate legal consequences from the Mueller investigation, it’s time to take a fresh look at the trajectory of his presidency.

Before November 2016, there wasn’t a lot of agonized writing from the left of center about the consequences of a Trump victory, for the obvious reason that few observers thought it was a plausible scenario, even after his improbable Republican nomination. Yes, Hillary Clinton’s camp and progressive (and many conservative) journalists bashed Trump’s character, worldview, and sinister appeals to racism and sexism regularly. But nobody saw much of a need for game-planning his administration in any detail.

We certainly know It Can Indeed Happen Here, and those who assumed Mueller would bring Trump down prematurely should check their premises. It’s time as to consider what a second Trump term might be like. Here are some educated guesses of what it could entail:

1. The Courts Shift Radically to the Right

Trump has already had a profound effect on the present and future shape of the federal judiciary — which in turn shapes constitutional, statutory, and common law — thanks to a highly ideological judicial vetting and selection process and the willingness of a Republican-controlled Senate to rubber-stamp most nominees. Bloomberg Law notes the scorecard:

President Donald Trump has filled 20 percent of the nation’s federal appeals seats in his swift bid to reshape the judiciary with strong conservatives, and the emphasis could soon shift to accelerating district court confirmations.

Trump has appointed about twice as many appeals court judges as either of his two predecessors did at a similar point in their presidencies. He’s benefited from changes in the process that speed confirmations (e.g., abolition of the “blue slip” tradition, whereby senators have in the past blocked appointees from their own states) and from past Republican obstruction of nominations by Barack Obama, creating more openings. And now, as the Senate turns to an emphasis on district court positions, Mitch McConnell is soon likely to shorten the required period for debate to keep the confirmations on a brisk pace.

The Trump-McConnell strategy is designed to pack the courts quickly, in case Democrats come back into power in 2020. But if Trump gets a second term, and particularly if Republicans hold the Senate (which is very likely in any scenario in which Trump wins), prospects increase that this president will cast a very, very long shadow over the judiciary for decades to come.

And that could happen most decisively at the top of the federal judiciary, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump has quickly exploited two openings on SCOTUS — one left open to him when Senate Republicans denied Obama appointee Merrick Garland a hearing, and the other produced by Anthony Kennedy’s 2018 retirement. Replacing Kennedy with Brett Kavanaugh will produce a shift to the right on many issues, probably including reproductive rights. But in a second Trump term, the odds of court liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who will turn 87 next year) and Stephen Breyer (who will be 81 in 2020) hanging on until the next Democratic administration will go down significantly. One more flip of a liberal seat on the court could produce a landmark conservative era in constitutional law, almost certainly including the reversal or significant modification of Roe v. Wade and other key precedents, not to mention a decisive new era of sympathy for corporations, reactionary state governments, nativists, vote suppressors, and foes of civil liberties.

2. The Swamp Fills Up

Where Trump has not left key federal agency positions open or filled them with unqualified political appointees, he has often placed foxes in many henhouses. He’s hired (or is in the process of hiring) about 350 ex-lobbyists, often from the very industries their new employers are supposed to regulate.

This habit can only get worse in a second Trump term, when even more scores are being settled and more favors (and favorites) rewarded. Presidential second terms notoriously tend to produce scandals, and it’s hard to imagine this one proving to be an exception.

3. The Safety Net Unravels Even More

A Republican House after 2020 is more of a reach than a continued GOP hold on the Senate, but again, in a scenario in which Trump wins, it’s far from impossible. If Republicans get a second chance at a trifecta after losing it in 2018, there is no question we’d see a second effort to deconstruct the social safety net via legislation fundamentally changing Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and anti-poverty programs — possibly via the budget process, but also possibly after abolition of the legislative filibuster, which Trump himself has repeatedly demanded.

Barring a Republican House, an extended Trump administration will certainly try to mess with safety-net programs via executive action, as it already is doing with the widespread approval of conservative state government waivers to impose work requirements and other disincentives to enrollment.

4. The United States Grows Increasingly Isolated and Belligerent

In pursuance of his erratic ideas of presidential foreign-policy leadership and his nationalist ideology of aggressively asserted isolationism, Trump has so far kept the U.S. out of fresh wars, even as he has insisted on big increases in defense spending and blank checks to certain allies like Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s unclear whether this juggling act can continue without calamity for a full eight years.

Even if it does, the world after two full Trump terms would be a more perilous place, with weaker multilateral institutions, more nations seeking more weapons to defend themselves, and exacerbating factors like trade disputes and border conflicts growing steadily more difficult.

And that’s probably a best-case scenario. A late-second-term Donald Trump, with a military bristling with weaponry and no future election constraints, is a terrifying prospect.

5. Climate Change Is Ignored for Another Four Years

Before Donald Trump’s election, the Republican Party was probably best described as always looking for excuses not to address climate change, income and wealth inequality, structural racism, and other big national challenges. On virtually every major issue, the GOP is now aggressively opposed to remedial action, not just backward-looking and slow to move.

On climate change alone, it’s painful to contemplate the national and global consequences of another four years of official science denial and celebration of fossil fuels. Those consequences include the death of prospects for bipartisan action, even on compromise and relatively conservative proposals for emissions reductions and a greener economy. It’s harder to measure the psychological costs of perpetual rude gestures to millennials and post-millennials terrified by threats to their very existence. And four more years of refusal to deal with inequality and entrenched racism will produce its own damage to social solidarity and patriotism.

There are also political consequences of a second Trump term that transcend particular policies:

6. Trumpism Becomes the Republican Party’s Future As Well As Its Present

If Trump loses in 2020 (and more obviously, if he leaves office, voluntarily or otherwise, earlier than that), it’s still possible that his party will shake off some of his cruder political habits and policy prejudices and resume the kind of role it might have played as a constructive conservative alternative. Even if the GOP permanently absorbed some of his “populist” messages as boob-bait, it could easily abandon the most irresponsible aspects of his approach to politics and governing.

If Trump wins a second term, however, all bets of a Republican Party healed of Trumpism are off. The small and often underground conservative opposition to Trump we see today would be reduced to total insignificance, and looking forward to 2024, there would likely be a robust competition to see if a younger and less inhibited successor than Mike Pence — maybe Tom Cotton? — could emerge to carry the MAGA torch.

7. The Democratic Party, As We Know It, Dies

Democrats spent months agonizing over how they lost to Donald Trump in 2016, with theories ranging from Clinton campaign incompetence to media hostility to sexism to James Comey’s unhelpful letters to sheer bad luck based on the distribution of a handful of votes in a few states. But a Democratic Party that manages to lose twice to Donald Trump — the second time after four years of the bizarre national experience of watching him in office — simply has to look at the donkey in the mirror.

It’s possible, I suppose, that the identity of a 2020 Democratic loser could clearly point the way forward. If, for example, Joe Biden won the nomination and lost to Trump, he’d probably be the last Clinton-Obama centrist to win a presidential nomination for a good while, and if Bernie Sanders won the nomination and lost in November the long-discussed theory that left-bent candidates are actually more electable would take a major hit. But more likely, the suspicion will spread that the Democratic brand itself is toxic, if it simply can’t overcome an opponent like Trump.

All in all, Democrats should approach 2020 with the mind-set that this is an election with such high substantive and political stakes that history will never forgive them for blowing it. That obviously means they should exercise care in choosing a presidential nominee. But it also means they should take especial care not to damage her or him in the process, or withhold support from the nominee over grudges carried over from the nominating contest.

In 2016, there was a meme among conservatives called the “Flight 93 Election,” based on a pseudonymous article (actually written by Michael Anton, who later joined the Trump administration) suggesting that whatever misgivings conservatives had about their candidate should be suppressed in recognition of how catastrophic a Clinton victory would be. It was a faintly ridiculous reflection of the lurid and distorted idea conservatives nourished about the evil secular-socialist and authoritarian plans a centrist Democrat like HRC represented.

This same attitude, however, is entirely realistic when it comes to Democratic perspectives on the 2020 elections. A second Trump win would not only threaten progressive policy priorities for a long, long time, but would likely tear the Democratic coalition apart. For those left of center, 2020 is an emergency, and those activists or observers who would increase the risk of a second Trump term to promote candidate or factional interests ought to attract a lot of pushback. A 2021 with Trump in charge is a progressive hellscape. Avoiding it is really important.

Second Loss to Trump Would Be Existential Crisis for Dems