After an unusually long period of anxious anticipation (on my part, at least), the year 2020 arrives this week bearing many fearful possibilities balanced mostly by the hope of narrowly evading them.
Some developments in and subsequent to 2020 that I fear are general in nature: another year of largely unaddressed climate change punctuated by insane weather that half the U.S. population appears to consider random; another inevitable set of revelations about corporate abuses of market power and technology to degrade privacy, competition, and their own employees’ dignity; innovations in social media that further separate people from each others’ experiences while empowering predators of all sorts and spreading disinformation — you know, the whole range of Old Guy anxieties about the 21st century being the 20th on steroids. And I have some fears of the immediate future that are not so broadly shared but are intense among those who do: the liberal Christian’s fear of being entirely ground up in the conflict between militant unbelievers on the left and culturally conservative idolators on the right or the middle-class Californian’s fear of being forced to move far away because of lunatic housing costs.
But for political writers, of course, 2020 looms as a most consequential year primarily because it will determine whether the dire Trumpian experiment in populist white nationalism begun so abruptly in 2016 continues or at least temporarily ends.
Before that decision is made on November 3 (assuming there is a clear winner), a variety of fearful — even dreadful — political events could occur in 2020. A series of Supreme Court cases might reach fruition in the course of the year with fraught consequences, including June Medical Services LLC v. Gee, which could mark the beginning of the end for federally guaranteed reproductive rights; two cases that will determine whether federal anti-employment-discrimination laws protect LGBTQ folk working in the private sector; and a number of decisions (appearing to grow every day) concerning Trump’s aggressive use of executive powers, including his efforts to kill DACA protections for Dreamers. And the composition of the Court itself — with a current 5-4 conservative majority feeling its way toward a potential counterrevolution in constitutional law — could be changed by a death, disability, or retirement during 2020.
The Democratic contest to choose a challenger to Trump is also fraught with anxiety and peril. I’m personally having to come to grips with the fact that the two most likely nominees at present — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — are the two candidates I declared inadvisable back in fall 2017:
[F]ar and away the most likely path to a second Trump term is a second Democratic challenger to Trump who becomes more of a political problem than a solution. And while no one in the running for 2020 suffers from the exact vulnerabilities created by the massive, decades-long attacks on Hillary Clinton, there is one clear and present danger that needs to be confronted directly and honestly. It’s that Democrats could choose a challenger so old that the prospect of infirmity or mortality — or worse yet, actual infirmity or mortality during the general-election campaign — could give Trump just the kind of advantage he needs.
Neither Biden nor Sanders has gotten any younger since then. And aside from their advanced ages, if the nomination contest indeed does turn into a battle of the late-septuagenarians, it’s notable that they represent distinctive ideological tendencies, theories of change, policy agendas, and constituencies. Republicans and media types alike will magnify these differences into a veritable Spanish Civil War of irreconcilable conflicts between Democrats in Disarray, right on through the July convention in Milwaukee. The silver lining for Democrats in that scenario is that they wouldn’t have to dwell on the fears many harbor about nominating another woman, like Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, or a gay man like Pete Buttigieg.
Unless Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell manage to engineer a yearlong stalemate over the procedures to be utilized in an impeachment trial, 2020 will also give us the spectacle of a Senate acquittal of Trump on the two articles of impeachment adopted by the House on December 18. Yes, it’s possible a trial will bring new revelations of presidential misconduct — or confirmations of what we already knew. But more likely, it will simply support hundreds of upcoming presidential tweets about Trump’s “exoneration” from the “witch hunt” Democrats conducted to separate the beloved and extremely successful POTUS from his adoring public.
All these heartburn-inducing concerns are preliminary to the Big Fear that Trump will find a way to slither across the finish line again in 2020, quite possibly by again putting together an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote handily. Yes, we political writers are prone to treating every presidential election as momentous. But this one undoubtedly lives up to the hype. Back in March, I outlined seven hellish developments we can expect if Trump is reelected, ranging from an indelibly slanted federal judiciary and a shredded social safety net to a permanently Trumpist GOP and a shattered opposition party. But more terrifying than any of these specific possibilities is what a second “mandate” (following Trump’s all-but-certain acquittal on articles of impeachment) would do to the recklessness of a president who already believes the Constitution authorizes him to do any damn thing he pleases.
During Trump’s first term, all left-of-center (and some right-of-center) observers have had to struggle daily with whether and how much to write about the unmistakable parallels of Trumpism and 20th-century fascism — the contempt for the rule of law and for democratic norms, the jingoism and militarism, the racism, the championship of cultural reaction, the brutal rhetoric, the love of violence and war crimes, the hostility to independent media, and the frank preference for tyrants and demagogues ruling other countries, among other traits. A reelected Trump would likely relax any inhibitions about comparing him to other authoritarian leaders and make the possibility that he would refuse to peacefully give up power in 2025 a lively issue rather than just a paranoid fantasy.
A year ago, and certainly two or three years ago, it was possible to envision 2020 as a less dire and dread-worthy election year. Perhaps Trump’s sloppy governing style, thuggish tendencies, and unpopular policies would make him all but un-reelectable. Or maybe he’d get tired of his own act and, with the encouragement of his Republican allies, begin to behave more like a conventional president and less like a cartoon villain. As recently as a few months ago, there was some reason to hope (though I never shared this particular view) that impeachment proceedings would bring down Trump just as they brought down Nixon, via a combination of disgusted public opinion and election fears among GOP pols.
But the arrival of 2020 is a reminder that none of these game-changing events have happened. For Trump critics like yours truly, it’s as though the combination of fear, confusion, and anger felt by so many on November 8, 2016, has never gone away and has never been completely resolved. Trump’s defenders are right that liberals are haunted by the outcome of the 2016 election and are determined to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But they are wrong in suggesting we don’t understand Trump supporters or the parts of the country (most intensely the southern part of the country, in which I was born and raised) where he is popular. I feel like I understand it entirely. But it remains hard to accept. Three years into his reign, it’s harder than ever to accept that so many wage earners lionize this billionaire surrounded by billionaires who has never sided with working people in any conflict with the malefactors of great wealth, or to accept that so many law-abiding people celebrate his lawlessness, or to accept that millions of Bible-believing Christians look at this heathenish bully who exemplifies every vice and form of idol worship the Good Book warns them about and see a redeemer.
Even if 2020 marks the end rather than a descent into the further depths of the Trump Era, it will offer countless examples of unsettling realizations Americans will have to make about each other. Assuming (as we should) that the presidential election contest remains close until the very end, the tone of the campaign is almost certain to be as savaged and debased as its central figure. I don’t look forward to that, even though it offers a rich daily diet of writing topics. So I will greet the New Year with a cup of gall — and with genuine dread.