early and often

Can America Survive a Second Trump Presidency, Emotionally?

Will this ever end? Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s been another long, painful week in the endless saga of Donald J. Trump’s serial assault on American sensibilities. In recent days, the twice-impeached president, whose phony stolen-election claims precipitated a constitutional crisis and an attack on the U.S. Capitol, has warned of “death and destruction” if he’s arrested. He called the Manhattan district attorney who appears to be closest to taking that step “a degenerate psychopath that truely hates the USA!” He’s been firing off wild smears and slurs of Florida governor Ron DeSantis and even of Florida itself, where DeSantis’s accomplishments are “all a mirage.” And this weekend, he’s bringing his apocalypse-projecting carnival to Waco, Texas, on the 30th anniversary of the bloody FBI siege of a heavily armed cult in a compound near that city. Trump continues to make himself the center of attention by sheer determined perversity.

By now, it is abundantly clear that you don’t have to be a Democrat or a progressive or even someone who disagrees with Trump’s agenda to find his basic mode of political operation profoundly disturbing. The endless and interminable boasts and insults, the “humor” that so often turns into cruelty, the disregard for facts or data or any sort of empirical reality, have become a normal feature of American political life. Over time, paying even half-attention to Trump represents an assault on the mind as well as the ears and the soul. Meanwhile, it’s never fully clear just how much of this nonsense is taken literally by his supporters — or is even taken literally by the man himself. Conservative columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that the 45th president’s recent attacks on DeSantis, for instance, are contradictory and incoherent on purpose:

If you want to lay out all the words Donald Trump said about Ron DeSantis this week, and diagram the arguments … well, you’re wasting your time. B doesn’t follow A, and C and D aren’t premises; they’re just the first letters of two different four-letter words. The weapons are in the English language, but this is not a rule-bound duel of reasoning, like an Oxford debate. It’s a dirty brawl. There’s a difference, and if you don’t get that by now, you’re going to misunderstand everything from here on out …

If Donald Trump were an artificial intelligence, he would use the supercomputer underneath that mane to determine the one sentence that could make each and every Republican primary voter dislike Ron DeSantis. If that produced 25 million contradictory sentences, he would unhesitatingly shout each one with equal conviction until every single primary voter couldn’t forget the one aimed at himself.

Parsing any of Trump’s attacks and working out what Trump’s views and policies will be is literally like trying to divine the future from the way debris lies after a mudslide.

That’s exactly right. Trump doesn’t make arguments. He drops the barometric pressure in the room, then basks in the thunder and lightning and chaos that ensues. This can be effective in confusing his enemies, and the confusion of his enemies is entertaining to his friends. But it’s also exhausting, which is what’s at the heart of the comments we keep hearing from Republican elites who are “ready to move on.” Unfortunately, a large-enough minority of Americans either hate or mistrust old-school rational political discourse and its purveyors enough to root for demolition, and that minority arguably forms a majority in one of our two major political parties. So we have now begun the third consecutive presidential-election cycle in which one of the leading contestants is trying to bludgeon the country into submission with hammer strokes of lies and calumny delivered via social media, hyperpartisan “news” outlets, and Nuremberg-style rallies.

Is there some breaking point after which normal politics — in the sense of semi-rational and semi-coherent arguments and appeals to something other than bile — becomes impossible? And, if so, are we likely to reach it by January 2029, when a second Trump term would presumably end? I ask this even without taking into account what a reelected Trump might substantively do to the country by way of his policies, precedents, and appointments.

Anyone who brushes off the issue by asserting that Trump can’t possibly win in 2024 is engaging in the deepest of wishful thinking. He’s currently leading the GOP field for 2024 by any measure. The only rival who would seem likely to knock him off his perch, the aforementioned DeSantis, has yet to be tested in a national campaign, does not appear to have a defense strategy against Trump, and has been losing altitude and giving pause to his own backers. Trump is basically running even with Joe Biden — an 80-year-old incumbent whose every misstep will be intensely watched until the last vote is cast — in general-election trial heats. And, lest we forget, Trump massively outperformed expectations in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Of course it could happen again.

Our worst presidencies have often been mercifully abbreviated: Andrew Johnson’s three years and ten months; Warren Harding’s two years and five months; even the triumphantly reelected Richard Nixon left after less than six years. This Trump-dominated era could have more than five years left to run. If he wins, I’m not sure how well Americans of any party will be able to handle it.

Can America Survive a Second Trump Presidency, Emotionally?