When reality becomes a nightmare, dreams begin to seem like a form of sanity. Amid the waking nightmare that has been the Trump presidency, liberals have had one hope that has kept them going: that one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, we will be rid of Donald Trump. He is so manifestly unfit for office, so reckless in violating the fundamental tenets of democracy, so personally unstable and vindictive, that it could only be a matter of a few short years before he is either driven from the White House by impeachment or voted out of office by the majority of Americans who consider him a dangerous fraud and a national embarrassment. Once he is gone, liberals believe—once he has finally exited our lives for good—we can begin the difficult work of restoring some semblance of order and reason in a world without Trump.
The dream of returning to the comforts of a post-Trump world began the day after his election. As soon as liberals awoke to the wrenching news of his victory, the hope arose that his presidency could somehow be averted. Would a recount reveal that the vote tallies in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all of which were razor-thin—were wrong? Could the Electoral College be called on to exercise its constitutional duty by refusing to ratify the election results? Would the manifest corruption of Trump’s transition—his nepotism, his covert meetings with international business partners, his refusal to divest himself of properties that posed a conflict of interest—lead to his impeachment under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution? Would Vice President Mike Pence come to his senses, or give way to his ambition, and declare Trump “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” under the 25th Amendment? Or, barring a peaceful succession, would the military find it necessary to stage a coup to save America from Trump? “The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening,” Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former senior adviser at the State Department, observed only a week into Trump’s presidency. “But so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order.”
As the months went on and none of these liberal dreams was realized, hope turned to a variety of other scenarios. Maybe Robert Mueller would uncover evidence that Trump was directly involved in Russia’s meddling in last year’s election—or directly involved in covering it up—leading to a constitutional crisis of Watergate proportions. Perhaps Trump would become fed up with all the tedium and hassle and ridicule that comes with the office and simply decide to quit, retiring to Mar-a-Lago to golf away his remaining days. Or, even if we are doomed to suffer through four full years of President Trump, surely voters will flock to the polls in 2020 to ensure that he joins the ranks of the eight previous commanders-in-chief who were deemed undeserving of a second term.
It’s understandable, and perhaps even necessary, that we have devoted ourselves so thoroughly to the question of how to remove Trump from office as quickly as possible. He poses, after all, an existential threat to—well, existence itself. But the dream of bringing about an end to Trump’s era in Washington is tinged with something darker and more worrisome. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don’t just want Trump gone from the White House—we want to return to a time when Trump did not dominate our every waking moment. We want it all to go away: the endless Twitter rants; the bellicose threats against perceived enemies, foreign and domestic; the toxic brew of narcissism and incompetence and greed that has come to permeate the national discourse. The desire to oust Trump, at a deeper level, represents a liberal fantasy in which we can somehow magically, instantly turn back the clock and live once more in the comforting world of our pre-Trump assumptions. In this fetching version of harmony restored, not only will Trump no longer be president, he’ll no longer have been president. He will vanish from public life, and the hobgoblins he has unleashed in our national psyche will disappear along with him.
Yet even as the prospect of his removal becomes ever more palpable, we must awaken from this blue-state reverie we have constructed for ourselves. The truth is, no matter how he winds up leaving office, Donald Trump will always be with us. We may, unless there is nuclear Armageddon, outlast his presidency. Robert Mueller’s investigation may even shorten it. But we can’t repeal or replace it. Long after his presidency ends—indeed, long after he has departed this vale of tweets for that gloriously appointed Mar-a-Lago in the sky—Trump will continue to dominate and disrupt our lives at every turn. Because he’s Trump, being a former president will do nothing to diminish his desperate need for attention or his willingness to hurt whomever it takes to get it. He’ll still have his gifts as a showman, his wealth, his mastery of social media, and the unshakable devotion of his followers. And the media will remain just as eager to report and dissect and amplify his every untruth and slander. Indeed, freed from the shackles of the Constitution, Trump could end up provoking even more havoc out of office than he has as president.
There will never be, in short, a world without Trump. As we work to remove him from office, we must also grapple with a harsh truth: that his influence, and the broader forces he represents, will not end with his presidency. When Trump leaves the Oval Office, our long national nightmare will not be over. It will have just begun.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume the best-case scenario: that we somehow manage to survive Trump’s first term and send him packing in 2020. At the moment, the odds of him winning reelection appear about equal to those of the Titanic triumphantly resurfacing under its own steam. His approval ratings are at historic lows, and he evinces no interest in finding a way to expand his base. The doting crowds he still draws at his campaign-style rallies convince him that he’s beholding—and beloved by—a majority of Americans, since those are the only moments he ever comes face-to-face with a citizen unpossessed of either a trust fund or a hedge fund.
So: What happens after Trump finds out that America has rejected him in favor of whatever crooked, terrorist-loving, jobs-destroying candidate the Democrats have decided to nominate? Nothing dignified. For starters, he’ll likely skip his successor’s “fake inauguration” and stage his own swearing-in, surrounded by what he will tout as the biggest crowd of onlookers in the history of onlooking. There is no scenario in which Trump will accept that he has lost fair and square; no matter how resounding his margin of defeat may be, he will begin his post-presidency by howling about massive voter fraud and political witch hunts and the failure of whatever attorney general has replaced Jeff Sessions to put his opponent behind bars. In his mind, Trump will still be president, and he will devote himself to a lifelong and evidence-free campaign to expose the conspiracy that illegally deposed him.
And he’ll have plenty of help doing it. He’ll still be able to turn out huge crowds, command a vast Twitter audience, and get television exposure whenever he wants it, even in “retirement.” The word itself is farcical when applied to Trump. How can a man who has never held a job he didn’t inherit or buy retire from being himself? Teddy Roosevelt never did, and carried on blithely bully-pulpiting, to ebulliently divisive and obstreperous effect, for a decade after leaving the White House. That’s probably the closest prototype for what we can expect from ex-President Trump, but multiplied a thousandfold by today’s social media platforms and his own irresponsibility.
Nor will Trump feel constrained by the long-standing protocol that keeps former presidents from commenting on the policies and job performance of their successors. Far from it—because bashing the new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will present Trump with his best chance to stir up outrage and get attention. Cable news networks, which pretend to respect the reserve of other ex-presidents, will eat it up.
And he may not even have to depend on Fox News or CNN—his chief media enablers—for television access. Last year, when the punditocracy was still taking a Hillary Clinton presidency for granted, Trump mulled launching his own cable empire to perpetuate right-wing Trumpmania, reasoning (in the words of one of his associates) that “win or lose, we are on to something here.” The fascination of that “win or lose” is its indication that Trump’s view of the American electorate makes no distinction between voters and audiences. If we have learned nothing else about him, it’s that (1) his vast ego needs constant nursing and (2) enhancing the Trump brand is always his top priority, without any differentiation among gaudy casinos, online universities, mail-order steaks, and the presidency of the United States.
All Trump ever wanted to do was to play the president, a role that will be immeasurably easier once he’s actually out of office. Sarah Palin tried and failed to become a TV star after leaving office. Trump enacted that strategy in reverse. As ex-president, he will be perfectly positioned to return to his natural habitat, the simulacrum of “reality TV.” It’s not hard to imagine Trump TV as a ceaseless and influential presence in the cable landscape, tugging Fox News and the rest of the media even further to the right. Every day, Trump could sit in a mock Oval Office and explain how his successor is failing miserably, how terrible all politicians are, how he—and the American people—have been betrayed. He would become America’s ruling maestro of resentment, the nurturer of white male grievance in an increasingly diverse world.
Trump won’t need to burnish his “legacy” as other ex-presidents do, by politely writing their memoirs and launching foundations devoted to eradicating poverty or disease. He’ll just keep right on being Trump, wrecking and insulting everything in sight that isn’t his, all in the interest of selling crap emblazoned with his name. The only tradition he’s likely to follow is the building of his presidential library, which is sure to be a lulu. Even former presidents far better at simulating modesty have been unable to resist monumentalizing themselves for posterity. Unlike his predecessors, however, Trump is unhindered by taste. The damn thing will probably look like Caesar’s Palace crossed with a Bond villain’s lair. Its scale will make the average aircraft carrier look like a skiff. Granted, the way things are going on the legal front, Trump may wind up having to build it in Saudi Arabia—but that’s hardly a guarantee of improved decor.
It’s impossible to imagine, in other words, that Trump will be any more of a normal ex-president than he was a normal president. After all, he’s not a figure whose power and influence rely on political respectability or establishment approval. Rather, Trump belongs to the great line of reprobate politicians, from James Michael Curley to Marion Barry, who thrive on notoriety and gain strength from scandal. Curley was once reelected as mayor of Boston while under federal indictment, retaining his popularity even as he spent part of his term in prison. Barry, likewise, parlayed his federal conviction for drug possession into a fourth term as mayor of Washington. Like these renegade politicians, Trump will use his infamy to cement his ties with his followers, and to fight on even in the face of political defeat or criminal indictment. He’ll sulphurize the air more or less constantly with crackpot, malignant yarns about the Deep State enemies arrayed against him and the Republican jackals who betrayed him. The Jake Tappers, Chuck Todds, and Wolf Blitzers will get it in the neck until they wish they’d been born without one. As ex-president, he’ll do everything he can to delegitimize our entire system of government even more than he has as president. He’ll find a way to implicate Hillary, too. At some level, he’ll never forgive her for losing the election to him. Kamala Harris, or whoever, will have her hands full 24-7 rebutting Trump’s wild accusations and cuckoo gambits to discredit her presidency. And Trump’s base, or whatever is left of it, will take his every last word as gospel truth.
Now imagine how drastically all this mayhem gets ratcheted up if Trump is forced to leave office prematurely. Almost one-quarter of the American public was still firmly in Richard Nixon’s camp the week he resigned. Trump’s bedrock devotees will stay equally loyal, even if Vladimir Putin starts hosting public screenings of the pee tape in the Kremlin every Wednesday. Only Trump’s base won’t accept his departure as Nixon’s did, because Trump himself will be egging them on to see his eviction from the White House as the worst injustice ever perpetrated in America’s—in any country’s—history.
The German word for this is Dolchstoss. That was the myth, wildly popular in right-wing German circles after 1918, that they would have won the First World War if only they’d gotten the chance. Instead, the Kaiser’s proud army was “stabbed in the back” by cunning Jews, craven politicos, and other such dubiously cosmopolitan, non-Junker types.
America’s own pre-eminent Dolchstoss myth explains our defeat in Vietnam in similar terms. Ronald Reagan swore by it. When Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo asked, “Do we get to win this time?” before heading back to ’Nam for revenge, in one of the signature movies of the Reagan years, nobody needed to ask who had stood in the way of victory: hippie peaceniks, morale-undermining journalists, pinheaded rad-lib intellectuals, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda and her fellow Hollywood pinkos, and George McGovern, among others.
The Dolchstoss myth that’s sure to take hold if Trump is impeached or quits under pressure will be virulent. The tale his devotees will raise their children to swear by will describe the nefarious way that coastal elites, partisan Democrats, the liberal media, and a whole slew of other pseudo-Americans—from Muslims relishing our surprise introduction to sharia law to transgender weirdos, man-hating feminists, and America-hating Obama zombies, not to mention pusillanimous establishment Republicans—all conspired to deprive them of the greatest president ever: the only one they felt ever spoke for them. There will be talk of armed insurrection. Aspiring Dylann Roofs will look for an enemy headquarters to shoot up. It will be ugly.
Trump will love it. Since he has no concern for the country’s greater good, he’ll do everything he can to keep his base’s passions choleric. He already dotes on being their red-capped messiah, but their martyred Christ? He will be the greatest person ever to be anybody’s martyred Christ. As unlikely as the image seems to us crucifiers—please, God, let him be wearing more than a loincloth—Trumpmania’s already manifest status as distorted religious cultism will go into overdrive. MAGA will be the new INRI.
Most likely, Trump will be perceived as a martyr even if he keels over of natural causes in the Oval Office sometime in the next three years. That’s not a remote possibility when we’re talking about an obese, rage-filled, 71-year-old man with an amazingly unhealthy lifestyle. (If you thought Sean Spicer had it rough, you’ve clearly never pictured the hell of being Trump’s doctor.) If that should happen, the Trump legend will undoubtedly embrace the claim that “they” killed him by hounding the great man until his heart couldn’t take it. One smug little chuckle too many from Rachel Maddow the night he accidentally tuned in to MSNBC while looking for Tucker Carlson Tonight, and blam! Every president’s grave draws visitors, but Trump’s could be the first at which masses of people kneel. Down the road, Muslim Americans and other red-state undesirables could learn that they’re better off staying indoors every June 14: Trump’s birthday.
And here we come to the reason that we must give up our fantasy of a world without Trump. The point of accepting that we will never be free of his mania is not to drive ourselves into an even deeper depression, but rather to liberate ourselves from our own illusions and wishful thinking. Before Trump, we lived in a make-believe world of our own creation. The first black man in history had been elected president. The first woman was about to succeed him. Nothing, certainly not an infantile blowhard who thrived on debt and deception, could derail the inevitable rise of a lasting liberal majority. The arc of the moral universe, we were assured, bent toward justice.
To wish for Trump to go away is to believe that the forces underlying his rise to power will somehow cease to exist. But his success will only serve to inspire imitators. Lower down the political food chain, mini-Trumps will keep sprouting like mushrooms for generations to come. Trump has mobilized a new majority of forthright bigots within the Republican Party, and they will no longer be content with the racist dog whistles of old. It’s not just that crafty shape-shifters like Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton could attempt to remake themselves in the master’s image. The great danger is that the White House could one day be held by a Trumpian disciple who is actually competent at bypassing the constitutional impediments to tyranny. In the hands of a President Pence, Trump’s demagoguery would be far more likely to undermine the foundations of American democracy. And now that Trump has changed the parameters of what is acceptable as president, the old aspirational slogan that “anyone can become president” has taken on a new meaning; already, there is serious talk among Republicans about Senator Kid Rock. However crass, truth-averse, greedy, unqualified, or compromised Trump’s successors may be, they can be confident that they will never exceed the now-degraded boundaries of political decency and responsibility established by their champion.
The day will come when we are free of Trump the president. But the day will not come when we are free of Trumpism, in all its ugly and vicious manifestations, until we unflinchingly embrace the world that he has helped to create, and focus on devising the strategies and agenda that it will take to overcome and counteract everything that he represents, both today and long into the future. Once Trump’s carnival presidency is over, after all, it won’t much matter how his exit happened. The political class and its media enablers will attempt to go back to business as usual—but Trump’s supporters won’t. As much as we may wish otherwise, the rancorous, intolerant America he flushed out of hiding won’t cease to exist simply because he’s left the White House. Eventually, there may come a day when we can look back upon the Trump era without triggering our PTSD. But that will only happen if we put aside our delusion of returning to a world without Trump and see him for what he is: a symptom of something deep and intractable in the American psyche that was not caused by a single election, and cannot be cured by one.