In the aftermath of his failed Presidency, Donald Trump will leave us with a lot more than bad memories. We can live with images of the crude and incompetent, especially after he is safely out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but other Trump legacies will be far worse. Among his contributions to history will be undermining democracy and the two-party system. A likely special bonus is unintentionally facilitating a sharp left turn in our politics, something that may prove good or bad, but would not have happened without him.
It is, of course, wrong to blame the President for all the elements of the “Perfect Storm” that could lead to what some refer to as another “Great Reset,” major changes in our social contract with each other that changes how we live, what we value, and the type of world we leave our children. Other contributors to the “storm” are the pandemic and its impact on the world economy, global warming, and increased interest in social and economic justice. On all these factors, the President may be credited with responding to them inadequately or inappropriately but blaming him for any of them is unjustified. Who, after all, can blame Trump for increasing interest in social and economic justice?
The sad history of our national response to climate change during the last three years and to COVID-19 for the last six months is well known. What is not appreciated by many of us is how Trump has undermined democracy and the two-party system of government.
Most simply put, Trump has weakened our democracy by undermining confidence in the Constitution. Most Constitutional lawyers, for example, would tell you that Article II of the Constitution does not give Trump unbridled power to ignore law. Neither does it give the President immunity from prosecution for crime, including those committed while he is in office. The President’s (and Attorney General Barr’s) claims to the contrary weaken the commitment to Constitutional government that is inherent in our society. This commitment, which is premised on the belief that our system of government produces results reflecting the will of the people, is what has allowed the United States to survive for over two centuries. This commitment has been weakened by a President who repeatedly ignores the will of the people. And if the people become convinced that their participation in the democracy, best exercised by voting, is irrelevant to how they are governed, they will quit participating. In a worst-case scenario, they throw the towel in altogether and rebel, perhaps violently.
We have already seen signs of the worst-case scenario. Recent protests reflect, in large part, the belief that answers to the problems of racism and economic injustice can’t be solved through appealing to lawmakers. The governed, basically, have turned against the government. The protests suggested that the elected authorities, ranging from mayors, to the Congress, and to Trump, were not listening and, in some cases, not worth appealing to.
It gets worse. The Trump takeover of the Republican party has set the stage for a Democratic landslide in November. The GOP has become an embarrassment for many Republicans, many of them now former Republicans. These voters, including some conservatives, would like to see a party that embraced what were once known as “Republican values,” things like limited government, reasonable taxes, reasonable regulation, and free trade. They have nowhere to go.
The effective collapse of the GOP, which some believe will complete its implosion once the final 2020 ballots are counted, will set the stage for Democrats to move left, perhaps radically. On many issues, such as climate change, responding to the pandemic, and addressing racial and economic injustice, such a move may be a good thing. But on others, things like radically increasing federal regulation of corporations, the story may be different. Its only a fear, but if the creativity and energy of our current capitalist economic system were substantially eliminated, what will that mean for our economic future?
A Democratic government which includes the Presidency and strong majorities in the House and Senate will also likely lead to a fissure in the Democratic party that could lead to problems of its own. Will Democratic centrists, of which there are many, come to see the party as having left them? That could be a likely scenario.
Now a bit of wilder speculation. What if both parties effectively imploded at the same time the confidence and support for democracy diminished? Will we see a far-right party emerge (The Trump/Tea Party)? Or maybe an openly socialist party led by AOC, Sanders, and others. Could there also be a centrist party? But if so, can it successfully navigate the issues, adopting “good” policies from across the entire spectrum? Who is out there to lead the creation of such a party?
That leaves us feeling queasy about 2020. Biden hasn’t won yet. He might yet do a bit of imploding himself, either through gaffes or, heaven forbid, something that derails his candidacy altogether. And then there is the Orange Menace himself. Is he really thinking about postponing the elections? How would that work in terms of building confidence in the Constitution?
As of this writing, Trump appears to be stumbling towards the exit. Respected publications are openly speculating that he will resign to avoid a stunning repudiation at the polls. President Pence, anyone? Anyone?
And then there are the dozens of policy proposals that Vice President Biden has embraced as he has sought to unify his party (translation: as he has sought to secure the support of his party’s left-wing). If you review the proposals, you will find Elizabeth Warren’s Greatest Hits as well as plenty of Bernie and AOC. Only time will tell how much of the agenda reflected in these proposals will be pursued by a President Biden but the mere existence of some of the proposals is a cause of worry.
Although some suggest party platforms are often irrelevant, that doesn’t make me sleep better at night.
We are living in interesting times. Some sort of a Great Reset is likely. Stay tuned.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.