Over the last few weeks, Americans have been asking a lot of questions they thought they would never have to ask.
What does it mean when the administration sees the free press as the “opposition party?” Can you trust anything said by a government that prefers “alternative facts?” How should one react to the fact that Russians meddled on behalf of Trump? Can the president really fire the head of the Justice Department for disagreeing with him, threaten to send troops into Mexico, and accuse Australia of trying to send us the “next Boston bombers?” Will the president flat out ignore a court order?
To these questions, let’s add another one: Assuming Trump is not impeached or removed under the 25th amendment, would he step down if he loses the 2020 election?
Shockingly enough, the answer is not totally clear. Trump has already shown us that he isn’t inclined to accept election outcomes that aren’t in his favor. On this topic, he said he would “keep you in suspense,” adding later that he would but only “if I win.” Since taking office, he has given us no reason to assume he’s changed his position on this.
So would he step down if he loses? After just weeks in office, many of Trump’s actions could help him disregard a future electoral defeat.
Trump’s modus operandi—casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral system itself—is at center stage here. If he can get enough people to believe that the system is rigged, he has taken the first and most important step towards ignoring its outcome. Indeed, his birther lie, in addition to being an attack on President Barack Obama himself, was also an attack on electoral legitimacy: the system, Trump’s lie implied, must be completely broken if an ineligible person could run and be elected. On top of this, he has consistently lied to stoke belief in fictitious voter fraud. And in a move that may at first seem confusing, he has continued to do this after winning, seemingly casting doubt on an election he won. Why? Ever looking ahead to the next huge deal, he is manufacturing doubt about elections in the future.
Trump is also actively working to delegitimate the judiciary, taking aim at the system of checks and balances that would stand in his way if he refused to step down. As a candidate, he impugned Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s impartiality because of his Mexican heritage, and as a president, he has lashed out at “so-called judge” James Robart for issuing an injunction against the major parts of his Muslim travel ban. Meanwhile, Trump’s Department of Justice has argued that there are areas of presidential authority (national security―and what isn’t national security these days?) that should not be questioned. Trump and his executive branch have also shown a potential willingness to ignore judicial rulings, as Customs and Border Protection did in the first days of the Muslim travel ban.
More generally, Trump seems intent on leaving few people in government who would stand against him. Trump has already shown that Republicans in Congress can be brought fully to heal by the carrot of a conservative supreme court nominee (or two), and by the stick of Trump-approved populist candidates challenging their seats. Beyond Congress, as Sean Spicer has said, federal employees not “with the program” should be removed. We have already seen that those in government who question him, as did Sally Yates, can easily be fired and replaced by someone who acquiesces. To top it all off, Trump seems to be keeping those who criticized him out of the government entirely, despite their professional credentials.
The idea that an American President would not step down if he loses an election sounds far fetched. But far fetched is no assurance anymore―Trump’s becoming president at all was the ultimate in far fetched. Or perhaps it sounds like “hyperventilating.” But as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik notes, “the hyperventilators often read history.” In this case, history tells us that this is one way dictators come to power―they are elected, and then they stay.
To Republicans, who hold the power to impeach or remove Trump under the 25th amendment: are you willing to risk waiting around in the hope that Trump finds restraint? All of this is even more puzzling because if the Republicans were to decide to impeach or remove Trump, Mike Pence would become President. Republicans would maintain control of both the legislature and the executive for a full two years before having to worry about Tea-Party-esque retribution in midterm Congressional races. In that time, they could still push through the conservative priorities on their agenda.
The Republicans, in other words, can have their cake and eat it too, all without gambling away the republic itself.