July 2017 seems like a million years ago now, but in some ways it feels like little has changed. Take this article I wrote that month. The headline is “The latest revelation won’t end Trump’s presidency. Only Paul Ryan can.” The first section is subtitled “Robert Mueller can’t fell Donald Trump.”
The only part of that which feels dated — and the main mistake I see in my analysis, in retrospect — is the name “Paul Ryan.” It was never up to Paul Ryan, after all. His successor, Nancy Pelosi, did impeach Trump for holding aid to Ukraine hostage in hopes of damaging a political rival.
But what has become clear in the two and a half years since is that the House’s role was only preamble. Yes, Trump will go down in history books as the third president to be impeached. But he will not go down in history as the first president to be removed. The Senate’s vote to acquit him on charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power guarantees that.
This is a deeply unsatisfying punchline to the past few years of American politics. At least since Donald Trump first announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, journalists and activists have been asking: Is this the scandal that finally does him in?
Would his casual description of Mexican immigrants as rapists in his announcement speech force him to drop out shortly after he jumped in? Would his attack on John McCain for being captured in Vietnam end his campaign? Or proposing an all-out ban on Muslim immigration?
What about the revelation of a tape on which he brags about sexually assaulting women? Or the stories from multiple women who said he did sexually assault them? Or leaking highly classified information to the Russian government? Or intimidating Ukraine into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden? Would any of these be enough to finally bring Trump down?
As it turns out, the answer in each case was no. That’s not because none of these things should have been enough to end his campaign or force him out of office. Each of them should have been enough!
But the sad truth is that whether or not Trump was “brought down” had at best an indirect relationship to the truth and the gravity of the charges against him. The hope that he would be gone rested entirely on a hope that at least 20 Republican senators would do the right thing. And anybody who has paid attention to Mitch McConnell’s Republican Party the past decade would have told you that was never going to happen. In the end, only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, did the right thing.
In 2018, the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson called the FBI’s raid on former Trump attorney Michael Cohen “the end stage of the Trump presidency” — a prediction that obviously will not come to pass. But what’s more interesting than the prediction was the emotion behind it, a yearning for something, anything, to end the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in. In the liberal imagination, that blow-up took the form of Trump’s removal from office, an event that sets us back toward a path of normalcy and sane politics.
This yearning is understandable, but it is misplaced. For one thing, ending the Trump presidency will not fix, or even substantially ameliorate, most of the problems plaguing the American political system. They were mounting for years before he took office — indeed, they made him possible — and will continue to plague us for years after he leaves.
And more importantly, as this week clarifies, there will be no dramatic end for Trump. There never was going to be one. If he leaves office, it’s not going to be because the other shoe drops. There’s no revelation that can do that when [gesticulates wildly to everything that has happened and been revealed since 2015] was not enough.
If he leaves office, it will be because he loses the 2020 election. That was always the case. We were always going to have to do this the hard way.
An unsatisfying end
Most observers acknowledge that American democracy is in a pretty bad way.
Until 2015, the problems our democracy confronted were mounting but largely faceless. Trump gave them a human form.
He illustrates the US’s susceptibility to demagoguery and to the influence of billionaires seeking to deregulate their own businesses and cut their own taxes. He won with the assistance of one of America’s most broken and anti-majoritarian institutions (the Electoral College) with a congressional majority bolstered by gerrymandering and the underrepresentation of left-leaning urban areas.
He shows how America’s thermostatic electorate, constantly responding to one party’s electoral success with a dramatic swing to the other side, can undermine democratic responsiveness by catapulting a party with a deeply unpopular agenda into office. And he shows how dangerous the presidency’s extraordinary war powers can be in the wrong hands.
So it’s no wonder his presidency has proved a breeding ground for fantasies of his regime’s demise that range from the responsible — see my colleague Ezra Klein’s case that Trump should be impeached for being ridiculously bad at his job — to the conspiratorial and preposterous (see Louise Mensch’s claims that Trump’s impeachment and arrest were imminent and that the “Marshal of the Supreme Court” had informed the president his impeachment was coming; or Jamie Kirchick, who even before Trump’s presidency was musing about a military coup unseating him).
As the late literary critic Frank Kermode argued in his book The Sense of an Ending, humans crave narrative structure. “We are surrounded by [chaos], and equipped for coexistence with it only by our fictive powers,” he wrote. We can’t see the world as a sequence of events, one right after another, with no end or resolution in sight. “To see everything as out of mere succession,” he observed, “is to behave like a man drugged or insane.”
We can’t see what’s happening to American politics as just a succession of events that, in themselves, mean nothing. They have to be leading up to a climactic Götterdämmerung in which our slate is wiped clean. This is the yearning behind bold predictions of the Trump administration’s collapse — that made Mueller, then the impeachment process, such a vessel for liberal hopes.
There is no easy fix to our problems. We have to muddle through.
So where does this leave us? Everything feels horrible, Trump is still in office, and he’s not going anywhere.
The glib answer is that if you don’t want Trump to be president, you should make sure he loses the 2020 election. He’s the favorite at this point given the strength of the economy and the advantage of incumbency, but incumbents sometimes lose and Democrats have a number of strong candidates.
But a Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren presidency isn’t going to wipe clean the system’s problems. The maladies remain. To borrow a quote that 2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg likely knows well, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
And absent a revolutionary shock to create a radically new political order, the best we can do is just muddle along.
That is probably the one unromantic takeaway that the Trump experience has left me with. We fantasize about an early, dramatic end to the Trump years in part because that signals a return to normalcy and a rejection of all the dysfunctions he symbolizes. But Trump was never going to be frog-marched out of the White House. And even if he was, it wouldn’t have solved our problems.
I understand the yearning not to muddle through, for a big, climactic finish to both the Trump presidency and the American national nightmare. But if muddling through is to lead anywhere, we ought to be prepared for it, and prepared to make the most of it, rather than thinking a deus ex machina like impeachment will blow the whole thing up in a stroke.
The Trump years will likely end with a whimper rather than a bang — just as the conclusion of Watergate did not lead to a cleansed and more ethical politics (though there was a flurry of reforms that improved things for a spell), and just as the financial crisis did not usher in a new era of ethical banking (same).
But we don’t have to wait for the Trump presidency to end, or force it to end, to start thinking about what a more systematic approach to fixing American politics would look like. It will not make for a very good, eventful movie, and it will be a long and at times unfulfilling slog. But it’ll be the only way we can make it through.