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How to prepare for the next Trump administration

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Donald Trump Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

The biggest threat to American democracy is not that Donald Trump will steal the 2024 presidential election, but that he’ll win it outright.

Approval numbers for President Biden continue to be dismal. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released over the weekend shows that just 41 percent of Americans think he’s doing a good job, 55 percent don’t like how he’s handling the economy, and nearly two-thirds believe he hasn’t accomplished much during the first year of his presidency. And that disapproval extends to Biden’s party: 51 percent of respondents say they would back a Republican candidate in their congressional district, while 41 percent would vote for a Democrat — the GOP’s biggest lead on the question in 40 years.

It’s not a great moment to be a Democrat.

Those numbers suggest there is a substantial opening for Trump and the GOP to sweep back into power over the next few years. The possibility is frankly perverse. On Friday, investigators revealed information showing how Trump’s administration interfered with the Centers for Disease Control during the pandemic. The same day, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl released audio of Trump defending supporters who threatened to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence as they invaded the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump’s contempt for truth, the rule of law, and democracy are well-established — and his return to the White House would be a grievous blow to American self-government.

With those trends in mind, Democrats who still have control of Congress should look ahead to the possibility of Trump once again occupying the Oval Office in January 2024 — and act accordingly to limit the possible damage. Three suggestions:

Finish the Jan. 6 investigation before the midterms. I’m skeptical that the commission will reveal dramatic new information about the insurrection. As The Atlantic’s David Frum observed Sunday, Trump probably didn’t leave much of a paper trail in the weeks leading to Jan. 6: “He does not speak direct orders. He signals what he wants, and then leaves it to his underlings to figure out for themselves how to please him. Trump likely followed those lifetime habits in the weeks leading to January 6.” We’ve already been down this road once before with Robert Mueller — anybody hoping for a smoking gun to emerge from the investigation will probably be disappointed.

Still, the commission has its uses. Mostly, it’s an opportunity — perhaps the last, best one — to obtain information about Trump’s attack on democracy and put it in front of voters. If for some reason Americans choose to put him back in office, they won’t be able to say they weren’t warned. But if Republicans take back Congress before the investigation is finished, that warning will probably be squelched before it can be fully sounded.

Strengthen oversight of the executive branch. There has been some work done on this front already — earlier this month, a Senate committee gave bipartisan approval to a bill that would prohibit presidents from arbitrarily firing inspectors general of executive branch agencies. (Trump, you will recall, routinely fired IGs who produced unfavorable reports about his administration’s conduct.) The group Protect Democracy has urged other reforms, such as increasing whistleblower protections, strengthening Congress’ power to enforce contempt citations against executive branch officials who refuse to provide information, and strengthening the Hatch Act that toothlessly prohibits White House officials from doing political work while employed by the federal government. It may or may not be the case that “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” but regardless, every little bit of sunlight would help.

Give up on breaking the filibuster. With Democrats in power, progressives far and wide have begged the party to destroy the tool that lets a Senate minority keep the chamber from passing much of anything useful. I’ve shared that sentiment, but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have not. Believe it or not, Democrats might have reason to thank them sometime soon.

As Politico reported last month, Trump and his allies are eager to pass “election integrity” bills that would place new restrictions on voting. That new law would probably look a lot like legislation passed in a number of GOP-led states that critics say make it harder for largely Democratic constituencies like city dwellers, minorities, and people with disabilities to vote. If Republicans take control of Congress, the filibuster might be all that stands in their way.

If these ideas seem feeble, it’s because we now know it’s damn near impossible to build an impenetrable wall of checks and balances against Donald Trump. He did a lot of damage during his four years in office not because there weren’t rules in place, but because he blew past the limits and dared anybody to hold him to account. Almost nobody did, at least until American voters — with the assistance of a few honorable officials — put an end to it. Even then, it was a close call.

The voters could change their minds. And unless President Biden and his fellow Democrats turn things around, they might do so. We already know that Donald Trump is bad for democracy. It doesn’t mean he can’t win democratically.

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