About two weeks before the 2016 presidential election I was talking to my mother on the phone and I said something to the effect of “I am looking forward to seeing exactly how Donald Trump will bring about the downfall of America once he wins. I remember her telling me “that’s not funny. Don’t even joke like that!” And then I told her I wasn’t — I study contemporary cultural phenomena through media. That’s like my job and stuff. It’s not like I WANTED him to win. I just saw that he was likely going to and there wasn’t anything I could do about that, so I might as well make my peace with it and try to make the best of it. I’ve never watched a civilization fall from the inside before! When was I going to get another chance like that. I figured it’d be educational if nothing else. I made similar comments to other people, all of whom thought I was joking… you know… until he won.
So now we’re here.
Today is day 124 of the Trump presidency. Not even I could imagine that it would go THIS fast. I mean, this has been a textbook lesson in how NOT to be president. And I don’t mean ideologically. It’s not really surprising that I disagree with the Donald on political levels or basic ethics or whether or not it’s ok to drown kittens for fun (Note, I have no actual proof that the president likes to drown kittens for fun… but you know, I think one can just assume). What I’m saying is that I have a hard time believing that someone could even TRY to get into as big a mess as he has in less than 125 days like ON PURPOSE. It’s kind of remarkable really.
Last night, Steph and I were watching CNN as their talking heads were discussing the president recently deciding to lawyer up on the Russia investigation (something that he frankly should have done like weeks ago). Steph asked me where do I think all of this is going to go. She suggested maybe I write a blog about it. The problem is that that for once, I have no fucking idea!!! I’m kinda lost on it. Seriously.
So I’m looking at this as a cultural critic, as a historian, as a sociologist and… we’re just sort of in unchartered territory.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it should be pretty clear that the administration is having some problems right now — some very serious problems. Even if you are a conservative — even if you are a huge Trump supporter. I’m going to go out on a limb for a second (just a second) and give El Donaldo the benefit of the doubt and say “innocent until proven guilty.” Fine. But the problem is, for the last few weeks he’s been acting a lot like a dude who is guilty… like not even a real dude. He’s acting like the kind of supervillain you put in a really really over the top cartoon for six-year-olds where you want to make it unquestionably obvious that you’re talking about a bad guy. And then the six year old watches the cartoon and says “what the fuck? This is ridiculous! That guy is kinda over the top. What do you think I am? Four!?!?”
Because Trump is that guy. He’s a four year old super villain. Have you ever walked in the kitchen to find a four-year-old, face and hands covered in chocolate, who suddenly says, without even being asked “Mommy, I didn’t steal any cookies!!!” and so you say “Did you steal a cookie?” and the four year old says “No!!!!” and then takes the cookie jar and smashes it to the ground so as to cover up the evidence, completely forgetting that the whole thing could have been avoided if he’d simply wiped his face and hands off in the first place and the kept his big fat mouth shut? Yeah, that’s Donald Trump. And to not see that what he’s doing right now looks like the behavior of a four-year-old super villain, you’d have to be a fucking idiot.
And therein lies the problem… because as you might have noticed, Herr Donald and many of his supporters are fucking idiots.
And idiots don’t really behave logically. I wrote a while back that one of the flaws people make in their arguments is that they expect to beat Trump supporters with logic. Except that doesn’t work, because the Trump supporter isn’t interested in your “facts.” And that’s what’s making figuring out how this will shake out a little tricky.
Let’s take a look at some previous disgraced presidents. The most recent president where impeachment was really on the table was Bill Clinton. Clinton was impeached, but was not indicted so stayed in office (impeachment doesn’t mean what most people think it means…). During the impeachment proceedings it was reported that Clinton and Gore had a transition team in place to guarantee minimal interruption of government during the transfer of power. If Clinton had been removed, I think Gore would have been fine. There would have been some Republican pushback towards Gore, but really, at the end of the day, Clinton’s main problem was not keeping his dick in his pants, and Gore could reasonably say he had nothing to do with it. He would have been fine.
If we move back a little longer we have e Nixon. When impeachment was on the table with Nixon, he had the good sense to resign in an attempt to protect his legacy as much as possible and the integrity of the rest of the Republican party. Agnew had already resigned previously for a different scandal, and so Gerald Ford, who had only been appointed vice-president nine months earlier basically ascended into the presidency. It ruined his political career. Even though he was confirmed as vice-president by a senate vote of 97-3, he basically had no real legitimacy in the office because the people had never actually chosen him. He wasn’t able to accomplish much and was beat out of the presidency by a peanut farmer two years later.
The most contentious president before those two would have been the very first Republican president (as they love to point out), Abraham Lincoln. And his presidency ripped the union in two. And of course his successor, after he was assassinated, was Andrew Johnson, the only other president (besides Clinton) to be impeached (and who very narrowly avoided indictment).
So how do we apply those lessons of the past to the Trump administration? First, we have to think about succession. I think a lot of people really think that if the Russia investigation goes the right way and everything comes out, this will invalidate the 2016 presidency and somehow magically Hillary Clinton will become president. Or, if not her… somehow we will impeach and indict enough people down the line that we will eventually get to a democrat. These people are wrong. There is literally no one in the presidential line of succession right now that could be considered a liberal. So just take that off the table. The Constitution has no mechanism for redoing an election we don’t like. So in the event that Trump is removed in some way, then we end up with President Pence.
But that’s problematic. Because this particular case isn’t really about Trump just being ideologically unpopular (like Lincoln) or even breaking a law (like Clinton and Johnson). The question in the minds of the people is whether or not his election was valid in the first place. If it is somehow determined that the Russians totally reversed the course of our election but that Trump had no knowledge of it, then there’s no real reason to impeach him (well, there might be, because of the obstruction of justice that he’s done since then… or who knows what else…. but I mean for the initial case) and yet the optics of what happened will render his entire presidency completely illegitimate in the mind of the people. It will hurt the office. It will hurt the Republican party. A normal chief executive in place might see fit to simply resign for the good of the office… but Trump isn’t that guy. That’s just never going to happen. And his insistence on fighting it is going to make things worse.
On the other hand, if Trump is somehow removed from office (either by Congress because he’s found to be actively in collusion or if by some miracle he steps down in order to protect the office) that leaves Pence. As far as I can tell from the information available to the public Pence had nothing to do with any of this and so there’s no good reason to impeach him. And this is good for him. The best he can kind of hope for is Gerald Ford presidency. If Trump goes down, he’d need to distance himself as much as possible. It is better to be a dupe than a co-conspirator. But can he reasonably expect the people to support him if he ascends to the presidency as the guy who was too stupid to know that there was an international conspiracy going on around him?
Of course if by some means Pence goes down too… then that means that Ryan can take the office. And that may be the best thing for the presidency (and the Republican party) at this point. There’s no doubt that he had nothing to do with any of this. And that would be fine. Again, this is the Ford situation… a president with no mandate and tenuous acceptance by the people. This is where Nixon stepped aside, Agnew was already gone, and Ford got to rebuild. Nixon, for all his problems, respected the office.
See, the thing with Trump is that he isn’t actually a Republican. And he doesn’t really care about the Presidency. He cares a lot about BEING THE PRESIDENT. This was always about winning. Like, I’m not making that up. I’m not interpreting his actions. He specifically said that. He likes to win. He wanted to win. This was all a game to him. And the way he won was by convincing people that winning the game was the only thing that mattered. Right now, the presidency is just a football game, and he’s not going down without a fight. This is why he is able to brazenly say that he doesn’t want to be presidential. This is why he is able to come right out and tell Lester Holt and the Russian ambassadors that he fired Flynn in order to impede the Russia investigation. The optics don’t matter here. All that matters is continuing to win the game for as long as possible by playing by his own rules and Kobayashi Maruing the shit out everything.
Remember when Trump said during the debate that he might not accept the election results if he didn’t win? He was going to “keep us in suspense.” Well he sure as fuck isn’t going to accept an investigation that says that his presidency is illegitimate…whether he is implicated or not. He’s not going to just step down. And if he is forcibly removed… well, he’s cultivated a following that is just not going to accept it. Anyone who hasn’t turned their backs on him by now, simply isn’t going to. It doesn’t matter if he “shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.” If he is impeached and indicted, he could conceivably rip this country in two. And he is the kind of person who will do so simply because with no other options left, it would be the only win left.
Hillary supporters have taken to referring to themselves as “the Resistance” in the time since election. But I don’t think most people really think about what that ultimately means. There is no easy endgame here. The Constitution has no “asshole provision” to fix this. And for all the comparisons to Watergate, this hasn’t really quite been the same thing. We’re moving past the realm of ending a presidency and into something that is a lot closer to toppling a regime. And historically, regime changes aren’t… pleasant. About 150 years ago, Lincoln’s presidency led to a civil war. It was a convenient civil war; there was a clear ideological difference that was cleanly mappable to some nice geographic boundaries. There was governmental support on each side. Civil wars don’t work like that in the 21st century. They begin with civil uprising in much more diverse pocketed communities with no clear boundaries. They start on the internet and result in what is frankly much closer to rioting and terrorist attacks. This is what the “peaceful transition of power” between presidencies is meant to prevent. If there really is a “Resistance” then we need to be prepared for some fallout. Some really unpleasant fallout with no clear precedent in American history.
But you know… the next season of House of Cards drops on Netflix in a week… and I’m kinda looking forward to that… I just feel like it’s going to be kind of boring and simplistic. Yep… that’s where we are.