Essay — From the April 2018 issue

Four More Years

The Trump reelection nightmare and how we can stop it

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Let us think the unthinkable. Let us imagine Donald Trump’s potential path to reelection as president of the United States.

He is deeply unpopular, the biggest buffoon any of us has ever seen in the White House. He manages to disgrace the office nearly every single day. He insults our intelligence with his blustering rhetoric. He endorses racial stereotypes and makes common cause with bigots. He has succeeded in offending countless foreign governments. He has no idea what a president is supposed to be or do and (perhaps luckily) he has no clue how to govern. Of the handful of things he has actually managed to achieve, nearly all are toxic.

Donald Trump in the Oval Office, 2017 © Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

Now: imagine his disastrous rule reaffirmed by an enthusiastic public, giving him four more years to insult and offend and enact even more poisonous measures. Reader, it could happen. We know it could happen because it has happened before. Widely despised presidents get themselves reelected all the time. Men who are regarded as incompetent, callow, senile, or racist sail back into office, and are even canonized as heroic figures once they retreat into the postpresidential sunset, clearing brush or painting oil portraits.

There are many paths to such rehabilitation for Trump. Imagine him, Reagan-like, lifted up on a wave of public adulation. The economy is firing on all cylinders; the ships of many nations are parading through New York Harbor; the fireworks are going off overhead and Trump is announcing that America is back, standing tall.

Or imagine him, Dubya-like, vowing vengeance after a terrorist attack on American soil. He picks a fight with some annoying but unrelated nation, the news media rallies around him (he has finally achieved maturity as chief executive, they say), and once victory is certain, Trump lands a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a cleverly tailored flight suit: mission accomplished.

I admit that at the moment it is difficult to conceive how Donald Trump might turn that corner. Every day the circling investigators come a little closer. Every day he tweets something stupid. Every day there is a disclosure — an alleged affair with a porn star, another emoluments snafu — of the kind that would have sunk previous administrations. Besides, the presidents I mentioned above were capable politicians, advised by men and women of a certain practical cunning. Reagan and Bush both had some basic grasp of what voters traditionally wanted from their politicians and how to go about delivering it. Trump has no such understanding. His election in 2016 was little more than an obscene gesture by an angry public using the candidate as its instrument. While the populace seems to be losing patience with such symbolism — at least to judge from Trump’s lousy approval ratings — the man himself shows little inclination to transcend the role that got him elected. How could the nation possibly return him to Washington for a second term?

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is the author of Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Swat Team,” appeared in the November 2016 issue.

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