The New Abnormal

Donald Trump has been president for exactly six months.  By my calculations, that means he has 90 months to go before he’s done.

That’s right:  90 months.  Seven-and-a-half years.  Two presidential terms.

You heard it here first:  Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020, and he’s going to serve until January 20, 2025.  He will not be impeached.  He will not be removed.  He will not die.  And he will not resign.

That’s not a prediction.  That’s a goddamned guarantee.

I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s going to pull this off—Lord knows I didn’t foresee last year’s shenanigans three-and-a-half years in advance—but nor have I any doubt that he could, and almost surely will.  If recent U.S. history teaches us anything, it’s that if you can win a presidential election once, you can win a presidential election twice.  Four of our last five commanders-in-chief have done just that, and there is little reason to expect this trend to abate with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is going to be an eight-year national problem, and we might as well get used to it now.  Don’t expect him to disappear ahead of schedule, or to go gently into that good night.  He has spent the first 71 years of his life steadfastly refusing to yield his place in the national conversation, never giving anyone a moment’s peace.  Why would years 72 to 78 be any different?

They won’t be.  Trump is not going to change any part of his core identity before he dies, and perhaps the most essential among them is his primal, obsessive need for total victory—as he calls it, “winning.”  Knowing, as he does, that being a one-term president would be an abject humiliation and would brand him an electoral “loser” for all eternity—indeed, doubly so, considering his failure to secure the popular vote the first time around—he is surely prepared to do literally anything to prevent such an eventuality from happening, up to and including breaking every social and political norm that he hasn’t already violated.

Think he’s corrupt and unsavory now?  Just you wait, Henry Higgins.  Just you wait.

Of course, I could be getting carried away, allowing misguided cynicism to obscure certain realities that are staring us squarely in the face.  The obvious rejoinder to my dour political forecast—the one you will hear from every white-knuckled left-wing media source in America—is that the sheer weight of ridiculous scandal already engulfing the Trump administration will ultimately destroy it—if not now, then within a few months, and if not within a few months, then sometime between now and the end of the first term.  Trump forever being his own worst enemy—devoid of scruples, subtlety and any sense of civic responsibility—he will sooner or later cross a red line—legally and/or morally—that the American public will view as the proverbial last straw and will then demand Congress dispose of him once and for all, which its exasperated members will presumably be all-to-happy to do.

Such has become the reigning fantasy of the Trump era:  The assumption that after two-plus years of getting away with slaughtering one sacred cow after another, Trump will eventually say or do something so profoundly beyond the pale that the entire country will drop everything and say, “That does it.  This man can no longer be the president.”  Evidently, nothing he has done so far has risen to that level—including that time he bragged about having committed sexual assault.

In any case, the crux of this hopeful narrative is the basic fact of Trump’s terminally low approval ratings since entering the White House—numbers that seem to remain in the toilet irrespective of how he behaves on any given day.  While much was made of a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged the president’s support at a historically awful 36 percent, the truth is that his numbers have barely moved since the moment he took the oath of office.  (According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has ranged between 36 and 42 percent every day since April 29, and has never once risen above 46.)

How, you ask, could someone who has yet to garner the support of 50 percent of the public—and likely never will—possibly win the next presidential election under any circumstances?  It’s a sensible enough question—or it would be, except for the 16 U.S. presidents who have done exactly that.

That’s right:  More than one in three of America’s commanders-in-chief achieved ultimate power without winning a majority of the popular vote.  Of those 16 men, five (including Trump) lost the national popular vote outright, while the remaining 11 won a plurality of the popular vote but were denied an absolute majority thanks to multiple opponents who split the vote amongst themselves.  Three chief executives—Clinton, Wilson and Cleveland—managed to pull this off twice, so who is to say it will not happen again in 2020?

Having won by losing once already, Trump plainly understands that he doesn’t need broad support on anything to eke out a victory 42 months hence.  Gifted a lousy Democratic opponent and a halfway-viable third party nominee—both of which are entirely within the realm of plausibility—Trump could squeak back into the White House with little more than 40 or 41 percent.  As ever, the only number that truly matters is 270—a majority in the Electoral College—which Trump could hit merely by holding 26 of the 30 states he won last November.

And how will he accomplish that?  By doing what he does best:  Bluffing.

Regardless of his actual domestic record after four years, he will proclaim himself the most successful chief executive in history.  Regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation, he will declare himself not guilty on all charges.  Regardless of whatever happens in North Korea, the Middle East and God knows where else, he will boast of having defeated ISIS, staunched illegal immigration and Made America Great Again.

All such behavior will be perfectly predictable, stemming, as it does, from Trump’s nature as a delusional narcissist who is somehow also a world-class con artist.  As Sarah Ellison writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “[Trump] is a pathogen, doing what pathogens do, and as surprised as anyone to have found himself replicating in the nation’s bloodstream.”

The question, then, is how many marks Trump’s act will attract this time around, and whether enough of them will turn out to the polls on November 3, 2020.

It is my view that enough of them will, and that this miserable circus will go on for precisely 2,922 days longer than most people expected on November 7, 2016.  Despite the incompetence and despite the fraud, Trump will remain leader of the free world for eight full years.

Why?  Because, fundamentally, Americans are leery of abandoning a known quantity who wields supreme power.  We like stability and familiarity in our leaders, and while Trump does not exactly embody the former, he has long mastered the art of distracting America from one controversy by bungling into a new one, thereby resetting the 24-hour media game clock and nudging the goalposts of moral outrage ever-farther down the field.

For all the warnings on the left to never accept Trump and his methods as “the new normal,” it is human nature to adapt to a changing environment over time.  Like the famous frog who adjusts to a gradually-warming pot of water, the American public has learned to assimilate the president’s singularly bizarre and dangerous behavior as an organic feature of the current political landscape.  His unpredictability has itself become predictable, and millions of our fellow citizens take real, if perverse, comfort from not knowing what the hell he’s going to do next.

George Carlin once said, “When you’re born in this world, you are given a ticket to the freak show.  When you’re born in America, you are given a front row seat.”  It was in that same spirit that, in June 2015—as the campaign was just beginning—The Onion ran a story, faux-written by Trump himself, titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”

Well:  don’t we?

When the Unthinkable Happens

A few years back, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a terrific little book called Revolutionary Summer, which revisited the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and New York, and concluded that the entire fate of the Revolutionary War—and, therefore, the United States itself—was sealed in those few extraordinary months.

The essence of Ellis’s case was that, although Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages throughout the war—its troops were better-armed, better-trained, more experienced and, by far, more numerous—in the end, the Continental Army was fundamentally unbeatable.  As the war’s home team—its soldiers culled from the very land on which they were fighting—George Washington’s troops were an endlessly renewable resource with everything to gain and very little to lose.  As miserable as their experience was, they were never going to give up the fight, since, unlike the British, they had nowhere else to go.

“Whereas most people have said, ‘How in heaven’s name did a ragtag group of amateur soldiers defeat the greatest military power on the planet?’” said Ellis upon the release of his book, “The real issue is:  Did the British ever really have a chance?  I don’t think they did.”

It’s a compelling piece of historical revisionism, and a companion to Ellis’s assertion in his most celebrated book, Founding Brothers, that “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.”

So improbable at the time, so inevitable in retrospect.  Those words have been floating around my head a lot over the last 48 hours, as I continue to grapple with the fact that a racist, authoritarian windbag has been elected the 45th president of the United States, despite assurances by just about every political pundit on Earth that such a thing could never, ever occur on American soil.

Well, it did occur.  Practically no one expected it, but it happened, anyway.  And as half the country reaches for the cyanide tablets, stuck somewhere between denial and depression on the Kübler-Ross scale, we have to wonder how history is going to handle the events of 2016 many years from now.

Will the ascendancy of Donald Trump be seen as an inexplicable aberration in an otherwise logical series of events?  A perfect storm of madness caused by a handful of Mississippi Klansmen and an Electoral College snafu?  An insane historical theft of America’s first woman president by a boor who never really wanted the job in the first place?

Or—to Ellis’s point—will we instead come to view Trump’s victory as completely foreseeable?  As a natural progression of American populism that began with extreme anger toward George W. Bush and gradually transformed into extreme anger toward Barack Obama?  In other words, after spending the balance of 2016 more or less assuming Hillary Clinton had this thing in the bag, will we ultimately conclude that a Trump win was the only possible way this election could’ve ended?

History has a way of surprising us in big ways, and it’s the job of both historians and the general public to continually re-interpret everything that ever happened in the past to understand what the hell is happening in the present.

After 9/11, for instance, many people decided that the late 1990s weren’t quite as peaceful as they seemed at the time, as bands of jihadists worked secretly on a plan to totally upend the world order.  More than eight decades earlier, the entire nature of Europe was reassessed after a 19-year-old Serb murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, somehow triggering a world war that claimed 16 million lives and ended four empires.  I dare say that few people saw that coming prior to 1914.

While it is yet to be seen whether the rise of Donald Trump will stand as an equally cataclysmic event in human affairs—and, if so, what sort of cataclysm it will be—we are already tasked with reverse-engineering the narrative of 2016 so it matches up with what it produced in the end.  Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday—as we thought she was destined to do—the story of this election would’ve been the shattering of the glass ceiling, the vindication of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rejection of the brutalism that Trump and his “basket of deplorables” so proudly and execrably represent.

Instead, we got the exact opposite in every respect, and it will take quite a while for us to collectively agree on just what that means in the long arc of history.  We could conclude—as many analysts have—that Trump’s win signifies that his anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist bellowing resonated with a majority of Americans, but how do we square that with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually received more votes nationwide?  While the Electoral College allowed Trump to become the next president, how can we say that Trump’s message won the day when his name was marked on only the second-highest number of ballots?

In time, we may know for sure.  For now, we can only guess.

The journalist I.F. Stone famously said that history is more of a tragedy than a morality tale.  At the moment, perhaps an even more fitting sentiment comes from James Joyce, who called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”  Either way, the essential lesson is that events don’t always unfold as you think they should—or, indeed, as you think they must—and that sometimes the unthinkable is staring us right in the face, if only we had the nerve to see it.

Like America itself, the notion of Donald Trump as president was a crazy, reckless, impossible idea right up until the moment that it became a living, groping reality.  We all assured each other the American people had a certain moral firewall that would prevent certain things from ever happening, yet now we have all become President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, bitterly informing General Turgidson, “I am becoming less and less interested in your estimates of what is possible and impossible.”

That is the correct attitude to strike about the nature of human events, and history has borne it out over and over again.  Now that an American Mussolini is going to be the most powerful person on planet Earth, we no longer have the luxury to assume the world will ever again make any sense.