A short presidency, perhaps

By Hugh Gusterson | November 11, 2016

I do not expect Donald Trump to complete his four-year term of office. 

If he is not indicted for crimes (sexual assault? fraud?) from his murky past, if he is not felled by the heart attack typical for men of his age, work hours, and dietary habits, I expect President Trump to be deposed in a Republican house coup. He will then have been a vehicle for the election of President Pence.

The contemporary Republican Party is a creaky alliance between Pecksniffian moralists and tax-cutting, small-government free traders with obligations to their corporate sponsors. Now that they have the power to legislate, and without the hated Obama to unify them, we can expect Republicans to quarrel with one another and with a president who, lacking any real history as a Republican, could be seen as having executed a hostile takeover of their party. The corporatist wing of the Republican Party will not be happy if President Trump follows through on his campaign promises of a government-sponsored job program and tariffs on products made in China and Mexico in order to repatriate jobs to the American rust belt. Their corporate sponsors–the very people who made a huge profit by offshoring production–will call in their debts and insist the President’s program be derailed. This will be especially true if President Trump ignites an international trade war that throws the global economy into recession.

Many Republican corporate backers will also be upset if President Trump torpedoes NATO. A main purpose of the alliance, after all, is to serve as a lucrative market for American weapons manufacturers. 

And small-government Republicans, the ones who want to strangle government in the bathtub, will grow wide-eyed once they see how much it costs to deport millions of immigrants– about $500 billion in direct costs alone, according to some estimates–and how hard it is then to find good help.

Meanwhile, if Trump really does put such tarnished second-raters as Newt Gingrich, Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani in charge of entire government departments, then we will return to the “heck-of-a-job, Brownie” days of the George W. Bush administration, whose incompetent management of Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and the economy threatened Republican incumbents across the land. 

Will Republican leaders look on with equanimity as their standard bearer’s poll numbers plummet in the wake of scandal after scandal, as their president stumps for programs that violate their bedrock ideological beliefs, and maybe the Constitution as well, and as their biggest donors bellow for relief? I believe not. President Trump will be quietly advised that he should either step down for health reasons or face more unpleasant means of removal. And surely the human toxic waste package that is Donald Trump will have left adequate exhaust in his wake—something far worse than oral sex in the Oval Office—to provide grounds for impeachment.

But, of course, President Trump could do immense damage in the interim, not least to our precarious system of international security, the intricacies of which he seems to understand in only the most rudimentary terms. In the nuclear arena, it is not unreasonable to fear:

  • The revocation of the Iran nuclear deal.
  • A nonchalant attitude to nuclear proliferation that allows the “nuclear club” to grow.
  • Alienated allies who substitute their own nuclear weapons for US security guarantees.
  • Resumption of nuclear testing.
  • As a worst case, an international crisis that Trump turns into a manly contest over missile size, backing himself into a corner where he ends up using a nuclear weapon. After all, we are talking about the man who asked, “if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”

Beyond the nuclear arena, we can fear the substitution of bullying for diplomacy, the resumption of extraordinary rendition and torture, indiscriminate drone strikes, unsavory alliances with foreign despots, who-knows-what secret CIA initiatives that violate international law, the use of the military to round up deportees, and more American boots on the ground in the Middle East, maybe in countries we have yet to invade. 

Our task, then, is to find strategies for containment of Trump that will safeguard international peace and security until the man is gone. What would containment look like in a context where the president’s (nominal) party controls the White House and both houses of Congress? 

It would require the media to report aggressively and to give voice to administration critics in a way it did not do after 9/11 when they gave the Bush Administration a free pass as it cooked the case for invading Iraq. No more pieces filled with unchallenged pablum from anonymous government sources. It would require the legal establishment—law school deans as well as judges—to revitalize the Constitution by standing up for the rights it enshrines in a way they did not do when the Patriot Act was passed. It would require the foreign policy establishment to articulate clear critiques of the new president’s policies loudly in opinion pieces, on talk shows, in think tanks, in the specialized journals and in universities. It would require social media companies such as Google and Facebook to disclose government orders to collect data on the American people. It would require courageous whistleblowers to make sure we know what is being done, or planned, in our name. It would require principled members of Congress from both parties to make sure the president does not get a free pass. And it would probably require mass protests on the streets. 

Our final bulwark might be the military itself. A hint about this was dropped in the small hours of the morning on November 9 by NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, when the networks were filling time as they awaited the results from Michigan and Pennsylvania. Engel, who has a degree in international relations from Stanford University, startled the NBC anchors with an extraordinary on-air broadside against Trump, informing viewers that he had been talking to “generals [who] have been reading the Constitution to see what they are obligated to do” if their president gives them orders they find illegal or immoral. We can only hope they will see their duty as to the American people and common decency more than to the president.

Remember: President Nixon was brought down by a Republican attorney general, Elliott Richardson, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, in 1973, both of whom courageously refused to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Maybe it will ultimately be Republicans who will bring the Trump presidency to an early end.

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