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Democrats’ Dangerous Gamble

It’s been buried under heaps of new COVID-19 infections and corruption scandals, but as recently as a month ago, one of President Trump’s biggest political problems stemmed from his failure in repeated interviews to list his second-term objectives.

Trump plainly exhausted his standard agenda two and half years ago, after he signed a multitrillion dollar tax cut for wealthy people and corporations, and if his remaining governing ambitions extended beyond pacifying the Republican elite by nominating right-wing judges and eviscerating industrial regulation, they ran aground when Democrats won a House majority in 2018.

But we shouldn’t mistake the fact that Trump is unable or unwilling to explain what he’d do with four more years in office for lack of ambition or muddled thinking. To the contrary, the pileup of failure and scandal since he whiffed those questions tells a simple and frightening story about how Trump will deploy American power if he wins re-election. And that in turn raises questions about the posture Democrats have adopted toward him all along.

Here’s some of of things Trump has done since rambling incoherently about his plans for 2021:

  • dispatched a violent force of secret federal police to Portland, OR, trampling the constitutional rights of citizens, and creating civil unrest where there was none, to bolster his false campaign propaganda about lawlessness in the streets of U.S. cities under Democratic control;
  • imprisoned his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in solitary confinement, because Cohen revealed that he’d spend his time in home confinement completing a book that’s critical of Trump;
  • abused his official powers, and the legal system, in failed efforts to prevent publication of multiple other books about his criminality and unfitness for office;
  • purchased the silence of Roger Stone, a key figure in the 2016 Russian interference operation, by commuting his prison sentence to zero days;
  • encouraged his Senate allies to amplify disinformation about Joe Biden, sourced to Russian-allied Ukrainians, under the guise of “oversight”;
  • ended the military career of a decorated Army officer who testified to the House’s impeachment inquiry;

This is just a partial list of what’s happened out in the open, and it doesn’t take deep powers of perception to extrapolate it all into a second term “agenda,” even if that agenda bears little resemblance to what many reporters think of as the typical policy goals of the Republican Party. There’s no doubt that over the course of another Trump term, police at both federal and local levels will continue their evolution into a paramilitary force for Trump and ultimately the GOP as an institution. This latter point is key, because it cuts against any presumption that Trump will lose interest in invading and harassing blue cities once he’s term limited. Simultaneously, we should expect him to abuse his clemency and law-enforcement powers to protect friends and punish enemies, but on a mass scale. Trump has already almost certainly discouraged whistleblowers from coming forward—to Congress, reporters, and publishers—and in a second term we should expect not just further retribution against individuals who speak out against him, but also against major media organizations, NGOs, and other civil society institutions that don’t willingly spew pro-Trump propaganda.

And those are just his most naked ambitions.

The summer’s most devastating revelations have come from administration officials, current and former, who have decided to disclose the scandalous conduct they witnessed on the job before the election—some of whom would have remained silent were Trump not struggling mightily in the polls. On Tuesday we learned that Trump enlisted his ambassador to the United Kingdom to pressure the British government to allow the Trump Organization to host the annual British Open golf tournament, then fired a career diplomat who encouraged the ambassador not to do as he was told.

A corrupt order as petty, gross, and narcissistic as this comes as no surprise from the same president who tried to steer G-7 countries to one of his Florida golf resorts, and who housed U.S. troops unnecessarily at a different Trump golf resort in Scotland. But as a direct solicitation of a bribe—an unconstitutional foreign emolument—from a critical ally, it is different and worse as a matter of kind.

Trump has made a habit of abusing his government powers in pursuit of both hard and in-kind cash, but he has endeavored to conceal those efforts when they’ve been illegal. We only recently learned form his former national security adviser that he implored the Chinese government to manipulate the soybean market to help him get re-elected, and that his personal interests have driven his policy toward Turkey and the Middle East. In a second term, the fusion of his private interests and U.S. government powers would be complete.

Through it all Democrats in Congress have consistently avoided engaging with the lawlessness, as if it somehow stands apart from their real governing obligations. The House Judiciary Committee held one hearing about the Trump administration’s politicization of the Justice Department, but Attorney General Bill Barr has still yet to testify, and months after he attempted to seize control of multiple criminal cases of interest to Trump, there’s little indication he ever will. With a small army of secret federal police set to fan across the country, for the explicit purpose of harassing citizens and scapegoating local Democratic officials, House appropriators have advanced legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security for a full year. Democrats could summon our ambassador to the U.K., or the subordinate he fired, to testify about Trump’s subversion of American alliances for personal profit, but that would cut hard against their general practice, outside the confines of the Ukraine plot against Joe Biden, of issuing press releases to condemn the corruption and then moving on.

Democratic leaders adopted this posture of conflict avoidance shortly after the midterms to protect members who represent districts Trump won from the perception that they’re too anti-Trump. They haven’t flinched from it as Trump has grown more unpopular and his abuses more severe, perhaps in part as a matter of risk aversion—why veer from a light-touch strategy that has Trump losing the election in a landslide? We can more generously imagine that their unwillingness to react has served the purpose of channeling deep national disquiet over Trump’s abuses of power toward the voting booth—after all, if the House won’t use its powers to expose and hinder Trump’s corruption schemes, the only hope for the country is at the polls.

Their strategy may work—I’d go so far as to say it probably will work. But from Trump’s perspective, the way to avoid the inevitable is to keep pushing and pushing and pushing against open doors until he’s subverted the election itself. This, too, may fail, and if it does, the basic obligations of government will practically require the Biden administration to throw open the books and do the oversight that wasn’t done in 2019 and 2020; to assure allies and adversaries alike that Trump didn’t permanently turn the United States into a mafia state. But if Trump’s efforts succeed, we will be in the dark and at Trump’s mercy, left to wonder what we might have learned and been spared from if Democrats had taken a different approach, and if it might have staved off catastrophe. The plan Democrats have adopted is to put every egg that matters in a single basket and hope the most volatile and crooked president in American history doesn’t knock it over.