What would a second presidential term for Donald Trump look like, anyway?
Let’s suppose he wins in November, and let’s assume the election winds up a lot like 2016. This time, he’s even farther behind in the polls before Election Day, but has a well-timed surge as Nov. 3 approaches. And while he falls well short in the popular vote, he once again squeezes by in the electoral college, by a smaller margin than his final 304-to-227 electoral-vote edge over Hillary Clinton in 2016. I’ll further assume that his authoritarian bluster remains little more than noise.
So he wins by a narrow margin, while presumably once again calling it a landslide. Democrats retain their House majority and gain in the Senate, but 50 or 51 Republican senators remain in the majority. What would a second term look like?
A second-term Trump would almost certainly be like the first-term Trump, except more so. Having felt vindicated — again! — he’d be more convinced than ever that he is correct about everything and that everyone else is wrong. So in that sense, he would be a lot less constrained.
What that means for governing the nation, however, isn’t obvious. After all, Trump isn’t even pretending to have a policy agenda as he runs for office this time. He makes lots of claims that things are going to be terrific as long as his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, isn’t elected, but hardly any about what he would do. Trump can’t seem to recite a campaign promise without claiming that he’s already achieved it.
It’s possible that a second-term Trump would be the Trump who violently suppressed racial justice protests at Lafayette Park and in other ways followed in the footsteps of the authoritarian world leaders he admires. At the very least, we should expect some ugliness targeted at those he considers his enemies.
I suspect, however, that what Trump would be most eager to do after winning re-election would be:
Brag a lot about his historic victory;
Play golf with his rich friends and celebrities and watch even more cable television news;
Tweet more insults and more opinions about more things;
Bark out orders and hold more signing ceremonies with even less concern about whether there’s any follow-up;
Be more aggressive and more overt about using the presidency to enrich himself;
Get back to holding rallies so his fans can adore him.
In other words, he’d be even less focused on doing the actual job than he was during his first term, and even less able to influence events when he tried. His administration would be even more a maze of personal fiefdoms, with those who stay in their jobs and know how to work the bureaucracy able to get more done without presidential interference. Coherent responses to urgent policy challenges would be less likely, which is saying something. A White House that can’t return a phone call to a governor when her state is on fire within two months of an election is going to be even less concerned about such things when the president no longer has to worry about voters at all.
Since all of that was a formula for unpopularity in his first term, he would probably be at least as unpopular in his second — especially given that he’d be even less likely to believe any polls. That would almost certainly lead to another midterm electoral debacle for Republican senators, representatives and governors. It could also lead to a second impeachment — and an impeachment with a Democratic majority in the Senate could be a long, brutal affair.
Remember, presidential weakness is dangerous. Under this scenario, Trump would be even weaker than he is now, and that can be a threat to democracy even without a president who seems to have such admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What’s a lot harder to imagine is that he’d behave more like a normal president in a second term. No, I can’t see that in the cards at all. Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg [Abridged]