There is very little chance that Trump will be reelected by American voters given his behavior so far and his long-run track record of consistently dismal polling numbers. The big question now is how the Trump presidency ends and who will he bring down with him. Here are the six most likely possibilities. Two remote possibilities that I left of the list are fair re-election or the end of American democracy which both seem unlikely. Here is a list of more likely endings:
- An electoral defeat in 2020. This is nearly inevitable if Trump isn’t impeached before he can run for re-election and bring down the Republican Party with him. Trump already dragged Republicans down to defeat in the 2018 midterms and polls have consistently indicated that Trump himself would have suffered a defeat if he had been up for election on any day since the day he took office. When Trump loses, he will probably cause a political crisis because he won’t accept defeat and will have to be removed from office somehow because he believes that all sorts of conspiracies are undermining what he believes is his huge, widespread popularity. And his low odds of winning could become worse through the following…
- Proof of additional crimes that Republicans feel deserve impeachment. This is what sunk Nixon. Democrats and Independents already feel like Trump is impeachable due to obstruction of justice, campaign finance crimes, hiring indicted criminals who committed their crimes on behalf of Trump while working for him, etc. But nothing will actually happen to Trump until Republicans agree that the crimes are worthy of impeachment because the Senate is controlled by Republicans. Until the next election, the Senate solely controls the impeachment process to decide whether Trump or Pence will serve as president. Republicans have overlooked Trump’s crimes and misdemeanors so far, but Republican opinion also supported Nixon until it suddenly fell apart over a mere span of months, so politics could change quickly.
- An economic recession. This also contributed to Nixon’s downfall.
- Bad crisis management. Trump could create a crisis that spirals out of control (like more government shutdowns or a war) or he could be forced to manage a crisis caused by external events. Bush’s mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina and his self-inflicted mismanagement of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars contributed to the dramatic erosion of his popularity among everyone including Republicans. In 2016, Bush’s mismanagement was still so toxic that Trump was still slamming opponents (like Hillary Clinton) for initially supporting Bush’s disastrous foreign policies–a mistake Hillary made over a decade earlier!
- A deterioration of the president’s behavior. A majority of Americans have always considered Trump unfit to be president including a substantial fraction of Republicans as mentioned below. Of course, a lot of Americans always thinks our political leaders are unfit for office nowadays, but it could get worse.
- A health crisis. An average male 72-year-old like Trump has about a 5% chance of dying in the next two years plus an even greater chance of having a major health crisis that would prevent him from carrying out his duties. We know very few specifics about Trump’s true health status because his medical reports have been little more than political theater.
To prevent an electoral defeat in 2020, Republican senators would have to recognize that Trump’s crimes, misdemeanors, mismanagement, and conflicts of interest are worthy of impeachment and that everyone would be better off with a better Republican in the Oval Office: Mike Pence.
This doesn’t seem at all likely so far given that Republicans have become more approving of Trump’s behavior over time. Trump had had the highest negatives of any candidate among Republicans in February 2016 and nearly a third of Republicans still considered Trump to be unfit for President in June 2016. That number dropped to 23 percent of Republicans three months later, just before they elected him and one year later in 2017, only 16 percent of Republicans considered him unfit to be President. But self-identified Republicans are only about a quarter of the electorate (vs. about 1/3 Democrats and about 40% who identify as Independents), so Trump cannot win elections unless he figures out how to appeal to Independents and/or a few Democrats and he has been losing appeal with those groups.
Instead, by reshaping the Republican Party in his own image, Trump could take the party down with him when he is defeated. The end of a major political party hasn’t happened very often in American history, but Trump is exactly the kind of disaster that can cause a political party to die and be replaced by a new party that hasn’t had its brand reputation trashed. That is why rational Republicans should be looking for an exit strategy from the Trump era. The best chance for the party is for the Republican-controlled Senate to remove Trump from office in favor of the much less dangerous President Pence. That would also be safer, more unifying, and all Americans would benefit from more competent leadership.
Jonathan Rauch and Peter Wehner wrote a prescient analysis of the situation:
Mr. Trump’s Gallup approval rating among Republicans is almost 90 percent and has never dipped significantly below 80 percent… Mr. Trump’s hard-core base is large enough to dominate the Republican Party, at least for now, but it is not large enough to dominate the country. In the long run, a third or so of the country cannot effectively govern the other two-thirds with an unpopular agenda…
by consolidating behind Mr. Trump, the Republican Party is isolating and alienating itself from the broader public. Indeed, the Trump paradox is that his support deepens among his most persistent admirers even as it erodes everywhere else…
What, then, might flip Mr. Trump’s removal from impossible to inevitable? The most likely possibility is also the most obvious: the collapse of his support among center-right Republicans who so far have wavered but not completely turned against him.
… Mr. Trump’s removal by his party would be… healthy, democratically speaking: It would reinvigorate the idea that political parties exist not just as vehicles for politicians but as protectors of vital democratic norms.
The most troubling — and from our point of view the most disappointing — development of the Trump era is not the president’s own… behavior; it is the institutional corruption, weakness and self-betrayal of the Republican Party. The party has abandoned its core commitments to constitutional norms, to conservative principles and even to basic decency. It has allowed itself to be hijacked by a reality television star… And it has embraced presidential conduct that, if engaged in by a Democrat, it would have been denounced as corrupt, incompetent and even treasonous.
We disagree with those who think that Mr. Trump’s removal by his own party would weaken democratic accountability; if anything, the opposite is true. The United States has only two major political parties, and it needs both to be healthy, rational and small-d democratic. They are our system’s most durable and accountable political institutions and they comprise its first and most important line of defense against political demagogues and conscience-free charlatans. By reasserting its institutional prerogatives — by setting limits to the depredations and recklessness it will accept — the Republican Party would be acting to deter hijackers in the future. In doing so, it would defend our democracy, not weaken it.
It is looking nearly impossible for Trump to win another election. Trump got really lucky when he was elected in 2016. The odds were always against his win and they are stacking up even higher against him for 2020. How was he lucky in 2016?
- He ran against the least popular opposition candidate in American history (Hillary Clinton) and still managed to lose the popular vote by millions of ballots.
- He barely eked out an electoral college win because of ‘spoiler candidates’ in Utah, Nebraska’s 2nd district, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. In all of those states, Trump lost the majority of the vote but won these states’ in the electoral college partly due to third party candidates.
- FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute PR announcements regarding his new investigation into Clinton’s emails caused her support among independent voters to suddenly dip in the last week before the election.
- Trump was the first major-party presidential candidate in history with zero service in public office who could truly run as a political outsider. Now he is the central insider of Washington as its supreme leader. He is in charge of the swamp. He won’t have the benefit of seeming like an outsider who could drain the swamp after being in charge of it. Next time he won’t be able to run purely on aspirational promises. He’ll have to defend his actual record like normal politicians and he has an unusually big problem with broken promises and unpopular policies. His main advantage is his amazing talent at lying for shameless self-promotion, so he will just claim victory on everything he can get away with and blame scapegoats for all his problems. Some of his fans will continue to blindly trust him, but many of his present fans are not cult followers and will eventually be reminded of all the reasons why they didn’t like him during the 2016 Republican primaries.
- Trump scandals were amazingly hushed before the election compared to Clinton’s scandals over her email server, her foundation, and even her role in Benghazi, but after exhaustive investigations, there was never even any criminal activity and the investigations were dropped after there was no longer a political motive to stop her from getting elected. Even though none of Clinton’s ‘scandals’ resulted in any criminal indictments, they dominated election media coverage. In hindsight, we know that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s suspicious ties to Russia. Unlike the FBI’s very public investigations of Clinton’s emails and her foundation, news of the FBI investigations into the Trump-world’s criminal activities didn’t leak until after the election. We now know of Trumps illegal hush money that kept his affairs with porn stars quiet. We now know Trump’s foundation was such a fraud it has been shut down. We know numerous Trump associates have been convicted for crimes they committed while working for Trump’s campaign. More scandals or indictments have been revealed regularly over the past two years even with Republicans in charge of all branches of Federal government (House, Senate, Executive, & Supreme Court).
- Now that the Democrats have taken over the House, they will begin the kind of more aggressive investigations that opposition parties normally impose on presidents. For example, Trump has managed to keep his taxes and financial entanglements almost completely secret so far, but the House Democrats will have subpoena power to reveal the kind of financial information that all other presidents (and presidential candidates) have voluntarily revealed since Nixon (and even Nixon finally revealed his taxes shortly before he resigned). Other than the president, all other high-level government officials are required to reveal their financial conflicts of interest. Normally all presidential candidates voluntarily reveal their finances to prove that they have no hidden conflicts of interest, but Trump has doggedly resisted pressures to follow this tradition. The House will now have the power to examine why he has been so much more reluctant than everyone else.
Polls randomly rise and fall and on election day, Trump was lucky that his popularity was briefly higher than it had been during most of the previous year.
On this graph, Clinton was significantly more popular than Trump for 99% of the time. There were only seven brief times when Trump’s polls came close to Clinton’s and the election happened to be held during the last blip. You cannot count on getting lucky every election and Trump’s popularity has never risen back to as high as it was when he took office. Most incumbents politicians move to the political center and see their popularity rise, but Trump moved more extreme and has dug himself into a partisan hole. His popularity was near one of his all-time peaks when he was elected. His job approval peaked on his first day in office and has been worse ever since.
There have been numerous opportunities for Trump to moderate and try to appeal to independents, but he has careened from one embarrassment to another. He has had the great fortune that the momentum of the American economy has not faltered and the only disasters that have hit have have not hit places where Trump could lose many voters. The big hurricane that hit Puerto Rico didn’t cost many votes because it is about the only place on earth where American citizens cannot vote and the big wildfires have hit sparsely-populated areas and often in Democratic areas like California.
Trump was lucky to have begun his political following with racist birther appeals at a time when the white racial identity had been evoked by the presence of America’s first non-white president. This temporarily boosted the appeal of the alt-right and nativists who have been thrilled with Trump’s thinly veiled racist rhetoric and policies such as his Muslim ban and family separation to punish undocumented immigrants from Latin America. This is NOT to say that most Trump voters are white racists, but they have been able to tolerate their President repeatedly making statements that most Americans, including Republican leaders like Paul Ryan, considers ‘textbook racism.’
But that kind of racist appeal has been on decline for decades. It was only temporarily activated in a minority of Americans by our first non-white president. What’s more, American demography is inexorably becoming more racially mixed every year even without immigration due to lower birth rates among white Americans and demography is destiny.
A similar dynamic played out in California which had been a reliably Republican state until the California Republicans abandoned the pro-immigrant stance of Ronald Reagan (California’s most popular Republican) and refocused on nativism in the early 1990s. That strategy worked temporarily to boost a certain segment of white turnout, but it so tarnished the Republican Party in the state that California soon became one of the most solidly blue states in the nation. Trump could be doing something similar to the Republican Party for the nation as a whole.
Trump ran as a populist who promised to soak rich people like himself to pay for universal health insurance that would be better than Obamacare. But he has governed like an elitist who cut taxes on rich people (especially those with his own circumstances) and has been trying to take away health insurance from Americans with only limited success so far. Most of his signature political ideas are unpopular regarding climate change, immigration, international trade, LGBTQ rights, warmer ties with Russia (vs. our traditional NATO allies), solar power, government shutdowns, taxes, etc. And his positions on these issues have gotten less popular since he was elected, not more.
Trump is not popular with the growth demographics and even a 1% demographic shift over four years would result in an insurmountable barrier to Trump’s re-election.
Trump has been exceptionally lucky so far to be elected when the unemployment rate is about as low as it has ever been. And we will soon have achieved the longest economic expansion in US history. As the FRED data below shows, GDP has been growing continuously for nearly ten years now and unemployment has been shrinking.
Most Americans give the President credit for the current state of the economy which is ALMOST completely irrational. There hasn’t been any difference in economic performance in the last two years compared with the six years before that under President Obama and neither president should get much credit nor blame. Economic performance is the ONLY thing that Trump polls well on, but that is mostly a matter of lucky timing. There is significant chance, through no fault of Trump’s, that the economy will turn to recession before the next election and as Trump has reaped undue reward for the great economy we have today, he will also suffer undue blame for the next slowdown.
It theory it would be possible for Trump to become more presidential, manage more effectively, and change his rhetoric and policies to broaden his appeal, but there is zero evidence that he has been moving in that direction during his first two years, and if he couldn’t do it to avoid hurting his party in the midterm elections, there is vanishing chance he’ll suddenly be able to re-invent himself in the next two years. He is looking more and more like a dinosaur that can’t change with the climate.
In the history of American business, there are lots of stories of bailouts by government or, as in Trump’s case, money from daddy or by defrauding gullible suckers. The history of American politics is different. There is nobody who can give you a bailout when a presidency turns out to be bankrupt.
The closest thing to a bailout in presidential politics is an attack by a foreign power. For example, 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush’s presidency which boosted his approval from being worse than most presidents in history to the highest approval rating of any president!
That 9/11 boost in political capital allowed Bush to do something that had long been on his neo-con bucket list. He wanted to invade Iraq, the one Muslim nation that had been the most opposed to Al Queda and one of the few with zero involvement in 9/11. By selling the Iraq war as a way to make America safe from terrorism, the beginning of the Iraq invasion was the second best thing that happened to Bush’s political popularity and he got a second boost in political power. The loud drum beat of war during the midterm elections undoubtedly boosted Republican fortunes, but it ultimately turned into a political disaster a few years later.
Donald Trump has long recognized the power of a well-timed war to win elections. He made multiple predictions that Obama would start a war saying:
It turned out that Obama’s poll numbers never got so bad that Trump’s theory was tested. Obama never needed a war to get re-elected, but Trump’s polls have consistently been much worse than Obama’s. An invasion might work to boost Trump’s popularity, but it is a risky proposition so soon after the Iraq war with it’s the ugly memories and it would be particularly risky for Trump who most loudly argued against American foreign wars during his 2016 campaign.
Although another invasion might boost Trump long enough to win an election, it is unlikely to help Trump’s long-run fortunes nor the popularity of the Republican Party any more than the Iraq war did.
It is hard to see how the Trump era can end well for the Republican Party unless Republican senators decide it is time to cut their losses and put a safer, more responsible, less unpopular, more competent Republican–Pence–in the oval office. The one sure thing is that as long as Trump is in the White House we will have a lot more drama because he is an extraordinary game master in the reality TV show he has constructed around his life.