Life after President Trump
Imagine, for a moment, a future in which Donald Trump is no longer president. Whether he’s been voted out, kicked out, or termed out, the forty-fifth president has returned to Trump Tower, his legal prospects as uncertain as the country’s political and moral future. What happens next?
America is not prepared for life after Trump.
These days, considering a post-Trump world might seem premature and indulgent. Yet Trump’s eventual departure, whether six months or six years from now, is inevitable. Thinking only of his all-consuming presidency, and not what follows it, risks falling into the same short-term mindset — the “next election will solve our problems as long as we win” mentality — that helped make Trump’s fluke election possible.
Trump is just a symptom of a more foundational set of issues too easily postponed or papered over by the immediate threats and distractions of his White House and the unity of a common opponent. These persistent challenges run from rampant voter suppression and the undemocratic effects of gerrymandering and the electoral college, to a conflict-driven media environment, online tools vulnerable to fearmongering and foreign influence, and powerful cultural forces of racism, misogyny, and tribalism.
While Trumpism has fed and exacerbated these issues, the end of the Trump presidency is a means of fighting them, not the end in itself. Robert Mueller’s investigation won’t fix the structural flaws at the heart of Trump’s rise. The end of this presidency, however it comes about, won’t prevent a craftier and less impulsive demagogue from taking power in the future. While it’s of monumental importance, not even the election of a Democratic House majority in November will single-handedly preserve American democracy.
An effective, long-term treatment for our broken politics requires sustained bipartisan efforts to rebuild trust in institutions, write unwritten norms into law, inspire long-term political engagement, and begin to reconcile America with its founding sins. How do we get from Trump to there?
One way to think through the question of the United States after Trump is to consider how an exhausted and divided nation would react to his impeachment or resignation under a cloud of criminal accusations.
In this not-unlikely scenario, Trump’s successor would be under enormous pressure to leave his legal fate in the hands of the justice system. Despite the extent of wrongdoing already in the public eye, there’s a strong case to be made that the next president should resist that impulse in favor of, in the words of former President Gerald Ford’s September 1974 proclamation, a “full, free, and absolute pardon.”
There’s a key distinction here between the presidency, the president himself, and the hangers-on around him. A pardon wouldn’t spare Trump’s cronies or enablers from prosecution, either by the courts or by public opinion. The Paul Manaforts and Michael Flynns and Jared Kushners of the world are of little significance to America’s constitutional order, and the gears of justice should continue to turn for them.
More importantly, a legal reprieve for a former president is not the same thing as Donald Trump escaping justice. As the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 in Burdick v. United States, a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt,” and accepting it is akin to a confession (an argument in which Ford found solace). Any legal pardon would be conditional on the completion of congressional and special counsel investigations that provide an honest accounting of the legal and ethical failings of the Trump era.
A pardon, whether a literal one signed by his successor or a tacit agreement by the American people to move forward, wouldn’t erase the damage this administration has done, but it would make it easier to learn from it by etching into public record the corruption at its core. It would send a signal — perhaps a futile one, but a signal nonetheless — that opposition to Trump’s presidency was in good faith and not for partisan ends. It might even help to neutralize the perpetual sense of victimization that seems to drive some of the president’s most devout supporters.
Most importantly, it would shift the focus from the individual in the White House to the structural issues that helped tip the electoral college to the candidate patently unqualified for the job.
This argument isn’t for or against impeachment, or even for or against a pardon. At this point, both topics are proxies for the larger and longer-term challenges of life after Trump. How will we re-engage in a constructive way with weary allies and wary adversaries if we’re consumed with the years-long saga of Trump on trial? What about protecting future elections from foreign interference? Expanding access to the ballot box? Getting money out of politics? Institutionalizing frayed norms into law?
No matter how Trump leaves office, the task of rebuilding will be complicated by a powerful, righteous, and legitimate desire for justice. But thinking beyond his departure reminds us that what happens after Trump is just as important as getting him out of office in the first place. It encourages us to focus more on healing a divided nation and rebuilding damaged institutions, and less on seeking vengeance against someone who accidentally stumbled into the Oval Office. And for someone consumed by resentment and desperate for admiration and attention, the most effective punishment is surely to ignore him.
In announcing his decision to pardon his predecessor, Ford spoke to the nation of the damage Nixon and those around him had done. “Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” Ford said. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write ‘The End’ to it.”
Donald Trump, of course, is incapable of seeing the distinction between an individual president and the institution of the presidency. But the rest of the country doesn’t face that limitation. The sooner we write “The End” to Trump’s presidency, the sooner we can learn its lessons and begin a longer, and more meaningful, chapter in the American story.