One thing we have learned from watching Trump these last four years is that he never reaches bottom. There is always something worse he can do.
Jill: Don’t throw away those sleep aids and stomach acid tablets quite yet. America has elected a new president, but what now? The worst could be yet to come from Donald Trump, the president who, alas, we still have for more than two months.
I used to fret about last-minute flurries of destruction, that we’d wake up one day to find he had gutted the federal workforce or some crucial bipartisan environmental regulation. Now I fear for the basics of democracy and actual physical danger to Americans.
On the other hand, maybe Trump will recede into a twilight presidency — still famous and possibly rich (who knows), still dominating cable and social media, but not exactly president. Especially if he decided to do this from Florida, or maybe Scotland, that would be nice. Or Greenland. There’s never a bad time to buy your own country.
‘Lock him up’ or gracious concession?
The one thing we can’t expect is what we have expected of all previous presidents: Trump conscientiously does his job and helps President-elect Joe Biden transition into office. He never has done the first (that would require discipline and selflessness), and it’s much easier to imagine him leading chants of “lock him up” than graciously handing over the reins of power.
David: We’re in an unsettling moment. A mentally ill president has just suffered an incredible blow to his ego, and we have no idea how he will react beyond continuing to spew falsehoods that undermine faith in our democracy among those many millions who still follow the man. Will there be mass firings of political appointees? Unhinged executive orders? Something worse?
And that’s not the only uncertainty. For the next 10 weeks or so, Trump is going to have to share the stage with Biden as the president-elect inches toward assuming the presidency. Will Trump see the attention shifting to Biden and act to bring the spotlight back onto himself? How far could he go in doing that? How far will his Cabinet let him go before invoking the 25th Amendment?
Trump never reaches bottom
One thing I have learned from watching Trump these last four years is that he never reaches bottom. There is always something worse he can do.
As for the formal transition, I doubt Trump will help it along at all. But Biden is the best positioned president-elect to deal with that lack of support of any new president since George H.W. Bush in 1989. Biden can lean on former President Barack Obama and his team as well as his own executive branch experience. I doubt there are any adults left on Trump’s staff to ensure that Biden gets all the assistance he needs.
Jill: Some of the remaining adults may be gone soon. Multiple reports suggest Defense Secretary Mark Esper is considering resigning ahead of getting fired by Trump. FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel also have surfaced in many reports on Trump’s post-election “execution list,” as Axios calls it.
That would be a sweep of national security leaders at a moment of U.S. vulnerability: the transition from one president to another. In more bad timing, Trump is also speculating about firing Dr. Anthony Fauci (if he can) just as cold weather arrives and coronavirus cases spike.
Attorney General William Barr is another reason to be on edge. What will he be up to in the next few weeks? Will he lead the taxpayer-funded Department of Justice into court to try to keep Trump in the presidency? Will he make vote fraud claims that are about as well documented as Trump tweets, or press releases masquerading as “executive orders”? It sounds crazy, but no crazier than Barr claiming DOJ should defend Trump on a rape allegation (which he denies) from long before he became president.
And we can’t discount the prospect of Trump attempting to pardon himself to avoid future legal troubles. Here’s the corollary to your point that there is no bottom, he can always hit new lows: He doesn’t ask permission or forgiveness. He just does whatever the hell he wants. And he has never yet paid a price for it.
David: Never paid a price? He lost a presidential election. Can you imagine if he were just a little bit less dishonest, corrupt and unhinged? He might have won this thing. The key states he lost (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and headed that way in Georgia) appear to be only by a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of votes each.
And that’s what we’re going to be sorting out well into the Biden presidency. What is it about Trump that landed him a record number of votes for a Republican? What gave him so many million Hispanic votes and so many Black votes? Was it the uniformly conservative policy? The strong economy until the pandemic hit? Or was it the populist rhetoric that focused on abusing the media and the experts across the board? How can Republicans build on Trump — by adopting his rhetorical style or standing up for Republican values on policy and the culture war more stridently?
Election 2020 exit polls: Political pundits utterly failed to predict shy Donald Trump voters
I don’t know the answer to that question, but judging from my closest family members who are Trump supporters, the core of his appeal is a sense of shared animosity toward those most powerful in business and culture. The media, tech firms, experts, people with graduate degrees. Republicans are going to be trying to bottle Trump’s successes without his downsides for years.
But now we’re entering the Biden era. How will he adapt to split control of the Senate (at best) and narrow control of the House while trying to rebuild our divided country from four years of heedless destruction? That’s the bigger question, and now there is no obvious answer.
David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, is the deputy editor of USA TODAY’s Editorial Page. Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence
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