It is slowly dawning on Republicans and the right-wing media echo chamber that President Donald Trump’s assault on democratic norms and the rule of law, his betrayal of his own populist campaign themes (with tax cuts for the rich and Medicaid spending cuts, for example), his misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric, his mean-spirited vendetta against hardworking immigrants and his dangerous, erratic behavior on the world stage have ignited a backlash that could deliver in 2018 House and Senate majorities to Democrats, who barely had a political pulse a year ago.
Trump’s inability to distinguish his grandiose fantasies from reality will also give the midterms an urgency rarely seen in a non-presidential election.
Call them the “Stop the Madness!” elections. Voters will be asked whether they want to reverse a huge tax giveaway to the rich (presuming that the GOP rams through its tax bill by then) and stop rubber-stamping corrupt, extreme and incompetent executive branch and judicial appointments. Democrats will run on populist measures (e.g. an infrastructure bill) as well as the promise to end the scapegoating of immigrants and exercise real oversight over an executive branch rife with self-dealing, self-enrichment and nepotism. In other words, Democrats will ask voters: Do they want to bring the Trumpian nightmare to an end?
It’s now entirely conceivable that Democrats could pick up 24 House seats and pick up a net two to three Senate seats (with possible pickup wins in Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona). Election of a Congress of the opposite party would, for most presidents, be daunting. For Trump, it would be politically fatal.
Let’s put impeachment off to the side for the moment. (Don’t worry. We’ll come back to it.) Consider the measures that a Democratic-led House and Senate (using reconciliation, of course, where possible) could undertake:
▪ Reverse the tax cuts for the top 1 percent, using that revenue for infrastructure or premium support for Obamacare.
▪ End confirmation of judges rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.
▪ Pass legislation requiring presidents to release their tax returns.
▪ Pass legislation barring members of the president’s immediate family from serving in government and/or receiving security clearances.
▪ Put a permanent fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on the president’s desk.
▪ Require all senior executive branch employees, including the president, to divest of all income-bearing properties and foreign holdings.
▪ Discontinue the phony voter integrity commission and pursue efforts to increase access to voting.
Republicans might be able to stop some of these, but protecting Trump’s secret finances and defending tax goodies for the super-rich would be politically deadly for the GOP. In short, the extreme and unpopular Trump agenda would come to a screeching halt. The president would be faced with an unwelcome degree of financial scrutiny and with legislative demands for transparency. Some legislation might be blocked by veto, but Trump would be under constant political and personal siege.
Then there is impeachment.
Unless special counsel Robert Mueller effectively exonerates Trump not only on collusion with Russia but also obstruction of justice and personal financial wrongdoing, a Democrat-led House won’t blink an eye before commencing impeachment hearings. Together with that will come proposed impeachment articles stemming from his abuse of the pardon power (e.g. Joe Arpaio), attacks on the First Amendment and violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. And certainly, Trump will face an inquiry into the complaints of women who have accused him of sexual harassment and assault. In essence, not just his agenda but also his presidency itself could well come to an end.
Let’s not forget the 25th Amendment. Congress could take up legislation mandating an annual presidential checkup and setting up a body, set forth in the 25th Amendment, that is empowered in lieu of the Cabinet to remove the president, at least temporarily, if he is unable to perform the duties of the job. That legislation could prompt hearings with ex-White House employees and Cabinet officials as well as lawmakers sharing insights on the president’s mental state.
Even if a fraction of all of this occurs, Trump’s political effectiveness comes to an end and he will face increasing demands to step down. A bevy of GOP primary challengers will come out of the woodwork. A credible independent center-right candidate could emerge. What once seemed like a pipe dream of Democrats now looks like a possible escape hatch for the country, a do-over on 2016 and an effort to return to normalcy.
Remember, none of this would make Hillary Clinton president (that really would be a do-over). It puts Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Republican and right-wing favorite, as the chief executive and commander in chief (provided that he is not ensnared in the special counsel’s investigation).
This is the possible (not likely, but possible) result when a party submerges its constitutional responsibilities and moral decency for the sake of partisan loyalty and the blind pursuit of power. Nevertheless, all of this will remain a fantasy unless Democrats maintain their energy and focus, continue to welcome disaffected moderates and Republicans to the party and present the hope of more mature, normal leadership. A year ago, Democrats looked washed-up; now they’re contemplating a historic wave election.
Of course, no one can predict with any degree of confidence whether Trump in 2018 will rebound or leave voluntarily; face indictment or fire the special counsel; coast on the tailwind of a strong economy or face a sudden downturn; or suffer a complete emotional breakdown instead of finding some emotional stability. He could be overwhelmed by an international crisis or demonstrate heretofore untapped good judgment. That said, there is hope that in 2018 we’ll be much closer to the end of the Trump nightmare than anyone thought possible just a year ago.