Outrage at President Trump’s behavior and policies is already leading to speculation over whether he will manage to complete his term of office. Speculation over how he might fall is a favorite after-dinner topic. Impeachment, criminal conviction, removal by the Cabinet, resignation, secret coup by deep state intelligence officers — all figure in the guessing game. As Trump intensifies his embrace of foreign tyrants and domestic plutocrats, these guesses take on an aspect of hope. For the growing number of Americans who abhor Trump, the prospect of being rid of him is thrilling.
It shouldn’t be. Our country’s long-term interest will be best served if Trump remains in office until 2021. That would be a shock treatment like no other for the American people. It will show us, through much pain, how dangerous it is to elect ignorant demagogues. That might allow future historians to see a four-year Trump presidency as a watershed in American politics, the moment when we realized the folly of our ways and began to repent. Backlash against Trump could produce a wave of support for policies opposite to his, including more restrained foreign policies and challenges to the power of wealth at home.
The alternative could be a generation of rule by billionaires and Republican ayatollahs. Both groups would be thrilled if Trump were to leave office prematurely and give way to Vice President Mike Pence. Pence would be just as abject a servant of corporate power as Trump has turned out to be, but with the patina of respectability. Even his form of misogyny is more socially acceptable: Instead of boasting about grabbing women, Pence refuses to dine alone with any woman other than his wife. Trump personifies the vulgarity of his assault on democracy. Pence is smooth enough to hide it.
The panic that seized much of America’s ruling elite when Trump was elected has subsided. He has turned out not to be the rebel he claimed to be during his campaign. His tax proposal is a giveaway to the super-rich beyond even the super-rich’s dreams. Polluters, oil companies, and arms makers revel in his presidency. Far from draining the Washington swamp, as he promised, he wallows in it. A creeping fear, however, dampens the jubilation of those who benefit from Trump’s policies. His wretched excess could sour Americans to the point where they begin electing leaders who are his opposite — not just in style, but in substance. The best way to avoid this would be to ease Trump out of office and replace him with a figure like Pence: more extreme but less oafish.
Those who want to see Trump’s policies made permanent have an interest in easing him aside. The ascension of figures like Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who exemplify the ethos of robbing the poor to help the rich, would lessen the risk that those policies could be reversed after the next election. Using tools from judicial appointments to gerrymandering to voter suppression, a new group of leaders in Washington could establish a form of hegemony unique in our history. By turning back the social clock to the pre-New Deal era — which is their goal — this crop of smooth-talking wreckers could push American society toward an explosive level of polarization.
Keeping Trump in power is the best way to avoid this. It does, however, entail one profound risk: war. If Trump’s presidency begins to collapse, he may be tempted to launch a “wag-the-dog” attack on another country. Distracting public attention this way is a tried and true tactic, codified in Shakespeare’s dictum that leaders should “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” Cooking up a provocation to justify an attack on evil North Korea or dastardly Iran would be laughably easy. If Trump begins to feel trapped, he could lash out in a way that paves the path toward Armageddon. Yet if we can avoid that fate, the world will in the long run be safer if he is allowed to blunder his way to the end of his term — and in the process convince Americans never again to turn to anyone remotely like him.
A full term for Trump will mean four years of pain for millions of Americans who were not born with his advantages, four more years of spectacular profit for the richest 1 percent, a four-year assault on our natural environment, and four years of blundering around the world, possibly at the cost of many lives. A truncated term could lead to all of that for a generation. The best strategy for those who wish Trump ill is to wish him well. Rather than rushing to dig his grave, we should hold tight for four years and let him dig it himself.Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.