It’s been more than a week since the redacted Mueller Report was released, and everyone now has been able to deliver their own hot takes (and a few more nuanced takes, to be fair) on what it might mean for President Trump’s future. There’s still one question no one has really tried to answer.
What happens after he’s gone?
I think that’s more important than any question of whether to impeach him now, or later, or wait until the 2020 election, or until 2024. In the end, the day will come when Trump is no longer president, and then the real work will begin.
In two long years, he’s inflicted pain upon millions of people through his direct actions (locking migrant children in cages, for example) or neglect (Puerto Rico still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Maria). Whether he’s at a stop on his nonstop victory lap tour in Trump-friendly cities or sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, he is seeking to divide this country between parties, races, genders, sexual orientations and expressions, classes, Bernie-or-busts or never-Bernies, cities and rural areas. That is how he can maintain power with only the support of his most rabid fans, estimated to be about 30 percent of the electorate, according to the Cook Political Report. In the larger electorate, FiveThirtyEight has shown that throughout his presidency, Trump’s approval rating has never been above 50 percent, so his path to re-election almost requires he split the opposition wherever he can.
This is how autocrats work. They drag people down to their level. When no one else will have them, they look to the autocrat as the only man (they usually are men) who really has their back.
That’s why the Mueller Report will change very few Trump supporters’ minds. They’re averse to the fact-based universe most of us live in. To them, it doesn’t matter that enough evidence exists in this one report to keep him, his organization, campaign, transition team, and current staff neck-deep in investigations for the next decade.
So the real Trump problem isn’t so much how he leaves office, but how to repair the country afterward.
The first thing to consider is that Trump himself is not the cause of American society’s deep wounds. He’s just jamming his fingers into them to make them bleed more.
The second thing to consider is that we simply can’t just go back to the way things were before. Clearly, our democracy was vulnerable, and the next autocrat to come along could be even worse. He could be competent.
To start, there will need to be a national reckoning that defines—yet again—what it means to be an American.
A post-Trump America is going to need to confront not just its creaky and unreliable electoral system, but also undertake major reforms to address cultural, political, and economic flash points: institutional racism in policing, housing, employment, and, well, pretty much everywhere; the highest levels of wealth disparity since the Great Depression; the corrupting effects of corporate and untraceable “dark” money in politics; the full-scale surrender of individual rights to corporate privilege; and the existential threat of global climate change. Those make policy-level debates seem small by comparison—how to reform health care, make higher education affordable, reduce gun violence, reform the immigration system, and rebuild our international credibility as a democracy.
To start, we will need a national reckoning that defines—yet again—what it means to be an American. We can disagree on policies now and forever, but before those conversations happen, we need consensus on what morals and values are our bedrock, what those truths are that we hold to be self-evident.
That reckoning will need to draw a line in the sand, in an era when so many lines have been crossed. That line is that the United States is a nation of laws, that no one is above the law, and that all of us have an absolute right to participate in this society equally. Recovery post-Trump will be about getting back on a path toward re-creating a country that doesn’t compromise democratic ideals for political expediency.
When debates arise, this time we’ll be weighing democratic principles against the resurgent blood-and-soil nationalism that Trump represented. That should make a difference.
Restoring rights stolen by a litany of executive orders will be the easy part. Facing truth and restoring trust, in which the unharmed reach out to the harmed, will be the hard work of repair. That means building bridges to those in our communities who have been excluded, along all the social fault lines that Trump has so adeptly exploited. And maybe it means doing our healing side by side with former Trump supporters.
Will they cross that bridge and leave Trumpism behind?