From the Electoral College to structural racism, America is feeling painfully aware of its inherent flaws these days. None looms more ominously now than that awkward moment that is the presidential transition. In the momentous winter of 1860-1861, the United States literally split in two during the haze between the failed presidency of Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan and the first-ever Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln that terrified the slave-addled South.
Now consider this scenario: A seemingly unending crisis has ripped millions of jobs from the U.S. economy, with a growing homelessness problem — and a stubborn lame-duck president with his head in the sand about the radical government intervention required. Those problems appear to loom in 2020, and they were also all too real in the first two months of 1933.
At the absolute low point of the Great Depression, with a rash of bank failures worsening the sense of doom, outgoing GOP President Herbert Hoover clung to his ruinous mix of free-market capitalism and private charity, refusing to work with incoming Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt on anything that might speed up his proposed intervention known as the New Deal. As America stared into the abyss, what’s alarming about 1933 isn’t the fear that FDR would become a dictator (as Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany that January), but that a lot of respectable folks seemed to want one, including a New York Daily News editorial that breezily noted that “[d]ictatorship in crises was ancient Rome’s best era.”
America got lucky nearly 88 years ago. Roosevelt was the strong leader that the Depression required but not a dictator — although the nation was so scarred during the long Hoover-FDR handover that it quickly ratified the 20th Amendment to shorten future presidential transitions by about six weeks.
With Donald Trump’s approval rating plunging below 40%, and polls showing Joe Biden at nearly a double-digit lead, its important to see the president’s late Friday night commutation that kept Trump’s longtime crony, the political trickster Roger Stone, from going to prison for what it really is: The beginning of a cornered president’s dangerous endgame, as well as the start of America’s greatest test since that chilly winter of 1861.
Although after 42 months of Trump’s outrageous presidency has made it almost impossible to be shocked by any headline, Trump’s dictatorial grant of freedom for Stone — clearly a reward for keeping quiet about what the future president and his close associates really know about Russian election interference in 2016 — was arguably the worst abuse of power yet from a POTUS who’s already been impeached once. The commutation was an assault on the Constitution that even Stone’s political mentor, Richard Nixon, considered too extreme at the depths of Watergate.
But what was so striking about the Stone commutation — just four days before he was supposed to report to federal prison to begin a 40-month sentence — was the lack of political calculation. It’s been long suspected that Trump would abuse his presidential powers to release or pardon his close associates like Stone and Paul Manafort — but after the outcome of the Nov. 3 election. Instead, he moved right when his poll numbers among the white, college-educated suburban voters most likely to be offended by the crude commutation are already collapsing.
Could it be that Trump has moved on from the notion of a second term (for which he can’t even give a clear answer on why he wants one) and is fixated on saving himself and his friends and family from prison under Biden, who has made it clear he will not pull a Gerald Ford and issue Trump a blanket pardon? Last month he even sounded resigned to losing when he told his close friend Sean Hannity at Fox News that Biden “is going to be president because some people don’t love me.”
At virtually the same moment that Trump was commuting Stone’s sentence, his relentless political fixer — Attorney General William Barr — was replacing the U.S. attorney in New York’s Brooklyn-based Eastern District, the third of three top prosecutors in the jurisdictions where Trump and his family face the most criminal exposure (the others are Manhattan and D.C.) to be removed in a most unconventional fashion by the lawyer who earns his nickname “Trump’s Roy Cohn” every day.
No one should ever be overconfident in modern American politics (everyone, please, vote!). But now that the moment that at least 65 million people have so fervently dreamed about since the painful morning of Nov. 9, 2016 — the end of Trump’s democracy-endangering presidency might be at hand, the risks of such a moment are becoming clear.
The 45th president has already plowed through the guardrails of that democracy with his over-the-top (though not unprecedented) abuse of his pardon powers, and who knows what worse offenses could come between now and Jan. 20, 2021, especially as Trump’s winter of discontent closes in. The psychologically damaged commander-in-chief will likely veer wildly between defeatism, self-preservation — and occasionally impulses that he could still win a second term with a wild-and-crazy gesture. The combination of those whims and a president’s ability to start a nuclear war with zero constraints (or a “conventional” war, which is bad enough) should terrify every American.
But in the annus horibilis that is 2020, the Roger Stone commutation is only the yin, the worst so far of a series of horrible, unlawful actions that Trump and his minions like Barr could take between now and January. The yang (no pun intended, Andrew) is the action that our demoralized and seemingly unstable president refuses to take on the coronavirus and its economic misery — an inaction that has already needlessly killed thousands of Americans and lengthened food lines amid a looming housing crisis. Both the pandemic and the recession could get much, much worse before a Biden administration is tasked with cleaning it up.
I always thought the most telling quote of the entire Trump presidency came out during the 2019 impeachment hearings, when the diplomat David Holmes testified that ambassador Gordon Sondland told him that Trump only cares about “big stuff” that affect him and his political fate. That’s very much in line with the president’s niece — Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist who’s known The Donald her entire life — finding he has every trait of narcissistic personality disorder. Only a damaged, narcissistic president could draft Stone’s commutation on the same day that he traveled to the coronavirus “hot spot” of Florida and made scant mention of the pandemic.
Trump is now the worst possible president at the worst possible moment — James Buchanan when it comes to national unity, and Herbert Hoover when it comes to inaction on an American crisis. Trump’s refusal to listen to or now even meet the country’s top scientific experts, his failure to not only encourage masks, but to even wear one himself before Saturday’s too-little-too-late performance art, and his focus now on reopening schools as COVID-19 cases continue to hit new highs is Hooverism with a lethal twist. Now economists are urging that we prepare for a long and deep recession. Trump is not preparing, though. There’s no plan for more stimulus, or to aid the one-third of Americans who can’t pay their rent or mortgage.
Europe got it right on the coronavirus while the United States got it wrong, and now the only real solution — painful as it sounds — would be to repeat March’s shutdown and get it right this time, with adequate testing, real contact tracing, and mandatory mask-wearing, so that schools could possibly reopen in the fall and offer some relief to America’s beleaguered families. And there should be monthly payments of $2,000 to every adult to survive the second shutdown.
That would require bold and deft leadership out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where currently no one is home. Instead, much as happened to FDR in the long winter of 1933, the task will be left until January and the presidency of Biden, except that this time there will be a lot more to fear than “fear itself.” Who can calculate how big a hole a new Democratic president and Congress might need to climb out of next Jan. 20, or how much opposition to mask-wearing or economic stimulus might come from the newest tea party sure to be ginned up by Fox News?
There is another way. The go-to Washington solution is always to wait until the next election, when the beauty that is the American Experiment will sort everything out. But this is not a normal year, and this is not a normal president. I don’t think we should find out how much more damage 192 more days of Donald Trump can create, not when Americans are needlessly dying from the coronavirus.
The growing number of 2016 Trump voters abandoning the president, and the tiny cracks of GOP opposition to the Stone commutation on Capitol Hill, could expand quickly. It’s hard to imagine either Senate leaders following the historic example of Barry Goldwater, John Rhodes, and Hugh Scott, marching down to the White House in 1974, or what would happen on the other side. But every principled Republican who still exists — as well as newspaper editorial boards and a lot of other folks — should be demanding Trump’s resignation, and his Senate removal if he won’t go. GOP leaders can try to save their country and their party — or they can watch Trump try to save himself and destroy everything.