Would Trump Act More Presidential in a Second Term? Come On!

What would a second presidential term for Donald Trump look like, anyway?

Let’s suppose he wins in November, and let’s assume the election winds up a lot like 2016. This time, he’s even farther behind in the polls before Election Day, but has a well-timed surge as Nov. 3 approaches. And while he falls well short in the popular vote, he once again squeezes by in the electoral college, by a smaller margin than his final 304-to-227 electoral-vote edge over Hillary Clinton in 2016. I’ll further assume that his authoritarian bluster remains little more than noise.

(We can argue about whether it has become standard operating procedure for Republicans to undermine the legitimacy of elections, and can discuss the things Trump has already done to use the machinery of government for electoral purposes and his welcoming of foreign interference, and I don’t mean to minimize any of that. But for the sake of argument let’s say that despite those things, most of the public and the Democrats accept the election results as they did in 2016).

So he wins by a narrow margin, while presumably once again calling it a landslide. Democrats retain their House majority and gain in the Senate, but 50 or 51 Republican senators remain in the majority. What would a second term look like?

A second-term Trump would almost certainly be like the first-term Trump, except more so. Having felt vindicated — again! — he’d be more convinced than ever that he is correct about everything and that everyone else is wrong. So in that sense, he would be a lot less constrained.

What that means for governing the nation, however, isn’t obvious. After all, Trump isn’t even pretending to have a policy agenda as he runs for office this time. He makes lots of claims that things are going to be terrific as long as his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, isn’t elected, but hardly any about what he would do. Trump can’t seem to recite a campaign promise without claiming that he's already achieved it.

It’s possible that a second-term Trump would be the Trump who violently suppressed racial justice protests at Lafayette Park and in other ways followed in the footsteps of the authoritarian world leaders he admires. At the very least, we should expect some ugliness targeted at those he considers his enemies.

I suspect, however, that what Trump would be most eager to do after winning re-election would be:

  • Brag a lot about his historic victory;
  • Play golf with his rich friends and celebrities and watch even more cable television news;
  • Tweet more insults and more opinions about more things;
  • Bark out orders and hold more signing ceremonies with even less concern about whether there’s any follow-up;
  • Be more aggressive and more overt about using the presidency to enrich himself;
  • Get back to holding rallies so his fans can adore him.

In other words, he’d be even less focused on doing the actual job than he was during his first term, and even less able to influence events when he tried. His administration would be even more a maze of personal fiefdoms, with those who stay in their jobs and know how to work the bureaucracy able to get more done without presidential interference. Coherent responses to urgent policy challenges would be less likely, which is saying something. A White House that can’t return a phone call to a governor when her state is on fire within two months of an election is going to be even less concerned about such things when the president no longer has to worry about voters at all.

Since all of that was a formula for unpopularity in his first term, he would probably be at least as unpopular in his second — especially given that he’d be even less likely to believe any polls (and would convince himself, as he did after 2016, that his minority victory resulted from brilliant strategy and proved how much most people loved him). That would almost certainly lead to another midterm electoral debacle for Republican senators, representatives and governors. It could also lead to a second impeachment — and an impeachment with a Democratic majority in the Senate could be a long, brutal affair.

Remember, presidential weakness is dangerous. Under this scenario, Trump would be even weaker than he is now, and that can be a threat to democracy even without a president who seems to have such admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, it’s possible that I’m speculating too optimistically and that Trump would behave more like an authoritarian.

What’s a lot harder to imagine is that he’d behave more like a normal president in a second term: That he’ll organize his White House professionally, nominate competent experts for executive branch positions, develop policy ideas and fight for them in Congress and within the bureaucracy, fulfill the position of head of state for the entire nation, and comport himself in a dignified manner as befits elected officials in a republic. No, I can’t see that in the cards at all.

1. Rick Hasen on why, if Trump wins and many consider his victory illegitimate, he has only himself to blame.

3. Bryn Rosenfeld, Samuel Greene, Jeremy Morris, Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson at the Monkey Cage on Putin’s weakening popular support.

4. Clare Malone on Trump and older voters.

5. Jonathan Chait on Trump’s TV binging.

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien explains why Trump talked to Bob Woodward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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