Donald Trump’s pronouncement that he would listen if a foreign power offered dirt on a political opponent is not your everyday outrageous Trump statement. It's a rhetorical dagger aimed right at the heart of the republic.
Trump is establishing the premise that it’s perfectly fine for foreign governments to influence our elections. He is normalizing the idea—possibly even inviting it.
Here’s what should happen: Republican leaders should publicly gather and forcefully declare: "The president is wrong. He is talking about something illegal. The Republican Party would absolutely not condone this in any way, shape, or form."
Don’t hold your breath, though. Notice I said “should” and not “will.”
In fairness to Republicans, George Stephanopoulos’ question to Trump—“Somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.’ Do you call the FBI?”—was hypothetical. Having seen how thankless it is to criticize this president over more concrete examples, Republicans may recognize the futility in attempting to reprimand him over a hypothetical.
They have a point. So here’s an alternative ploy: New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, has introduced a bill requiring candidates to file suspicious activity reports with the Justice Department if a foreign power offers them help. Republicans should support that bill.
This support is needed (in part) because Robert Mueller failed to clearly establish that providing opposition research to a political campaign constitutes a “thing of value”—which would make accepting the information from a foreign national the same as accepting an unlawful campaign contribution.
Clarity is our friend. When it comes to this president, we are all—in our lifetimes, at least—in uncharted territory.
The other day, I noted how Trump serves as a human lightning rod to distract the public from scandals and the advancement of controversial public policy goals. As I theorized, one byproduct of his behavior is that Americans become inured to the chaos and have started to tune it out. While that may be true of broad swaths of Americans who can simply turn off cable news, Trump is having an arguably even worse—and complete opposite—effect on a lot of people who are paying close attention.
For example, Stephanopoulos’ hypothetical question has me thinking about a related hypothetical that has been making the rounds of late: Would Trump leave office if he were to lose the 2020 election?
After all, once you’ve trampled on some long-held norms and institutions, what is the limiting principle? Is it a stretch to think that a president who is fine with taking political dirt from a foreign adversary might not be as deeply committed to the concept of a peaceful transfer of power as you or I would be?
As crazy as this concern may sound, these aren’t merely the worries of fringe elements. This idea has been bandied about by the likes of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, The New York Times contributing op-ed writer Wajahat Ali, and others―including, most recently, HBO’s Bill Maher.
Not everyone is convinced. “This is all magical un-thinking idiocy,” tweeted conservative writer Jonah Goldberg. “Refusing to leave wouldn't give him special powers, like refusing to take off the One Ring To Rule Them All. Refusing to leave would make him the crazy guy the Marines escort out of the building.”
Not only does Goldberg believe that America’s institutions are strong enough to rein in a president with authoritarian tendencies, he also notes that, “When people talk about how POTUS might ‘refuse’ to relinquish power it undermines democracy & democratic norms.”
To be sure, hysteria can lead to all sorts of bad places. It is dangerous and wrong to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, the famous trope goes. But what if you are starting to smell smoke?
If you truly believe that this president is about to seize power, then what would be your moral obligation to stop him? In this scenario, voting against him obviously isn’t enough. What if you thought there was even a 10-percent chance he would cancel elections, say the election results were rigged, or otherwise attempt to remain president? It’s a dark question to ponder.
Those fears have not been assuaged by Donald Trump. If anything, Trump continues to work overtime to engender fears and paranoia. This may further his political interests, or perhaps he finds sadistic pleasure in it. But the cost to the social fabric is immense.
If a Democrat wins a close election that Trump calls illegitimate, he will probably have a third of the country agreeing with him. Imagine what that December and January would be like. You might start to see people panicking and moving out of the country for fear it had slipped into soft despotism. And even if Trump ultimately acceded to pressure and vacated the presidency, you could have a large contingent of Americans who believe the election was stolen. This would feed the sense of victimhood and martyrdom in Trumpland that could fuel an even wilder populist backlash.
Once norms and institutions are eroded, there’s really no telling where things might end.