Trump Unbound

The U.S. president offers a glimpse of what four more years would look like after “total acquittal” by the Senate, exacting vengeance on those he sees as his political enemies.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak to the media at the White House in Washington on Feb. 6, one day after the U.S. Senate acquitted him on two articles of impeachment. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Maybe it was the way they leapt to their feet to applaud as one, like Stalinist apparatchiks—all those Republican senators and members of Congress Donald Trump now owns—as the U.S. president offered up one obvious misrepresentation after another in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Or maybe it was that his adoring defenders did the same at the rambling 63-minute victory speech Trump delivered at the White House on Thursday, following what he called “total acquittal” by the U.S. Senate.

But as a tumultuous week in Washington neared its end, it was unsettlingly clear that Trump had not learned any lessons from his impeachment ordeal—as his few Republican critics once hopefully suggested—except that he remains surrounded in his mind by political enemies, whom he called on Thursday “horrible,” “sick,” and “very evil.” And what of the charges against him, that he had abused his power as president to further his personal political interests, which even Sen. Mitt Romney thought were serious enough that the Utah Republican bravely became the lone U.S. senator in history to vote to remove a president of his own party? 

“It’s all bullshit,” Trump told a national television audience. By the next day, Friday, the president had begun exacting vengeance on those perceived enemies. He fired two key witnesses against him during the impeachment hearings last fall, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council aide who testified that Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which Vindman was listening on, was “improper.”

Worse for the president’s Democratic adversaries, the odds may have turned in Trump’s favor as the 2020 election campaign got formally underway this week. Even as the U.S. Senate gave Trump virtual carte blanche to do as he pleases by acquitting him of impeachment charges on Wednesday, he hit his highest approval rating ever—49 percent according to a new Gallup poll. Meanwhile, the Democrats proved embarrassingly incompetent in Iowa, with a vote tally rife with delays and errors and the candidate long perceived as their most electable standard-bearer, former Vice President Joe Biden, fading fast. 

As Trump said in the East Room, trying out a line that has already become a popular Republican 2020 refrain, “The Democrats can’t count some simple votes, yet they want to take over your health care.”

Indeed, the Democratic debacle in the Iowa caucuses seemed symbolic of a broader disarray in the party, which can’t settle on a clear favorite with only nine months to go before Election Day. With results mostly counted after four days of confusion, the outcome there was evenly divided between the old and the new, between ultra-progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 78, and the Indiana moderate Pete Buttigieg, 38, who appeared locked in a virtual tie for the lead, with Biden well behind. But both had meager pluralities of about a quarter of the vote. Pollsters and pundits predicted further trouble for Biden, the former front-runner, in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, which could mean serious problems for him even in states he was expected to win handily down the line, like South Carolina. 

Many party establishment figures believe that neither Sanders, whose extremely liberal views turn off many mainstream voters, nor Buttigieg, who polls suggest faces an uphill climb in the general election because he is an unexperienced newcomer and married to another man, can defeat Trump in November. The other leading candidate in Iowa, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is also seen as too progressive in her views to win over many moderates and independents.

“We’re gonna win a lot of seats,” an ebullient Trump announced on Thursday.

So, many pundits are beginning to wonder what four more years of an even more untrammeled Trump might look like. This week gave some hints. He will go after his political enemies with relish and utter abandon. And he will blame them for every misdirection while claiming credit for every positive development. Even his State of the Union was shamelessly solipsistic, as if the United States had never enjoyed a single good moment before he appeared on the scene, and Trump alone had brought the nation back from the brink, the sole author of what he called the “great American comeback” (though economists say the U.S. economy is in the middle of a boom initiated by former President Barack Obama).

“It is very scary to contemplate Trump unbound,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told Foreign Policy. “Trump in a second term could weaponize the Department of Justice against his critics and opponents. … He might also look for ways to defy the Constitution, perhaps by refusing to leave office because of some ‘emergency.’”

Another Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair, suggested the president is now living out the philosophy he recorded in his first book, The Art of the Deal, in 1987. “It’s ‘whatever you can get away with, do it,’” she said. “That was the first full version of ‘brag about it, don’t just do it.’ Leap past ordinary constraints, ethics, morality. And those who are hung up on those things are losers. He’s never deviated from that plan. And people love that.”   

Above all, Trump during his career has “harnessed a sense of grievance,” Blair added. She said that if Bernie Sanders, who like Trump has spent a career feeling aggrieved over being ignored by the mainstream, becomes the Democratic nominee, the 2020 race will be largely about the politics of grievance. And an electorate that may never be able to reconcile its various grievances.

That possibility in turn raises the question of whether, facing possibly four more years of what already seem to be insuperable political divisions—even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost her famous cool, ripping up Trump’s speech on national TV—Americans will be able to “keep” their republic after all, a question raised by several Democratic House managers during impeachment, invoking Benjamin Franklin’s famous remark. (Asked by a bystander outside Independence Hall what government the Continental Congress had just created, Franklin allegedly replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”) 

What’s going to happen to America’s nearly 244-year-old grand experiment? Can the world’s lone superpower long endure when it is being torn apart internally? Pick your historical paradigm. The fall of Rome. The eclipse of the British Imperium. Twilight of the Gods. Or maybe just more decadence, division, and drift, a further erosion of institutions Americans once thought sacrosanct, and a world that throws up its hands in disgust.

Feb. 7: This story has been updated.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh