Twenty-twenty may be a year like no other in American history. It is possible that if President Donald Trump were to lose the presidential election, he will contest the results and claim, as he did in 2016, that millions voted fraudulently. He might then be able to mobilize his supporters and unleash havoc, probably will fulsome support from the Russian government.
It will be a year when the cumulative damage inflicted by Trump on the U.S. domestic and foreign policy will have peaked. As the recent Helsinki and NATO summits have amply demonstrated, the dangers are real: The alliance system that has been the bedrock of American foreign policy and international peace will be in tatters, trade wars will dominate global exchanges, and domestic politics will have been polarized beyond recognition by an array of deliberately divisive policies that aim to harvest fear for political purposes.
The opposition to Trump, be it from Democrats or Republicans who can no longer stomach him, has to start planning for 2020 now. The planning will require three approaches.
First, a concerted effort must be undertaken to deter the Russians from interfering in American internal affairs. The Kremlin no doubt is already planning its moves for disrupting the November midterms, a warm up for 2020. The Director of National Intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, has sounded the alarm regarding the vulnerabilities of our cyber security infrastructure. Given the distinct lack of interest emanating from the White House, elected officials in Congress need to be reaching out to intelligence agencies for help, to get the process started.
Domestic preparation is also key. If we have learned anything during Donald Trump’s presidency thus far, it is that he has an uncanny ability to sow confusion, trash existing norms and guidelines, and impose his own rules on the body politic. Trump’s allegations of fraud—if he loses—will be abetted by his fellow travelers in the media, in Congress, and out on the streets. He has already done much to undermine one of the institutions that can best stand against him: the press. Given that many of his followers subscribe to his conspiratorial accusations against “fake news,” we should not assume that any reporting on results on election night in 2020 will have validity for all those Americans systematically desensitized to the notion that facts matter. Democrats, in particular, need to start planning for how they will confront the assault Trump and his followers may unleash. At a minimum, this will require beefing up polling stations and procedures, training poll watchers, and working with local law enforcement authorities to prepare for all eventualities.
Second, well before the start of the selection process of potential challengers to Trump, a bipartisan group of senior policy thinkers ought to begin charting policy initiatives designed to reverse the damage done by the Trump Administration. There are a sufficient number of centrist Democrats, Republicans who have not lost their principles, and independents for the task—although admittedly forming and operating such a group will be a challenge.
Here, again, time is of the essence: If a new administration is to hit the ground running, it will need a detailed plan, since the transition process is not long enough to tackle many of these issues in detail. The creation of such a group would have the added benefit of signaling to friends and allies alike that they, too, have to prepare themselves for change. In effect, what we would be asking of them, as well as of the nation’s governors, is to design policies that work backwards from 2020 to minimize the costs being incurred today.
Finally, it is also important to limit Trump’s current capabilities. It is time for observers and critics to make clear to all political appointees planning to enter Trump’s service that they will pay a high price one day for their complicity. It is one thing for Generals James Mattis and John Kelley to continue to serve, as they came in early on; but others who are joining the Trump Administration now do not deserve any benefit of the doubt about their motives, and are nothing more than enablers. The message has to be clear: If you support Trump on what you suppose are the merits, then fine, that’s your choice; but if you are joining the Administration while holding your nose, in hopes that you will once be called “honorable” for trying to save the country, you should be disabused of your fantasy. This message ought to be delivered also to the many currently serving political appointees who are disenchanted with Trump’s policies. They are no longer helping the nation as they may have thought at the onset of the Administration; they are aiding and abetting the undermining of our liberal democratic heritage.
Deterring political appointees from joining and encouraging others to leave will have the added benefit of strengthening the remaining professionals working in government, many of whom have already left in substantial numbers. Forcing Trump to rely on professionals to manage the affairs of state not only protects the latter, but also diminishes the damage he can inflict.
Combatting Trump will not be easy. The time for constructing a well thought out strategy is now; there is not a minute to waste.