I have a confession to make. My friends and peers may be surprised to learn that throughout a 30-year career in politics and campaigns I’m not usually upset by election results. Even when we’re disappointed at the polls we can generally have faith that the nation’s business is in pretty good hands.
But this year, I am deeply troubled.
Not because of Donald Trump’s wrongheaded ideas, although they’re horribly misguided. We’ve lurched right and left before and the republic has survived.
Not because of any lost faith in American democracy. The voters are rightly disgusted by the dysfunction of their government, and while Hillary Clinton did apparently win the popular vote, America delivered a decisive mandate for radical change—for good or ill is yet to be seen.
No, the reason I didn’t sleep much Tuesday night was that I see my country on the precipice of an ugly “sea of troubles,” as Hamlet might say. Not the usual political fights, but a deeper cultural and societal disruption caused by the questionable character, business practices, and legal baggage of the man we have just made the leader of the free world.
As The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny reported Wednesday, our president-elect will soon be back in court facing trial for defrauding students of his Trump University. My legal friends say the case against him is pretty solid. Further, he is currently under investigation in several states for the Trump Foundation’s shady practices. Zadrozny counts 75 lawsuits pending against Trump. If allegations against the university or foundation or any other Trump entity are proven, at least some of those alleged violations are criminal, not civil, meaning that although it’s unlikely, he could conceivably face jail time.
In addition, there is an entire legion of disgruntled vendors and contractors waiting in the wings, who believe they have been cheated or defrauded by Trump, Inc. How many of these will decide the time is right to extract a little payback? How many days can a President Trump spend in defending is personal business disputes and still be an effective leader?
Finally, Donald Trump may be facing multiple investigations and possible prosecution for sexual assault. And he will be open to these prosecutions because of Paula Jones. In her case, the Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president is not immune from civil or criminal prosecution. Republicans at the time cheered that decision wildly.
Remember that Bill Clinton was impeached for the sin of having consensual sex with one adult. Trump stands accused of multiple, flagrant offenses by at least 12 different women. Worse, he has practically convicted himself through his own words. In the age of Real Housewives reality TV, just think what a must-see spectacle those trials would be. Again, the penalties for sexual assault carry jail time.
Of course, the American people know all this. More than 60 percent of voters said they did not think Trump fit or qualified to be president, yet they voted for him anyway. That gives him a heat shield, at least for a while. He also will benefit from a friendly Republican Congress, meaning he will not be relentlessly persecuted by the kind of baseless partisan political inquisitions that Hillary Clinton would have endured.
At some point Trump’s past sins may find him out. The media would be glad to give us 24-hour coverage of whatever scandal becomes the flavor of the month. Because Trump never admits he’s wrong, and reflexively strikes out at his accusers, things could quickly devolve into an ugly telenovela. The public will tire of the drama, begin to see his presidency as illegitimate.
Worse, he might actually be convicted of one or more of these scandals, and the nation could be faced with a protracted impeachment and trial before the U.S. Senate. However, because the Constitution does not force impeachment, the House of Representatives, driven by the far-right Freedom Caucus, might allow Trump to escape that fate.
But he could still go to jail. That might be a far-fetched scenario, but depending on the seriousness of the Trump Foundation charges or the sexual assault cases, it’s still possible. Imagine a sitting president going to jail. Would Trump resign?
None of this is mere conjecture or sour grapes. These nightmare scenarios are already playing out. He will stand trial at least twice in the next year, and the investigations into the Trump Foundation are fully underway. More women may come forward.
In a nation already suffering from a critical loss of faith in public institutions, that kind of breakdown in the body politic would be grievously wounding. Democracy rests on a shared set of values, and faith in the legitimacy of all the institutions of public life: churches, charities, companies, and governments. When that glue breaks down, anarchy follows.
This is what keeps me up at night. It’s not Trump’s “beautiful wall,” or deporting millions of people, or toadying to the alt-right racists, or medieval attitudes toward women, or disdain for the First Amendment.
The real danger of Donald Trump is impending chaos. We knew it. And we elected him anyway. As Abraham Lincoln said: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Joe McLean is Senior Partner at McLeanClark, LLC and president of the Crockett Policy Institute. He tweets at @jwmclean.