There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about whether Donald Trump will survive four years—or even one year—of his disastrous presidency.
The internet and cable news are full of voices speculating about whether Trump is more likely to quit the presidency or get impeached. Will his term get cut short by the 25th Amendment or will he be deposed by Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation? Maybe Trump will make it four years but then lose his reelection ticket to a Republican challenger? Or maybe a viable Democrat will emerge by 2020 to retake the White House?
Then there’s the sum of all fears: What if Trump can somehow channel his toxic brand of divisive narcissism into a tragic second term?
But there’s another worst-case scenario that nobody’s talking about yet: What if Donald Trump refuses to leave the presidency peacefully when it’s time for him to go?
That might seem like an impossible scenario. It certainly should be. The U.S. has a long tradition of peaceful transitions of power and clear rules to prevent presidents from squatting in the White House. But Trump is bucking tradition and playing by his own rules. And after watching his deranged cult rally in Phoenix this week, I’m starting to think that Trump could be positioning himself to stay in power at all costs, especially in the case of an impeachment attempt.
It’s not uncommon for authoritarian presidents to overstay their welcome. It happens all the time in Latin America, where democratically elected presidents use the power of their office to change the rules of the game and allow themselves an extended stay. In the past 25 years, by my count, it’s happened on 10 occasions in nine different countries in Latin America, plus one failed attempt that resulted in a coup.
I personally saw it unfold in real time in Nicaragua, where I spent the better part of a decade working as a journalist. When Daniel Ortega was elected president in 2006 with a twiggy 38% victory, Nicaragua had a constitutional ban on consecutive reelection as a safeguard against dictatorship. I thought Ortega would struggle through an unpopular five-year presidency and then go away. Eleven years later, Ortega is starting his third consecutive term as president after rewriting the constitution, banning opposition parties, and consolidating all branches of government under his personal control.
Ortega orchestrated his power grab by polarizing the country, dividing the opposition, attacking congress, demonizing the press, forbidding protest, demanding personal loyalty from all government workers, and turning all his public appearances into campaign rallies for his core base of supporters. He institutionalized his cult of personality and normalized the threats of violence and chaos that he could summon at the snap of a finger.
Any of this sound familiar?
The transition from democracy to dictatorship in Nicaragua was mostly methodical and smooth. It was a dance that Ortega led to the rhythm of the autocrat foxtrot—step, step, slide, step, step, slide—until the music ended, and Nicaragua realized it had been pushed and twirled all the way across the room.
Trump’s only been in office for seven months, but he’s already learning the dance steps. He’s already twirled us halfway across the room. The U.S. has a much stronger democracy than Nicaragua, and its institutional checks and balances could hopefully thwart any serious efforts to install a dictatorship here. But Trump is already scratching at the door.
He tries to govern by decree, he routinely blasts the media as his enemy, he attacks senators and judges who aren’t fully loyal to him, he’s delusional about his place in history and accomplishments as president, he actively promotes his own cult of personality, he encourages polarization in the country, and he’s normalizing the threat of violence.
Instead of trying to bring the country together and heal old wounds, Trump is dividing the country and picking off old scabs. Instead of expanding his base of supporters, he’s radicalizing those who remain loyal to him. This is not an election strategy, it’s a survival strategy. It’s an attempt to blackmail our democracy with the threat of violence, as former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone recently warned.
Trump is acting like a tribal leader instead of a president. His apparent calculation is that it’s easier to radicalize a minority of the population on the fringe than it is to move towards the center and get his presidential approval rating into the majority.
This is a dangerous moment for the country. Trump has shown no interest in preserving the sanctity of the presidency or the traditions of U.S. democracy. He might not even be familiar with them.
Trump is only interested in Trump. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of self-preservation. This is how dictatorships are born.
Shortly after Daniel Ortega was elected president of Nicaragua in 2006, renowned author and intellectual Sergio Ramírez told me, “Anyone who thinks Ortega is going to leave office at the end of his term is being naive.” I was naive. I didn’t see it coming, even after I was warned what to look out for.
I might be naive again by thinking that Trump will try something similar by refusing to go away when his time is up. But Nicaragua taught me it’s best to err on the side of caution when dealing with authoritarians.