Ross Douthat: The last exit from Trumpland

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Donald Trump boards Air Force One in Kenner, La., May 14, 2019. Outside the ranks of the truest Trump believers, most Republicans anticipate very bad things in 2022 and 2024 if the Trump Show continues uninterrupted, Ross Douthat writes.

Ask an intelligent Republican staffer what they imagine awaits their party after Donald Trump, and you’ll get an interesting disquisition on the factions and figures that might shape conservatism, the political and policy arguments to come.

Ask that same staffer what happens if Trump is reelected, and you’ll get a heavy sigh, a thousand-yard stare and then a hopeful “Well, maybe we can just pretend he isn’t there ...?”

This is the state of Republican politics with impeachment suddenly looming. People are ready for the after, the reckoning to come, the attempted restorations and Trumpisms-without-Trump, the great Nikki Haley-Tucker Carlson brawl.

But if Trump survives impeachment and somehow gets reelected, there will be no after Trump, not yet and not for four long years. Instead Trump will bestride his party like a decaying colossus, and his administration’s accelerative deterioration will be the GOP’s as well. There will be no second-term policymaking, no John Kelly to stabilize the ship — just a floating hulk drifting between the icebergs of recession and foreign crisis, with all American conservatism onboard.

Outside the ranks of the truest Trump believers, most Republicans anticipate very bad things in 2022 and 2024 if the Trump Show continues uninterrupted. And most would happily fast-forward through that show if the magical remote control from that terrible Adam Sandler movie were suddenly available.

My days of writing high-dudgeon columns demanding that Republicans act in concert against Trump are behind me; cynicism and bemusement define my attitude toward GOP decadence these days.

But in a bored-Roman-aristocrat drawl, I just want to suggest — mildly, dabbling my hands in a convenient finger bowl — that the current impeachment inquiry might, in fact, be that magical remote control: a chance to hit fast-forward and summon the post-Trump future into existence here and now, for the 2020 campaign.

Hitting the button requires only two things: the swift, before-primary-season impeachment schedule House Democrats are entertaining and then 20 Republican votes in the Senate for conviction, if the Trump-Giuliani operation in Ukraine looks as bad in a few months as it does today.

Of course the second thing is a political near-impossibility. But we’re fantasizing here, my dear Petronius, so we can imagine how it might happen. Start with Mitt Romney, add the four retiring Republican senators, plus the most embattled purple-state 2020 incumbents, plus a clutch of Republicans most at risk in 2022, plus the handful of the senators who don’t face the voters till 2024 ... and then you’re just a few Republicans of principle away from 20.

In voting to remove Trump (and to bar him, as an impeachment can, from simply running for president again immediately), these 20 would allow the other 33 Republican senators to stand by him, thank him for his service and promise to Make America Great Again themselves. And the more ambitious among the latter group of senators would then compete to succeed Trump, while his wrath was concentrated against the treacherous 20.

That competition would be the next phase of our fast-forward: With Trump gone, everyone from Haley and Carlson to Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley could jump into an accelerated primary campaign against the unloved Republican “incumbent,” Mike Pence. The result would be, in effect, the 2024 Republican primary four years early — with the possibility of either pre-empting a President Elizabeth Warren or preventing a Trump second term’s likely demolition of the party.

Of course this is just a pleasant conceit, whose mere description by a Trump critic like myself will irritate the many conservatives for whom it’s absurd to imagine any upside to allowing Democrats and the media to eject a fighting conservative president from office.

I think these conservatives underestimate, as liberals did with Bill Clinton long ago, the advantages in jettisoning a corrupt leader. (An Al Gore presidency was a better timeline for Democrats, even though it would have required the horror of letting Ken Starr win.) But I certainly can see ways in which, after so much elite failure and populist anger, having elites (indeed, the CIA!) work to remove a populist president just before his reelection campaign could make our toxic politics that much worse.

But I would still ask — swirling my wine and adjusting my NeverTrumper toga — worse than what? Worse than a world where Trump survives impeachment, the Ukraine miasma chokes Biden’s campaign, Warren proves less electable than her supporters hope, we replay 2016 with the Electoral College and enter a second Trump term with the ship of state rudderless, Democrats yet more radicalized, and all those icebergs looming for the country and the GOP alike?

In the event we do arrive in that world, consider this column a casually tossed marker for the Republican senators who will probably vote to keep Trump in office, in case they find themselves very unhappy with the ultimate result.

You can’t say that you didn’t have an early exit from the Trump era. You can’t say you didn’t have a choice.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat has been an opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”