When President Trump responded on Monday to reports about the contents of Bob Woodward's Fear with the suggestion that one day he would write a "real book," I shook my head. Not because it is impossible to imagine him finding a ghostwriter willing to collaborate on The Art of the Deal II: How I Saved Our Tremendous Flag, Our Booming Stock Market, and Our Beautiful Steel From Fake News CNN and Made America Great(est) Again. Rather because the idea of a post-presidential Trump has become unthinkable.
I cannot be the only person for whom this is true. The degree to which Trump has saturated American media is unprecedented. Only some of this can be said to be the result of technology and parallel developments in journalism; we had a 24/7 news cycle and Twitter during the Obama administration, but days and even weeks could go by when the president was very far from the major stories of the day. No public figure in the history of this or any country has ever figured so prominently in the lives of its citizens, not even in the great authoritarian regimes of the 20th century, as President Trump. The cult of personality established by the Kim dynasty in North Korea is, at least in terms of its sheer reach, a jacket blurb in comparison with what cable news and our major newspapers have created, ostensibly in the spirit of independent reporting and criticism, for the former host of The Apprentice.
What would a return to "normal" look like? Will our next president be expected to use Twitter to address his critics directly? Will he begin his re-election campaign a few weeks after taking office with rallies around the country? Will Congress, which has been unpopular for almost my entire lifetime and has all but openly embraced its moribund status as welfare for aging lawyers, ever be relevant again? Or will the institution of the presidency, with its undreamed powers and numberless prerogatives, and the man in whom it is vested achieve a kind of total monopoly over law-making, first by fiat, then by custom, and eventually as a matter of settled law? I think the answer is yes.
I agree with critics of so-called "originalism" that America has a living Constitution, and that the fundamental structures according to which this country has been organized have been upended at various points in our history — under James Madison and again under Andrew Jackson, after the Civil War, during the Great Depression, at some point in Jimmy Carter's presidency when the undoing of the Roosevelt-era consensus about the partially planned economy began the neoliberal revolution that continued apace under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and now, once again, in the strange globalized war-making succession of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump. America is now a kind of elective monarchy in which Congress clings, like the Roman Senate, to its antique ceremony as its formal powers — such as that of the purse — become increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile the Supreme Court is headed in the direction of an almost limitless deference toward administrative autonomy.
I don't think it's reasonable to dismiss the possibility of a third term for this president as idle speculation. The 22nd Amendment can be repealed like any other, and both geography and math favor Republican attempts at amendment. The end of presidential term limits would not necessarily be, in the long term, a one-sided partisan affair. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine a future in which a popular young Democratic president is elected to third and even fourth terms, perhaps non-contiguously, with a four-year interlude from a lucky but ultimately ill-fated Republican challenger.
I do not know a single supporter of the president who opposes the idea, at least in theory, of Trump serving more than eight years. The man himself has entertained it openly, praising Xi Jinping for getting rid of term limits in China. Meanwhile, speculation about whether Obama would have beaten Trump if he had run for a third term is a liberal cottage industry. Obama, who agrees that he would have been elected again if he had run two years ago, is a young man. Perhaps he could be the one to beat Trump in 2024.
If you think two more years of Trump in the White House sounds like a nightmare, imagine having to read about his late-night Oval Office tweets for another decade, or even longer. The "real book," if it ever comes to be written, might well be a posthumous memoir.