The recent changes to Chinese law that will allow Xi Jinping to extend his presidency are very significant for China, the US and the world. Xi is 64 years old and could conceivably remain in power for at least another decade, perhaps longer. This is the kind of development that should lead US policy makers to examine our approach to China and the trajectory of that rising superpower. That kind of rigorous policy work is much less common in Washington in this era of a dramatically understaffed State Department and a President who has evinced little ability to comprehend complex briefing material.
Instead, the unofficial response to this development by the US was a statement by Donald Trump that “maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.” These comments were made during a speech that has been described as “peppered with jokes and laughter,” but we would be very foolish to think Trump was joking about this. Because of his off-the-cuff speaking style, inability to remain on topic for more than a few sentences and difficulty with the grammatical nuances of the English language, much of what Donald Trump says seems informal or even an attempt at a joke, but it rarely is.
Given what we know of Donald Trump, not least his refusal during the 2016 campaign to say that, if he lost, he would accept the verdict of the voters, this comment should be taken very seriously. Moreover, for Donald Trump the idea of being a president for life may seem more than just something worth giving a shot. It may seem like the only option that he has.
The freneticism, threat to our democracy and sheer strangeness that has characterized the Trump presidency and Donald Trump himself has made it difficult to recognize the breadth of questions we need to ask ourselves. One of these is what America, and the presidency, will look like after Trump. A norm-shattering presidency cannot easily be followed by a return to previous norms. The next president, regardless of party, will have to address that. Additionally, it is increasingly apparent that Donald Trump will not have a typical post-presidency.
Despite the most fervent wishes of many in The Resistance, Trump is extremely unlikely to be impeached or resign. If he were to be defeated, and leave office, in 2020, or even leave office after two terms in 2025, Trump would not be able to retire to a life of painting and baseball like George W. Bush, decades of service like Jimmy Carter or whatever Barack Obama chooses to do with post-presidency. Instead, as soon as Trump leaves the Presidency he will face a lifetime of legal and financial hassles, not just for him, but for the people closest to him as well.
Regardless of who Trump pardons while he is President, there will be state Attorneys General clamoring to investigate the activities of his businesses and those of his family. Additionally, there will likely be increased demand for investigative committees and the like as the country seeks to reinvigorate its democracy. All of this would be terrible for Donald Trump and would force him to spend the remaining years of his life, and a great deal of money, trying to keep his fortune and to keep his family out of jail. No wonder he likes the idea of presidents for life.
Thus, there are very good reasons why Donald Trump should want to be president for life-primarily that life without the presidency could become very unpleasant for Donald Trump very quickly. However, there is no clear, or unclear, process by which Donald Trump could become president for life. Donald Trump is not likely to be president for life, but while it may be wrong to take his statement on the topic at face value, it would also be wrong to ignore the underlying intent expressed in the sentiment. For the last two years, Donald Trump has shown that he is deeply dedicated to the idea that rules and norms do not apply to him. We have also seen that the journey from seemingly outrageous comment or Tweet by Trump to attempted policy is something that has happened with a fair amount of frequency in recent years. The border wall, Muslim ban, belief that climate change is a hoax and proposed trade policies are just some examples of this.
Regardless of Donald Trump’s intentions, his comments, despite being made in an informal setting are an apt reflection of the state of American democracy. When the leader of a powerful authoritarian regime moved his country further away from democracy while consolidating his power, the American president used that not as an opportunity contrast our political system with China’s but to indicate his preference for authoritarianism. This should make it clear just how imperiled our democracy is.