There hasn’t been much attention paid to what happens afterwards though. One thing that won’t happen: a revote or special election.
A “do-over” of the 2016 election would require a Constitutional amendment. To amend the Constitution, 2/3 of both the House and the Senate must pass the amendment and then the amendment then needs to be ratified by 3/4 of the country’s state legislatures (38 states). That’s politically impossible, and the impossibility of calling special elections is the main reason why the United States has such an elaborate chain of succession for the office of President.
I think realistically, there are two scenarios in which Trump resigns: (1) convincing proof implicating Trump in serious crimes or breaches of trust and/or (2) extremely low poll numbers leading to mass protests throughout the country, Red States included, that make it clear that even absent proof, Trump’s political support has deteriorated so thoroughly that he loses all Congressional support and Congress is ready to proceed with impeachment based on whatever evidence is available.
In either of those cases I think that Trump will be a political nonentity and it will generally be a relief for Republicans and Democrats alike that Trump has resigned (the Nixon scenario).
This post addresses the unrealistic scenario of Trump resigning basically immediately, with his current level of support intact and without any smoking gun proving Trump colluded with the Russians or knowingly conspired to cover up his team’s collusion with the Russians. This isn’t a frivolous thought experiment, since it is currently being seriously advocated some people who are considered serious politicians and political commentators.
The knives will come out for Pence
If Trump resigns, it will solve short-term problems for the GOP but it doesn’t do much for the Democrats. The euphoria of having booted Trump out of office will soon give way to a feeling that it was a Pyrrhic victory.
Agenda-wise, Pence is considerably more conservative than Trump, and though he has a different rhetorical style and can be expected to adhere more closely to the Establishment line on intelligence, national security and foreign policy matters, on domestic policy he will probably give the Republican-dominated Congress everything they want.
It’s hard to imagine that the Resistance will stop agitating once Pence takes office. There will be protests, there will be conspiracy theories, there will be outrage. Pence will likely have pardoned Trump as part of the resignation deal, which will further fuel animus against Pence.
The difference will be that the Republicans will have no choice but to circle their wagons around Pence and defend him ferociously, and calls for his ouster will be met with a brick wall of Counter-Resistance.
What will be interesting is whether the intelligence community leaks continue once Trump is out of office. This would be quite risky for them: Pence doesn’t have a record of taking contrarian positions on national security and foreign policy matters, and so leakers would appear to be partisan, rather than “patriots” trying to expose a dangerously volatile president.
The two-party system will come under pressure
Depending on who you listen to, about 25-40% of the electorate (the entire electorate, not just Republicans) strongly support Trump.
From what we know of Trump’s character and personality, we can almost rule out the possibility that after resigning, he would go back to running the Trump Organization and stay out of politics. Without the shackles of office, it’s highly likely that we’ll hear more from Trump himself, and he’ll surely be able to command the media spotlight whenever he wants to. He might even continue to hold rallies around the country. Without the pressure of appealing to moderate Republicans, he might preach an even more explicitly nationalist, anti-globalist brand of politics.
The GOP will be forced to deal with Trump’s supporters one way or another as long as Trump is alive, and possibly even longer. This will be difficult, as Trump’s anti-Establishment message during the campaign was aimed against the traditional Republican leadership, and he can easily get traction by resurrecting his campaign rhetoric and agitate his base to demand things that centrists Republicans don’t want, like strict immigration rules and protectionist trade policies.
The Democrats will be divided between centrists that want to declare victory and move on to the business of compromise-based governing and liberals who want to take no quarter, who want to apply more “people power” against the Republican leadership and to realize gains on issues like single-payer healthcare, and not stop until progressive Democrats are running the national government. Centrist Democrats from the heartland will find themselves politically unable to support initiatives being led by an increasingly liberal Democratic wing taking root in California and other ultra-blue states.
Now, there are structural reasons why the United States has a two-party system: there’s no proportional representation. Any party that wants to win office has to get at least 50% of the vote in any given election. Trump’s brand of populism and nationalism, however, might form the core of a viable third party that could win seats in Congress in the regions where Trump had overwhelming support in 2016. The Republicans will be under intense pressure to stop that from happening.
Putin will pull out a rhetorical win
This will seem counterintuitive, but now that it’s clear that Trump can’t deliver on improved relations, the best possible thing that could happen to Putin is if Trump is hastily impeached and thrown in jail. The best domestic propaganda victory Putin could hope for, especially with his upcoming 2018 re-election campaign, is for the United States to have a high-profile “political prisoner” who supports improved relations with Russia.
Even if Trump just resigns, it fits neatly in the Kremlin narrative that the American Deep State and military-industrial complex sits above the United States’ elected officials, and they will bring down any politician who seeks an equal partnership with Russia.
The media landscape will have changed forever
I believe that there are a lot of honest journalists working in the mainstream media who hate Trump, who are working to get him out of office, but have no desire to box themselves in as partisan hacks. If Trump resigns, there will be a lot of thought pieces about what happened and there will be gentle urging to walk back some of the fury that swept Trump out of office.
I don’t think this will work. I think that if Trump resigns without any proof that he was involved in collusion with Russia or knowingly covering up collusion by his team, when the dust settles there will be a general consensus among Republicans that the mainstream, Democratic-leaning media like CNN, NYT, WaPo and the Big Three networks drummed Trump out of office based on hype and innuendo.
And on the left, there will be frustration when the MSM attempt to return to a “normal” mode of more straightforward political reporting. They will demand that the media continue to “resist” the Republicans, scandal or no scandal.
This will result in a media landscape more like that of the UK, where newspapers and television channels each have an acknowledged partisan viewpoint. This is, of course, the de facto situation in the US right now, but for various reasons the mainstream national American media (other than alt-right or alt-left “alternative” media) have continued to claim that they are politically neutral, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I think that regardless of whether Trump resigns, the distinction between “mainstream” media and “alternative” media will break down, in the sense that mainstream media are supposed to be non-partisan and “alternative” media approach the news with an acknowledged bias or viewpoint. I think that in the near future, almost every media outlet will be generally understood to be aimed at a particular segment of the political spectrum.
The other issue is: with Trump gone, will the media be so addicted to the ratings generated by minute-to-minute Trump drama that they manufacture controversy in ever-more-ridiculous ways after Trump is out of office? Quite possible.
There will be a bipartisan review of intelligence services and intelligence leaks
Just because Democrats think that intelligence community leakers are patriots right now doesn’t mean they don’t see the inherent long-term danger in allowing the spy agencies to leak politically sensitive information obtained from surveillance intercepts, aimed at affecting public opinion from behind a curtain of anonymity and unaccountability.
Once the dust settles on the current controversies (the Russia matters in particular), intelligence agency leaks will be curbed in a bipartisan manner. There’s no way that politicians will agree to live in a world where anything they say can be leaked by intelligence officials to discredit them or move the dial on controversial issues.