President Trump has been unusually lucky in his first two years to have faced no real crises. But that good fortune is unlikely to continue for two more years. It may be the economy. It may be the Mueller report and its findings. It may be a crisis abroad that brings the nation close to war, a terrorist attack on the homeland, or the appearance of a highly infectious virus.
How Trump responds to crisis will do much to determine his fate. But there are two other variables at play. If Trump responds to an emergency with scapegoating and demagoguery—as he is likely to do—could it work? Is the nation so polarized that roughly half its citizens would follow him? And can Democrats play at Trump’s game without sinking to his level? Are they capable of uniting behind leaders who rouse the passions of their liberal wing, but who also beckon to the white working class to come and join their cause?
The Democrats’ civil war in 1980 created an opening for an optimistic leader, in Reagan. But the timing was right. Reagan had taken on his own party four years earlier when he challenged Gerald Ford. By 1980, the right was united behind him once he won the primary. The Democrats, meanwhile, may not have worked through enough of their own issues to be ready if Trump is weakened and vulnerable in 2020. Can anyone unite them, much less the nation at large? Are we even in the mood to be united?