Donald Trump's most dangerous Twitter joke could well become a reality — and everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Michael Cohen knows it
When we asked constitutional experts what would happen if Trump refused to leave the White House in 2020, they were stumped
There’s no such thing as a joke, that’s what Freud said.
In his snappily titled 1905 tome ‘The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious’, he posited that jokes allow us to “express sexual, aggressive, playful, or cynical instincts that would otherwise remain hidden”.
So what should we make of Donald Trump’s tweet this morning, in which he joked about defying the constitution to serve more than two full terms in office?
While many of Sigmund’s theories are now widely mocked or discounted, others have become fundamental tenets of psychology. And we’ve all used humour to convey an opinion or intention we’re uncomfortable with.
We might joke about the acquaintance who conveniently disappears when it’s his turn to buy a round, slapping him on the back and saying, “Only kidding, mate” but quietly hoping they sense our frustration at their cheapskate ways. Or we’ll ask whether our date “got lost“ after turning up 20 minutes to Nandos, leaving us to fiddle with halloumi fries as nearby tables ponder whether we’ve been stood up.
Which is why we should be worried when the president of the United States — a man with a famous (or infamous) distaste for rules and convention — jokes about defying the ultimate rulebook: the US constitution.
The framers of the constitution didn’t set term limits; George Washington established the convention when he stepped down after two terms.
It was only after the chaos of the Second World War gave cover for Franklin D Roosevelt to run for — and win — four consecutive terms that Congress decided to enshrine the convention in law.
With Trump’s gaudy golden temples, and many of his most ardent supporters calling him the best president ever, it would hardly be surprising if he saw himself as a modern-day Ozymandias, a king of kings who should be allowed to serve longer than any man before him.
But it’s likely even Trump knows that altering the constitution in his favour is prohibitive — but his repeated undermining of a key presidential norm brings to mind a potentially more likely and worrying prospect.
It was a once-unthinkable scenario, but now people are openly beginning to wonder whether it could come to pass: the president refusing to leave office if he loses in 2020.
Michael Cohen, once one of The Donald’s closest confidants, said under oath this year: “Given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” It’s a prospect Nancy Pelosi has acknowledged and said her party needs to prepare for.
Even in the face of multiple bankruptcies, Trump has spun every defeat as a victory. A 2020 loss would be the only one he couldn’t obscure. Or could he?
Earlier this year, a reporter at The Independent asked constitutional experts what would happen if the president refused to step down after losing an election. Those constitutional experts were stumped.
One imagined a scenario where Trump loses by a single per cent, causing him to cry voter fraud and squat in the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“If he wants to stay in the White House, he would stay in the White House,” another said.
Like the two-term convention pre-war, the peaceful transfer of power hasn’t had to be written into law — but it was woven into the fabric of American politics.
Another constitutional expert we asked said that in the event of a refusal to transfer power in 2020, it would be left to Congress to pressure the president out. To which I’d say: Yeah, good luck with that.
Whatever the outcome, and whatever the measures taken, such a scenario would be a constitutional crisis of the highest magnitude. America would be changed forever.
Both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan mentioned in passing that they regretted they could only serve two terms. Donald Trump repeatedly goads America over that very prospect.
Undermining the very basis of the presidency could have potentially dark consequences. And that’s no joke.