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OPINION - Three-term Donald Trump? It's scary, but there are liberal precedents

 (AP)
(AP)

When I saw the headline “Trump 2028” in American Conservative magazine, I thought it must be an April Fool’s joke. It was written by Peter Tonguette, surely a made-up, tongue-in-cheek name. In fact, the author is real and his admiration for Donald Trump knows no bounds. Although he told me his article was meant to be “provocative, cheeky and punchy”, we were not simply being trolled.

Tonguette argued that “if a man who was once president returns, after a series of years, to stand again for the office and proves so popular as to earn a second non-consecutive term — as Trump seems bound to do — to deny him the right to run for a second consecutive term cuts against basic fair play.

“If, by 2028, voters feel Trump has done a poor job they can pick another candidate,” he added, “but if they feel he has delivered on his promises, why should they be denied the freedom to choose him once more?”

Whoa! Trump has not won the 2024 election yet. It is possible he could lose to Joe Biden again. But let’s face it, Trump would love being president for life. It irks him that under the 22nd amendment of the US constitution, he is barred from serving more than two terms.

In 2011, Bill Clinton argued that presidents should be allowed to run a third time as long there was a time gap between terms

Trump flirted with the idea of staying in power before the riot at the Capitol in January 2021. While hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago compound in 2019, Trump said: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”

His admiration for Xi is mutual, by the way. This week the New York Times revealed that covert Chinese social media accounts are posing as Make America Great Again fans and stoking division in the same way that Russian troll farms did in 2016. The Chinese “spamouflage” variously depicts Democrat Biden in a prison jumpsuit, makes jokes about his age or promotes claims that he is a Satanist and paedophile (fairly commonplace allegations among the QAnon crowd).

During the 2020 election, Trump seized on the allegations of Russian interference to argue with crazy logic that he was owed a third term because the Democrats had “spied” on his 2016 campaign. “We are going to win four more years,” he said at a rally in Wisconsin. “And then after that, we’ll go for another four years because they spied on my campaign. We should get a redo of four years.” After his galling defeat by Biden, Trump went on to advance the novel theory that the “stolen” election also entitled him to two more presidential terms. Joking or not, he keeps returning to the subject like a dog to a bone. Is something up? Will we be stuck with Trump forever?

Trump is already 77, so age could be a problem by 2028. Not according to Tonguette, though. It amuses him that, “If Trump wins in November and would be eligible to run for re-election in 2028, he would be 82 years old during that election — the same age Biden will be later this year.”

Admittedly, Tonguette’s argument in American Conservative is more of a thought experiment than a practical proposal. It is incredibly difficult to change the American constitution.

An amendment would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Representatives and Senate, and ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Although he avoids stating this explicitly in his article, Tonguette told me: “There is virtually zero chance that the 22nd amendment will be repealed.” He claimed: “My central point was that Trump, like Clinton and Obama before him, is uniquely popular among his supporters, and will likely remain so long past his time in the White House.”

Forgive me for not feeling reassured. There is a reason Trump’s obsession with extending his time in office makes me queasy. He has already tried to stay in the White House beyond his legitimate four-year term. If re-elected, Trump may not need to change the US constitution to stick around.

I asked Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton University, whether there were grounds for taking “Trump 2028” seriously. “Like many jokes, it’s an expression of a real feeling,” he replied. “Trump has very broad powers over the military and the insurrection act is still on the books. He has no conception of, let alone respect for the rule of law.”

During the January 6 riot, radical allies were urging Trump to invoke martial law and force a rerun of the ballot in swing states. Plans for “fake” electors to halt confirmation of Biden’s victory in Congress were far more advanced than most people realised at the time.

Then, however, Trump ran into a good deal of resistance from vice-president Mike Pence, White House lawyers and senior figures in the justice department. If he wins the election this year, he will have a freer hand to do as he pleases. Additionally, Professor Wilentz is concerned that a pliant Supreme Court would not stand in his way.

Let’s face it, Trump would love being president for life. It irks him that he is barred from serving more than two terms

Of course, all such warnings can sound ridiculous, just further examples of Trump Derangement Syndrome. As Tonguette has rightly noted, not long ago it was Democrats who favoured scrapping the 22nd amendment. In 2011, Bill Clinton argued on MSNBC television that presidents should be allowed to run a third time as long as there was a gap between the terms.

“I think as a practical matter,” Clinton said, “you couldn’t apply this to anyone who has already served, but going forward, I personally believe that should be the rule.”

The 22nd amendment hasn’t been around that long. It was proposed in 1947 by President Harry Truman after Franklin Delano Roosevelt served four terms in the White House, prolonged by the Second World War. Until then presidents simply followed George Washington’s voluntary two-term precedent.

But Trump thinks he is special. He has developed quite a “Messiah” complex, as his social media postings over Easter revealed. He enjoyed circulating a claim by author Wayne Root that, “Trump is ‘The Chosen One’... sent by God and blessed by God. What we are all witnessing is the Trump miracle.”

Billionaires like him are used to getting their own way. In 2008, Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy mayor of New York, managed to obtain a third term in defiance of the city constitution. It helped that the financial crash had just occurred and Bloomberg could present himself as the saviour of Wall Street. We can be sure Trump noticed where there is a will, there is a way.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting