As Donald Trump continues to insist that he actually won the 2020 presidential election, speculation has grown about how the president will spend the next four years. Trump’s political future isn’t over, even if he did become the first president to lose re-election since 1992.
Trump is a notoriously prickly man who can make three different decisions on one topic in a span of an hour. Not even his closest advisers and family members know what he is going to do after vacating the White House in about two months. Trump is reportedly mulling a 2024 presidential run to avenge a loss he considers fraudulent; one campaign adviser told the Washington Post this weekend that Trump could make an announcement in as soon as three weeks time. Alternatively, he could go back to New York and keep himself busy running the family business. A national speaking circuit for millions of dollars is on the table as well, as is a memoir about his four years in the Oval Office.
Regardless of his post-presidency plans, Donald Trump will remain the single-most popular individual in the Republican party for at least the next four years. While he may have lost his bid for re-election, he also won over 73 million Americans – 10 million more than he received in 2016. Trump received more votes than any other Republican presidential nominee in U.S. history; more than Richard Nixon’s 1972 stomper against George McGovern and more than Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory over Walter Mondale. Notwithstanding his dumpster-fire policy on the coronavirus (which perhaps can be best described as wishing the virus away and, barring that, creating an alternative reality about his so-called success), Trump’s job approval rating among his fellow Republicans is an astounding 95 per cent.
If you expected the rank-and-file of the Republican party to jump off the Trump Train the day after he lost to Joe Biden, think again. Despite the hijinks of the last two weeks: inviting the Michigan Republican delegation to the White House; filing wacky lawsuits about a Democratic-led vote rigging conspiracy; refusing to allow the U.S. government to cooperate with Biden’s transition team as is both customary and necessary. Trump is still the quasi-leader of the GOP. The strangeness and tragicomedy of Trump’s actions since the election have yet to lead to any major Republican split with the White House. The fact Trump is not on the ballot any longer doesn’t seem to make much difference. Indeed, the only GOP lawmakers expressing their concerns about Trump’s behaviour are those who either don’t have to face voters during the next election cycle or who are retiring. The younger generation of Republicans who may wish to move on from Trumpism or sprinkle a less toxic politics into the mix will have to ply the party from Trump’s cold, dead hands.
So whether or not Trump is a presidential candidate in 2024 won’t matter to the bottom-line: the guy who couldn’t care less about traditional conservative principles like deficit reduction and small government will very likely be the kingmaker of the Republican party for the remainder of his life. Trump won’t be spending his golden years in retirement quietly like Reagan or George W. Bush.
For strategists and party leaders planning for future election cycles, an active Trump is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because Trump will raise a boatload of cash for the Republican party every time he decides to speak at a rally or send a fundraising solicitation in his name. His trail-hopping during the 2022 midterm elections will rile up the conservative base and drive those people to the polls.
But Trump’s presence will also be a curse to the long-term trajectory of the GOP, as every Republican officeholder who wishes to move the party in a different direction will now be checked for fear of angering the former president. If there is anything incumbents don’t want to test, it’s Trump’s capacity to put his thumb on the scale during a GOP primary contest – either with a vicious denouncement via tweet or an endorsement of a Trump-aligned challenger.
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