Trump In Exile Could Still Pose a Dangerous Threat to Democracy

He broke the country. But if he has his way, America will welcome him back.

Photo illustration; source: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In the election of 1824, a time of tumult by working men who felt excluded from the new economy of the nascent Industrial Age, Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams for the presidency. It was a short-lived triumph. While Jackson won the most popular and electoral votes, there were a total of four candidates, and he failed to reach the required threshold of 131 in the Electoral College. A House commission, appointed to make the final election decision, picked Adams, the second-highest vote-getter, to become the sixth U.S. president. The combative and domineering Jackson, livid over the dismissal of his far clearer mandate, vowed revenge.

For the next four years, Jackson and his supporters pummeled Adams. In 1828, they won vindication, this time overwhelming Adams with 56% of the popular vote and 178 electoral votes. Jackson became the first Democratic Party president and, by force of personality, went on to tower over U.S. political culture for decades and longer.

With the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the 2020s appear to be shaping up in a way that very much resembles the populist Age of Jackson two centuries ago. If the decade does play out this way, Trump will spend the next four years, starting now, bitterly asserting he was robbed. Backed by his ultra-fervent army of still-loyal supporters, he will spoil for a vengeance election in 2024. And in this show of grievance, much in keeping with the governing and campaign style of the last four years, Trump would be out of power, but Trumpism would not be.

While Biden will finish with the largest popular vote count in U.S. presidential election history, Trump will be second — ahead of Obama.

In a roller-coaster campaign, Biden promised an end to all-cap Twitter screeds, around-the-clock turbulence, grown-man threats, tantrums, and paroxysms of righteous indignation. That may happen, but if so, it appears likely to be a short reprieve. The tradition of the loser gracefully congratulating the winner is a norm, not a law; it only goes back to 1896 and William Jennings Bryan’s concession telegram to William McKinley. Trump, of course, has made norm-busting the default. Given that and his temperament, there’s little reason to expect him to publicly concede defeat. Already, the entire Trumpian universe has arisen in a Jacksonian fit of rage, including Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump Jr., and of course Trump himself. The salient talking point shaping up is that Biden will be illegitimate, an explosive accusation likely to keep the country divided and possibly Congress paralyzed.

The Biden victory was declared at about 11:30 am on Saturday, November 7, after a protracted vote-counting process that was complicated by the coronavirus. He is projected to beat Trump by 4%-6% of the popular vote when all the votes are finally called, and has flipped a number of states that the president won in 2016, including possibly two — Arizona and Georgia — that have long been red. But Trump country largely remained Trump country: In votes tabulated so far, Biden appeared to win back just 20 of 174 counties across the country that flipped to Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In other words, Biden less broke through than dug deeper into existing wells of Democratic support. While he will finish with the largest popular vote count in U.S. presidential election history, Trump will be second — ahead of Obama.

As long as Trump holds on to his red army — which seems a fair bet — he will remain a potent and threatening force.

After four years in office, Trump appears to be ending his presidency as he began it — attempting to bend reality to his view. Future historians are likely to regard his last year in office as a gigantic blunder, as he allowed his neurotic obsession with the election to dominate his judgment on how to attack the coronavirus. Rather than wielding his response to the virus as a tool for uniting the country behind him, he spent the last eight months wishing the pandemic away — off, given that he could have seized on the moment as an opportunity for another strongman show of power, “Had he handled Covid in a way as an autocrat, like mobilize the military to get everyone tested, that could have saved his bacon,” said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington. “He could have put on his whole George C. Patton.” Instead, Trump ended up appearing to be blithe about the deaths of now 235,000 Americans. “This is a man whistling past the graveyard,” said Derryn Moten, chair of the history department at the University of Alabama.

When Jimmy Carter failed in his reelection bid against Ronald Reagan, he largely vanished in Plains, Georgia, a forgotten force in the Democratic Party. George H.W. Bush, too, did not seem to wield power in the GOP after his defeat to Bill Clinton. Such a fate seems unlikely to await Trump.

On Thursday night, Donald Trump Jr. gave a glimpse of how his family intends to call the shots for the party. In what sounded a lot like a threat, the president’s eldest son lashed out at Republican leaders with their own presidential aspirations, tweeting, “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing. They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead.”

Quickly, GOP leaders fell in line. “All votes that are *legally* cast should be counted,” Senator Tom Cotton, regarded as a top contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, tweeted 18 minutes after Trump Jr. “There is NO excuse not to allow poll watchers to observe counting.”

“We all owe @realDonaldTrump for his leadership of conservative victories for Senate, House, & state legislatures,” Nikki Haley, the president’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and another leading 2024 contender, tweeted 25 minutes later. “He and the American people deserve transparency & fairness as the votes are counted. The law must be followed. We have to keep the faith that the truth will prevail.”

Two more Republicans with presidential ambitions — senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz — both went on Fox News and supported Trump’s claims of an ongoing election theft by Democrats.

This looks very much like a Jacksonian scenario. If so, Trump, like Andrew Jackson when he was similarly aggrieved, will soon be resentfully plotting his comeback. Though he would be 78 at his inauguration, that would be just a year older than Biden is now. According to the New York Times, Trump has privately spoken of a 2024 campaign run. In the case he does run again, there is no guarantee he would win, since Biden, Kamala Harris, or another surrogate might assemble the same coalition the former vice president did this time. But Trump could also play kingmaker and anoint someone to carry the Trumpist mantle. What will be required to obtain that blessing? There is very little indication, apart from absolute loyalty to the president. But whatever the qualifications are, as Donald Jr. made clear Thursday, contenders would be kept on a short leash.

Trump of course could decide to create a dynasty. “My guess is he will push his daughter on us,” said Thomas Dumm, a history professor at Amherst.

In their public speeches, both Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. have appeared to be rehearsing to succeed their father. The president has not made clear which — if either — he favors as a possible political successor.

The Biden landslide foreshadowed by the polls did not happen. Biden was supposed to sweep through red America and scoop up well over 350 electoral votes — even over 400 if the planets aligned. Along the way, his coattails were going to carry up to a dozen new Democrats into the House, and five or more into the Senate. Statehouses, too, were supposed to fall to the Democrats, who then would be in a position to reverse the last decade of extreme Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts. None of that happened.

But make no mistake — the 2020 election was a repudiation of the president. Biden appears to be on course to win more electoral votes — 306 — than George W. Bush collected in his two victories, and precisely the same number as Trump did in 2016. He looks likely to flip two red states, in addition to three more states that Trump won last time. He already has the highest popular vote in U.S. history.

Yet… yet… he did not crush Trump. It was not a thumping landslide, and down-ballot Republicans were not wiped out. If Trump had been, it’s possible or even probable that the GOP would have done everything it could to pretend like he never happened. In this scenario, Biden’s promise of a return to a more civil bipartisan discourse might have had some traction, at least for a honeymoon.

In hindsight, Trump showed himself to be a far more effective campaigner than almost anyone gave him credit for. He achieved his main campaign aim — unearthing many more votes in his base. He also turned out to have surprising versatility. A new Trumpism emerged that — while still very much an ideological appeal to a “real” White America worth making great again — is more racially complicated. Trump raised his support from Black Americans, receiving 8% of the vote, at least two points better than in 2016. More importantly, just as in 2016 Trump discovered a hidden population who felt “left behind” and turned them into a sneak attack on Hillary Clinton, in 2020 he unearthed a thick reservoir of pro-Republican Latinos, whose votes helped him keep Florida and Texas. In all, Trump won a whopping 35% of the so-called Latino vote, according to AP VoteCast. That group of voters — which is really many groups, not one — is likely to be a pillar of a 2024 Trumpist run, should he decide to make it.

Behind the scenes, Trump would be the chief hectorer on behalf of a Republican base that still wants more than anything to “own the libs.”

Biden seems unlikely to change the bitter collide between red and blue America, even if the White House becomes a comparatively more civil place. Plenty of Americans, encouraged and goaded by Trump, will resist and not be shy about showing Biden that, in their view, he is not their president. Amid the rubble of the down-ballot elections, Democrats still have a chance to win control of the Senate, and salvage a productive Biden presidency, if they can prevail in two Georgia runoff elections for U.S. seats on January 5.

Short of that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — not Joe Biden — may become the most powerful elected person in Washington, D.C. During President Obama’s two terms, McConnell established a record of gleefully stymying Democratic priorities and waiting for a chance to maximize his own agenda. Just for starters under Biden, McConnell plans to refuse to confirm any cabinet nominees who he regards as “radical progressives,” according to a report at Axios.

Behind the scenes, however, Trump would be the chief hectorer on behalf of a Republican base that still wants more than anything to “own the libs.” From Mar-a-Lago, Trump, buttressed by his 88 million Twitter followers, will probably begin to consider how to orchestrate a 2022 midterm in which his chosen Republican candidates could vie for more House and Senate seats. All of it leading to a 2024 cycle in which Trump or his anointed successor seem likely to start out as the leading candidate.

Jackson ended his eight years in power as an iconic figure in the Democratic Party and the country at large. Jacksonville, Florida, 22 counties across the country, and countless high schools are among the remnants of his time in office, even as statues of him get demoted to plaques. Are we headed for a future of Trumpvilles? Dumm, the Amherst professor, has his doubts. “There might be high schools,” he said. “I don’t know about towns.”

This story was updated at noon on Saturday, November 7.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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