After the Watergate saga ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, one couple is said to have divorced because they had nothing left to talk about. A similar void now looms for many of us. We’ve hardly allowed ourselves to imagine what happens if the most likely scenario occurs: Donald Trump loses the US election, whines for a while, then leaves office. After Trump, could his supporters and opponents find not just new conversations but new identities? Could Trumpism survive? And would his departure pop the populist balloon worldwide?
Every modern US president lives in the heads of people around the world, but no previous incumbent occupied as much real estate as Trump has. In fact, no person in history has had such a real-time grip on the global consciousness. Trumpists often sneer that liberals suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome, but how could one not? For four years, the man with the world’s biggest megaphone has polluted our brains with lies, abuse and race-baiting, leaving everyone who hears him more stupid and paranoid.
“Trump’s dysregulation — the fact that he is in a high-intensity state all the time — has been passed on to us,” says Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote The Art of the Deal for him. Barack Obama promises that if Trump goes, “It just won’t be so exhausting. You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument.”
There’s a natural tendency to want to replace an over-exciting leader with a boring one. Ronald Reagan gave way to George HW Bush, Margaret Thatcher to John Major, Nixon to Gerald Ford. There’s an appetite now for a tedious president who at the very least won’t turn himself into a biological weapon aimed at his own country. The Democratic senator Michael Bennet captured the sentiment during his doomed run for the White House: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time.”
Joe Biden looks like the new Gerald Ford: a decent man who inherits a national crisis that defeats him. It has become structurally almost impossible to get progressive laws through the Senate (which the Democrats will struggle ever to hold beyond a two-year stretch) and the Supreme Court. If Biden packed the court with his own justices, the institution would instantly lose legitimacy with nearly half of Americans.
After Trump, the Democrats will lose their turnout machine and liberal newspapers their best story. A news recession threatens. The New York Times couldn’t keep its millions of new subscribers with front pages about endless congressional wrangling to pass fragments of a Green New Deal.
And Americans would refocus from politics on to private life, as in John Updike’s 1992 novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, whose historian narrator barely mentions Ford and instead lovingly relives his own adulteries. He wonders: “Was there ever a Ford Administration? Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty.”
Trump will surely avoid jail. Rich Americans and/or former presidents generally do. He has debts of at least $1.1bn, but then his previous six business bankruptcies didn’t exactly slow him down. American life abounds with ways to convert fame into money. In defeat, he could execute his original plan for 2016 and launch Trump TV. (Replacing the terminally ill Rush Limbaugh on rightwing talk radio would waste his televisual talents.)
Trump can make a fortune as long as he abandons his fantasy of being a businessman and owns his true genius as a lowbrow entertainer. He could thrive for a while yet. Former US presidents are highly motivated people with unbeatable healthcare. The last three who died were in their nineties, while Jimmy Carter is steaming ahead aged 96.
Trumpism would survive Trump, but probably couldn’t win another election. First, it would be a personality cult without the personality. Second, white nationalism is already crashing into the changing demographics of America. The Republican party is in a bind: it will have an outdated cultural offering and an unpopular economic offering of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation for fading fossil-fuels industries. Trump’s main political legacy could be the far-right militias he has encouraged. It only takes a few armed groups to make a country ungovernable.
Outside the US, the future for nativists is brighter. They will study Trump’s high-entertainment, anti-elitist, dog-whistling campaign of 2016 as a model for how to get elected, and his subsequent four years as a case study of how not to consolidate in office. While Trump was watching daytime TV, tweeting and playing golf, a professional autocrat like Viktor Orban captured the media, the courts, state bureaucracy and big business. Trump merely appointed some judges. Admittedly, eating the state is harder in the US than Hungary, but he barely tried. Nor did he hit the lowest bar of competent governing. For comparison: as a proportion of each country’s population, American deaths from Covid-19 have been more than four times Hungary’s. Simplistic nativism plus basic competence and state capture will remain an awesome political recipe.
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