Don’t count Trump out just yet

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By ARTHUR KLEINMAN

An article about the next US election already? Isn't it far too early for that? Not for the outgoing president, apparently. At a White House Christmas party in December, Donald Trump told guests that he and his team would see them "in four years". If we are to take him at his word, he means to secure a second presidential term in 2024. Nevertheless, as absurd as it may seem, the prospect should be taken seriously.


Looking back on November, Trump indeed lost the popular vote by 4.4%, a wider margin than in 2016. However, he did manage to secure the ballots of 74.2 million Americans - the highest figure ever achieved by a Republican presidential candidate, and an increase of approximately 11 million over his 2016 tally. Trump lost the election, but the numbers unambiguously illustrate that his messaging resonated with much of the country, for better or worse.


That said, it is not as if he was far off an electoral college victory either. Biden won Wisconsin by only 20,682 votes; Georgia by a mere 11,779; and Arizona by an even smaller margin of 10,457. Put another way, if the Republicans had garnered an additional 45,000 votes across these three states, they would have retained the White House.


Considering this raw data, as well as the boon generally experienced by opposition candidates running unencumbered by the need to defend their current tenure, it wouldn’t be entirely nonsensical for the GOP to nominate Trump for a third time. Indeed, if the outgoing president had exercised some degree of self-restraint and refrained from inciting an insurrection in the Capitol, he would have been the presumptive nominee going into 2024.


For one, the outgoing president enjoyed – and still enjoys - substantial support among his party base. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in November, a full 53% of Republicans and right-leaning independents selected Trump as their favoured candidate for the 2024 primary. Many Republicans have seemingly been spurned by the capitol riots, with 43% voicing opposition in a recent YouGov poll. However, a marginally higher 45% claimed that the riots were legitimate, and Trump nevertheless seems to have retained credence within the party, with a PBS/Marist poll in their imme- diate aftermath finding 77% of Republicans voicing approval for their leader.


The Capitol riots have certainly diminished the outgoing president’s standing within the institutional GOP, a fact borne out by the prompt resignation of various cabinet officials and the resounding criticism emanating from the party’s Senate caucus. Even figures such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton – hitherto staunch, obsequious allies of Trump – have broken ranks. In spite of this, many other Republican officials have continued to cynically indulge the outgoing president’s whims. A staggering 138 Republican House members voted in favour of challenging Pennsylvania’s election result. And who’s to say that institutional backing will count for much come 2024? After all, Trump was hardly well respected among GOP elites in 2016, yet the base’s sheer enthusiasm was sufficient to bring him victory against more institutionally credible candidates. Is it not feasible that such a dynamic re-emerges during the next election cycle, with loyal grassroots supporters again lining up behind the candidate ostracised by mainstream political figures?


If Trump is not convicted and barred from public office by the Senate (a matter not yet settled at the time of writing) and opts to take such a course, America’s political system will only sink deeper into the quagmire of deadlock and polarisation that it currently inhabits. While its social and economic infrastructure further dilapidates, the planet warms and the geopolitical centre of gravity moves further eastward, the US would embroil itself in a torturous and debilitating re-litigation of the zero-sum culture wars that characterised the previous decade – but this time marked by even greater severity, now that their subject matter would be the credibility of American democracy itself.


That said, even if one swaps the protagonists - say, for instance, the next election saw Kamala Harris pitted against Mike Pence - the changes explicitly wrought upon American culture and society by the Trump era aren’t easily revocable, for they were only the culmination of a deeply embedded structural rot. Trump’s presidency was the perfect embodiment of America’s cultural decadence and societal dysfunctionality. For that reason, it would not only be feasible, but morbidly fitting for him to seek a second term in four years’ time.


Image: The White House / Shealah Craighead

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