On Wednesday, USA Today reporter Susan Page, moderating the vice presidential debate, asked Mike Pence about the doomsday scenario for November 3, 2020. “If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as vice president? What would you personally do?” Of course, Pence told Page he believes Trump will win as long as there’s “a free and fair election.”
In recent weeks, Trump and his surrogates have clung to this wording—“a free and fair election”—as part of their conditional commitments to “the peaceful transfer of power,” should he lose. Trump agonizes, while citing no evidence, about the potential for voter fraud and other acts of sabotage against his campaign. It’s reasonable to interpret such pronouncements from a sitting president with terminal cynicism about the democratic tradition. It’s alternatively tempting to interpret them as Trump being Trump, exaggerating his capacity for a coup in order to worry and infuriate his opponents. Four years ago, Trump ranted and raved about a “rigged” election in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. In Trump and Clinton’s third and final presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he’d honor the election results, should he lose. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump responded.
Well, Trump won, and—as he’ll have you know—Democrats have spent the four years since his victory against Clinton expressing their own concerns about the integrity of recent elections. But Russiagate, an investigation that hinged on substantiated concerns about foreign interference in U.S. elections, including the 2016 presidential election, pales in comparison to Trump’s general theory of Election Day: Fewer people should vote, and fewer votes should count, and votes for Trump’s opponents should warrant suspicion in all cases. As president, Trump’s disregard for democratic outcomes seems more reprehensible than ever before. In a White House press briefing three weeks ago, Playboy correspondent Brian Karem once again asked the president, “Win, lose, or draw, will you commit here today to a peaceful transition of power after the election?” As usual, Trump sowed doubts. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said. “I have been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
Consider the major constituencies who’ve worried, at various turns, about being stuck with Trump—the progressives who’ve abhorred him since his “birtherism” crusade against Barack Obama, and the conservatives who’ve navigated Trumpism with some mix of contrarianism, fatalism, distrust, and exhaustion. If Trump were to lose on Election Day, his critics presume as a worst-case scenario a sort of right-wing conspiracy—relying on the Electoral College, the Republican Senate, and the conservative Supreme Court—to dispute and discard ballots in order to keep Trump in office for a second term, win or lose. It’s a wild scenario, but so, too, was the electoral crisis that culminated in Bush v. Gore in 2000. It’s easier to understand the paranoia about Trump’s immovability from office when you consider the alternative, optimistic outlook on Trump’s defeat. In their best-case scenarios, Trump’s opponents presume “a free and fair election,” followed by “a peaceful transfer of power” that sends Trump kicking and screaming into the sunset. Biden wins. Biden takes office. Trump departs. Crisis averted. But then what? Even then, Trump doesn’t cease to exist. His Twitter account doesn’t deactivate. His provocations become less powerful but no less provocative. He doesn’t lose control of his base and his party once he loses the election. There’s nothing to suggest Trump’s diminishing influence within the GOP. There’s nothing to suggest Trump’s intention to diminish his participation from the sidelines.
Even in the best-case scenario, Trump remains. His departure from Washington, D.C., doesn’t necessarily mark his departure from political leadership despite the recent counterexamples: George W. Bush slinking into artful exile once his presidency ended in broad disapproval and Barack Obama retreating to the Virgin Islands as his supporters pleaded for him to rally progressives against Trump. A year after they departed the White House together, Barack and Michelle Obama founded a production company, Higher Ground, and have made documentaries and podcasts. They’ve become thought leaders and entertainers. Barack Obama’s retirement from political leadership, despite his enduring popularity, and even as he’s dabbled in other public ventures, seemed to honor some unspoken political convention, such that Obama’s last-ditch role in Biden’s resurgence against Bernie Sanders before Super Tuesday came as a slight shock to observers.
But given everything we’ve seen from Trump since he entered presidential politics, it’d be foolish to presume his disappearance from day-to-day political leadership should he lose to Biden and leave office. Free from his official responsibilities, but then also freer than ever to tweet and appear on Fox News, Trump may govern the GOP in hyper-opinionated retirement. From Biden’s inauguration through the 2022 midterm elections, Trump may well project his dominance in GOP primaries for the foreseeable future. He’s yet unrivaled in his singular influence among conservative voters—that’s the subtext to so many questions about Trump’s political intentions should he lose. Trump’s critics, and maybe even his own confidants, would prefer to regard Trumpism as a surreal phase with a decisive conclusion; a nightmare, for sure, but a nightmare punctuated by some proverbial daybreak. But what if Trump never ends? Four years ago, Trump defeated Clinton and even then he kept campaigning against her into the new year. Before he even launched his political career, Trump hijacked the political agenda, railing against Obama and weighing in on every political news cycle in his imperious, all-caps manner. So it’s easy to imagine Trump storming onto the South Lawn and piling into his final motorcade in January 2021, knowing he’ll never surrender the bully pulpit.