“Hitler Virtually Eliminated” — New York Times headline, Sept. 28, 1923
As I write, there are horns honking in the French Quarter and people cheering. I don’t think they are overcome with emotional enthusiasm for the upcoming presidency of Joe Biden. They’re just thrilled about the end of Donald Trump. For four years, this monstrous man has occupied our constant attention, committing crime after crime, escalating the climate crisis and terrorizing immigrants. Now, thank God, he has been narrowly defeated, and we face four years of a conservative Democratic presidency, which, while it cannot be expected to be good, at least spares us from the worst.
It is truly enjoyable watching Trump himself try to process his defeat. There are reports that those around him do not know how to get him to accept that he has lost, and that he keeps vowing to fight on even as it becomes increasingly clear that neither Fox News nor the conservative-dominated Supreme Court are going to save him. Republican allies have already begun ditching Trump. After all, nobody has any personal loyalty to Trump—most only served and flattered him because he was powerful—so a Trump who does not possess power may find himself somewhat friendless and alone.
I suspect that Trump’s chances of clinging to power were diminished by the fact that Joe Biden is relatively conservative and a reliable respecter of the political and economic status quo. The Supreme Court is dominated by Republican appointees, yes, but they are also the products of elite law schools—the type of people whose loyalty is more likely to be to the status quo rather than Donald Trump’s cult of personality. They know that Joe Biden is not actually going to “pack the court” (I doubt he’ll even follow through on his threat to launch a bipartisan commission to study the matter.) Hell, Biden might even be persuaded to put a Republican on the Court. (Actually, if he does get an opening, my best bet is he’ll pick Merrick Garland.) Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch have no reason to fear Biden, and no reason to assist Trump in his desire to become a dictator.
As it becomes clear that Trump’s options are limited, people are rightfully cheering his defeat. It’s very satisfying to watch a powerful, arrogant man be humiliated and be unable to have what he wants. Donald Trump can fume and rage, he can declare on Twitter that he won the election, but ultimately, since he has few allies in the media or the courts and has no way to stop the vote count from being certified, it looks as if his choices are going to be: leave office voluntarily or be dragged from the White House kicking and screaming while clinging to his gold drapes. Alas, I think he will eventually be persuaded to go quietly, and we will not get to witness the spectacle of the Secret Service tossing him to the curb like bouncers ejecting a troublemaker. Still, to see him defeated understandably fills many of us with joy, even if the election results were far too close for comfort.
Do not get comfortable, though. Even as we honk our horns and laugh at Trump’s tears, we need to remember one very crucial thing: this is just the beginning of our work, and if we are not careful, Trump and Trumpism will soon be back with a vengeance.
I had a horrible revelation shortly after it became clear Biden would prevail. “Ah, that’s Trump finished,” I thought, before catching myself. “Wait. He can run again, can’t he?” Usually one-term presidents don’t try to regain the office later; there are norms about such things. They slink quietly off and do charitable work and run their libraries. But Donald Trump does not believe in norms. Would he try to regain the office he believes was unjustly taken from him?
I don’t see why he wouldn’t. This election did not actually repudiate Trump in any obvious sense. His support was massively increased from 2016. Republicans made gains in Congress. It’s not like we’ve had proof the country isn’t buying what he’s selling. Trump might conclude that were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have been re-elected. That may in fact be true. It’s impossible to run the counterfactual, but I suspect that had the economy been stronger, Biden might not have edged him out. Trump knows that there are tens of millions of people who will love him no matter what he does.
Trump is also not someone who takes defeat like a “good sport.” When I was researching his life for my book Anatomy of a Monstrosity (recently republished as American Monstrosity), I concluded that one of the signature motivations underlying Trump’s actions was a desire for vengeance. He once said that his “motto” is “Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.” And he’s done it, too. In one of his books, there’s a description of a time Trump asked a former employee to call someone she knew in order to secure a favor. The woman refused for ethical reasons. Trump says he vowed to destroy her, viewing her action as traitorous. In the book he cheerfully concludes:
She ended up losing her home. Her husband, who was only in it for the money, walked out on her and I was glad… I can’t stomach disloyalty…and now I go out of my way to make her life miserable.
When billionaire Richard Branson met with Trump, Branson was shocked by Trump’s “vindictive streak” and said that over lunch, Trump “began telling me about how he had asked a number of people for help after his latest bankruptcy and how five of them were unwilling to help. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying these five people.” Branson found the attitude deeply frightening.
Trump likes to see himself as someone who comes back with a vengeance after he is counted out, as he did after his infamous financial struggles in the early 1990s. I think it is fair to conclude from the record, then, that Donald Trump is someone who is quite likely to respond to a humiliating electoral defeat by vowing to get revenge in the next election. If he goes away quietly, he’ll be a loser forever. Coming back and kicking the Democrats out of power in four years, showing everyone who laughed at him that he’s not to be trifled with—the possibility will likely hold a strong appeal for Trump. If he doesn’t try it, after all, he’ll just be a loser, and that’s the one thing Donald Trump could never stand to be.
I don’t know for certain that Trump will run again, obviously. His health might not hold up, though he is astonishingly energetic for a man of his age and lifestyle habits. But I do think it is worth noting a few facts. First, the huge popularity of Trump at the polls among Republicans means that if he did run, he would be reasonably likely to secure his party’s nomination again. Second, Joe Biden may not be in a position to run for re-election, since he is four years older than Trump. Third, if the Biden presidency is a failure, Democrats will be vulnerable. Fourth, the Biden presidency is likely to be a failure, partly because Joe Biden will likely fill his cabinet with establishment goons and do nothing, and partly because a Republican senate can block Biden from doing anything transformative that could make him popular. I would not say that a second Trump term is the likeliest outcome, but I would say that it’s conceivable, and the fact that it’s conceivable and technically possible is terrifying. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Trump’s way of dealing with his loss is to immediately announce his 2024 candidacy, continue holding rallies, mess with and undermine Biden however he can, and treat himself as a “president in exile” who is waiting to regain his rightful office. (Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if he built a fake White House, bought a 747 and had it painted like Air Force One, and started doing daily livestreams from a replica of the Oval Office.)
In fact, Donald Trump running for re-election in 2024 might even be the best-case scenario. I have long feared the “competent fascists” more than I fear Trump himself, the people like Tom Cotton and Dan Crenshaw who offer the same hard-right politics with more genteel/respectable presentations. (Both are Harvard men and veterans who liberals will not oppose nearly as fiercely as they oppose Trump, because these men are not crass and disgusting, even as they pose a potentially greater threat to humanity.) Whatever happens, the increased turnout for Trump this election (and the election to Congress of millennial alt-right troll Madison Cawthorn and QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Green) means that the extremist right is far from dead in this country. It will probably get worse. A 2024 Trump will probably be even more delusional and aggressive than the one we have with us today. Any nightmarish scenario might happen—hell, if we get Congressman Alex Jones someday, it wouldn’t stun me.
All of which is to say: we need to start work now, and understand that the clock is ticking. The right is going to regroup. Maybe Trump will be happy selling books and doing a new series of The Apprentice. I don’t know. But this election showed that we do not live in a reliably Democratic country in which 2016 was just a disturbing aberration. We live in a place where the right has power, and they know it. We need a plan for defeating them.
2024 will be here before you know it. If Biden doesn’t run, the establishment Democratic Party will likely want Kamala Harris, and I do not have great confidence in her ability to take on the right (she didn’t do great in her debate with Mike Pence, and her own presidential campaign this cycle quickly floundered). Fortunately, we have great rising stars on the left whose abilities I am confident in. Personally, I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (a gruff, tattooed democratic socialist whom Slate has already called “America’s secret political hope”) could be a dream team that would keep Trump or any of his successors out of office. The DSA has won dozens of races around the country even as centrist Democrats have been falling on their faces. The left is organized and competent and I have faith in what we can do.
But first we have to understand the situation we are in. We can take a few days to celebrate. But this is a battle, not the war. Laugh at Donald Trump, take a deep breath, and sure, have some brunch. But realize that we are at the very beginning of the fight against the right. Trump and his friends will be back. And we’d better be ready for them.