Donald Trumpâ€™s refusal to concede the election has fueled intense speculation about his post-presidency: will he start a new conservative cable network? Will he act as a kingmaker in the Republican party? Will he run for president again in 2024?
Underlying all of these rumors is the assumption that Trump will continue to hold sway over a significant voter base. But this is by no means assured. It seems just as likely that, over time, Trumpâ€™s trajectory will land him closer to associates like Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani â€“ hosting a middling podcast and hawking branded merchandise while trying to fend off prosecution.
The media echo chamber which now insists that Trump will be a titanic political force for years to come sounds increasingly similar to the one that, five years ago, claimed he was no more than a flash-in-the-pan celebrity candidate. The glaring underestimation of Trump in the past and probable overestimation of his prospects today actually stem from the same error: the belief that Trumpâ€™s political appeal rests mainly on his personality cult, not on any association with a certain set of policy arguments.
Trump did not win the presidency in 2016 simply because he had a cameo in Home Alone 2 and an uncanny talent for Twitter. He also outlined a wide-ranging, if inchoate, critique of the bipartisan policy consensus that had dominated American politics since the end of the cold war: a failed combination of â€œneoliberalâ€ economics at home and military adventurism abroad. Moreover, Trumpâ€™s critique was based on national interests rather than the (often treacly) left-liberal moralism of progressive Democrats, thus scrambling ideological categories and establishing himself as a candidate with a unique appeal among key constituencies.
Trumpâ€™s larger-than-life persona, ubiquitous presence in pop culture and peculiar media savvy were certainly assets in 2016, as they are today. But the critical policy factors that set Trump apart in his first campaign have diminished considerably since then.
First, after one term in office, it is clear that the Republican establishment changed Trump more than he changed the party. Although his administrationâ€™s policy record is a mixed bag, the shift in rhetoric over four years was unmistakable. Attacks on hedge fund managers and pharma executives became rarer and rarer, replaced with praise for tax cuts, cheering on the Dow, bashing â€œsocialismâ€ and lauding supreme court appointments. To be sure, arguments can be made for all of these things, at least among conservatives, but they are arguments that Ted Cruz or even Jeb Bush could make, albeit less theatrically. Of late, Trumpâ€™s combativeness has focused almost exclusively on allegations of election fraud and cringe-inducing self-pity; most people are already tuning it out.
Meanwhile, as Trump has drifted away from the more substantive themes of 2016, others have embraced them. Up-and-coming politicians like Senator Josh Hawley and pundits like Tucker Carlson have articulated more coherent right-populist arguments than Trump ever has. Senator Marco Rubio is leading an ambitious attempt to rethink Republican economic policy, while figures like Representative Matt Gaetz have emerged as passionate critics of foreign interventionism. It made little sense for these and other prominent Republicans to criticize the 45th president while he was in office. Should Trump enter the 2024 race, however, he will find the populist â€œlaneâ€ of the Republican primaries far more crowded. The Democratic party has also changed. Joe Biden campaigned on a â€œMade in Americaâ€ industrial policy program, something Trump never really countered in the 2020 campaign.
Politics, of course, is about much more than policy. Yet those who believe in the invincibility of Trumpâ€™s personality cult â€“ including, it seems, the president himself â€“ hold a view of American democracy that is at once too cynical and too naÃ¯ve.
On the one hand, the average voter is not motivated entirely by tribal loyalties and subrational impulses (though the average media personality might be). Even if wonkishness is an undesirable trait for presidential candidates, big-picture policy visions matter.
On the other hand, turning out enthusiastic audiences at rallies and commanding a large social media following are much less important than is commonly believed. Joe Biden proved that in both the Democratic primaries and the general election of 2020. Furthermore, when it comes to policy formation, the effectiveness of mass politics is often constrained by an increasingly oligarchical system. Institutional power often outweighs popular appeal.
Trumpâ€™s 2016 victory proved the concept that Republican voters are tired of zombie Reaganism, but his presidency did almost nothing to reorient Republican institutions and donors, which supported his administration out of convenience, not conviction. Despite four years in office, Trump built essentially no new long-term infrastructure or donor networks that could sustain a distinctive and lasting political movement, even one centered entirely around himself.
On his own, Trump may never lack an audience or fail to draw a crowd. Yet as an aficionado of professional wrestling, he should understand the limitations of a genre in which advertising rates historically tend be quite low relative to ratings, presumably because wrestlingâ€™s core audience has comparatively little discretionary spending power. Unfortunately, the parallels between pro wrestling and American politics go beyond the entertainment spectacle; they extend to economics and influence as well.
Accordingly, claims that the Republican party is â€œafraidâ€ of Trump are grossly exaggerated. Republican members of Congress recently voted overwhelmingly for the National Defense Authorization Act, in spite of Trumpâ€™s public opposition to it, just as they steamrolled Trump on the recent Covid-19 stimulus and spending bill. The Republican party might give Trump a wide berth on symbolic gestures like his frivolous election lawsuits, and he could still be a factor in close races like the upcoming Georgia Senate runoffs. But on significant matters of policy, the partyâ€™s attitude is closer to contempt than to fear.
Like Nietzscheâ€™s Socrates, Trump was â€œthe buffoon who got himself taken seriouslyâ€. Unlike a Socratic buffoon, however, Trump never overcame himself. Bereft of the wider critique that once confounded political elites, his personality cult is no longer compelling even as a vessel for ressentiment. Its chief acolytes today are the legacy media operations whose fortunes his nonstop controversies helped revive, opportunistic scribblers hoping to cash in on one more #Maga or #Resistance potboiler, and those who prefer that the media focus on anything except the substantive issues raised in 2016. They will happily ride the Trump gravy train as far as it goes, but itâ€™s already running out of steam.