It’s been a month since election night, and after weeks of lawsuits, recounts, wild allegations, baseless conspiracy theories, fired election officials, and fervent denials, nothing has drawn into question whether Joe Biden will be sworn in as president on January 20th. He will.
I suspect Donald Trump is fully aware of this, but don’t expect him to concede defeat… ever.
This isn’t simply about his ego, though that’s a pretty big part of it. Trump and his loyal followers are faithfully invested in the theme that he is a consummate “winner.” That’s a tough narrative to reconcile after he lost the election by 74 electoral votes and lost the popular vote by a whopping 7 million… especially considering he was running against a candidate as unimpressive as Joe Biden.
Some may recall that Trump did this same type of thing back in 2016, attributing state primary losses to corrupt officials and “rigged” systems. Heck, he even did it after he won the general election, claiming without proof that he lost the popular vote because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary.
This is what he does. Thus, the denials will continue.
But again, this is about more than ego. While Trump’s actions and rhetoric are bad for the country, they’re pretty helpful to his political future, should he decide to have one. Because so many Republican voters don’t buy the results of the election (between 70 and 80 percent, according to the polls), it appears he’ll manage to escape personal accountability — at least among the Republican base — for having lost.
John McCain and Mitt Romney were cut no such break. When they lost their respective presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, it didn’t matter that both had run against a very strong, historically important opponent. It didn’t matter that McCain had the unpopularity of the Bush administration, years of war-weariness, and a 30-year mortgage crisis working against him. It didn’t matter that Romney had a big political disadvantage in running against an incumbent, landmark president. The sentiment among the GOP base, later tapped into and amplified by Donald Trump, was that they were losers. Thus, the party needed to get behind a much different type of candidate.
In 2016, Trump was that guy. A plurality of Republican voters saw fire in Trump’s belly. He was someone who would say anything and fight anyone. It didn’t really matter what was the battle or who was the opponent.
Trump also had luck on his side.
Whoever won the Republican nomination that year was going to have the historical advantage that comes with running against an opposition party that’s held the White House for two consecutive terms. But Trump also got to face a uniquely bad and broadly disliked opponent in Hillary Clinton, whose email scandal had been brought back into the spotlight (just days before the election) by an announcement of new developments from FBI directory James Comey. Despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by 3 million ballots, Trump won the electoral college and therefore the presidency.
With victory came the bragging rights, and boy did he brag.
Four years later, Trump also had a number of things working in his favor. He was the incumbent. The economy had been very strong under his watch, right up until the pandemic hit. The Democratic primary had come off like a political clown-show during every debate, producing one radical and ridiculous idea after another. That contest’s winner, Joe Biden, enjoyed little enthusiasm and drew serious doubts about his cognitive sharpness. Even with a global health crisis turning countless lives and livelihoods upside-down, state governors who took charge and exuded leadership saw their job-approval ratings rise; Trump did too, for a while.
But ultimately, Trump lost. And he lost by quite a bit. He was defeated by the same electoral-vote margin that he called a “historical landslide” four years earlier. 7 million more voters chose his Democratic opponent. In fact, as was the case in 2016, Trump won a smaller portion of the electorate than Mitt Romney in 2012, once again falling short of the 47% mark. Also, as in 2016, Trump under-performed congressional Republicans almost across the board.
By Trump’s own standards, as well as those of the Republican base in recent years, Trump is “a loser.” He’s a man who “choked.” A “total disgrace” who was “beaten like a dog.”
Yet, in the wake of the November election, few in the GOP seem to see it that way. By and large, Republicans aren’t placing blame on Trump. They’re blaming pretty much everyone else (Attorney General Bill Barr being the latest), but not him.
Trump’s super-power has long been his ability to alter reality, at least in the minds of many of his supporters, through righteous indignation and rhetorical repetition. All he’s had to do, post-election, is insist, over and over again, that he won. Well, that and cloud the airwaves and Internet with anecdotes, misinformation, and conspiratorial nonsense framed as massive, coordinated corruption.
It doesn’t matter that his case keeps falling apart even under the slightest bit of scrutiny. It matters even less what the news media is reporting, because they’re “fake news.” By continuing to “fight,” and refusing to concede defeat, Trump never really lost.
This will prove to be a huge political advantage for him, should he decide to run for president again in four years (which he’s rumored to announce during Joe Biden’s inauguration). Heck, it will be great for him no matter what he decides to do, whether it’s buying a cable-news network, starting a podcast, or taking his arena-show on the road as a private citizen. He’s already raised a ton of money off of the “rigged election” angle, much of which has gone toward paying down his campaign debt.
What it won’t do is help the GOP, as we’re already seeing indications of.
It was initially believed that Republican senate candidates would have a pretty easy time winning their Georgia run-off races, and keeping the GOP majority in the U.S. Senate. But after a month of Trump and his crew (including a number of media conservatives) baselessly declaring a massive election-fraud operation in the state, led by Republican officials (who are receiving death threats thanks to the bogus charges), there are now very real concerns that Republican turnout will be low enough, because of voter disenfranchisement, to hand the victories (and control of the Senate) to the Democrats.
This could be a lasting problem, and it’s not good for democracy. If Trump continues to press this theme from the sidelines over the next few years, other elections may be affected as well (not just in regard to turnout but also voters refusing to accept their outcomes).
And if you think Trump will feel even the slightest bit bad about any of the artificial chaos he has created, you haven’t been paying attention over the past five years. What Trump does, he does for himself. As long as it benefits him personally, he’ll never stop fueling unrest.
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