Trump May Not Win, but He’s Not Going Away

Donald and his followers will be a force in U.S. politics for years to come.
Photographer: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Less than a month before Election Day, most major public polls point to a victory for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She’s been helped most certainly by the volatile and vulgar style of Donald Trump—as well as the surprise revelation of his hot mic moments from a decade ago. One national poll shows Clinton up by double digits, and the former secretary of State leads in most swing states as well. Many prominent Republicans apparently have written off Trump’s chances—a group of former senior Republican National Committee staffers in September called on the group to stop funding his campaign and save money for down-ballot races. As the third debate looms, Trump’s strategies seem more Götterdämmerung than anything else.

Prominent Trump critics on both the right and the left hope that a dramatic defeat will not only end his political career but also bury the Trumpist political philosophy—a mash-up of nationalist foreign policy rhetoric, protectionist economics, seeming calls for greater authoritarianism, and nativism. Some believe that Trump is a lightning strike that can’t be repeated. Republican strategist Rick Wilson suggests that a total Trump defeat could help the GOP revive itself, root out xenophobia, and inoculate the country against the continuing political influence of the showman after November.

Wilson is being overly optimistic. Neither Trumpism nor Trump is going to vanish. The recent history of demagogic candidates like Trump, in both richer and poorer countries worldwide, indicates they often come back for second and even third attempts to win power. In the meantime, they force political parties to bend to their will, and their authoritarian style has a long-term, corrosive effect on their country’s politics.

Trump is part of a global phenomenon. Around the world, in wealthier nations and developing ones, democratic values and traditions are in decline. A broad swath of “elected autocrats” and candidates with authoritarian tendencies has come to dominate many political systems. Over the past decade, Larry Diamond of Stanford reports, 25 democracies have broken down. Often, these political systems collapsed after elected autocrats won power and then destroyed democracy. In many cases, these politicians launched vicious attacks on institutions even before winning office. Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra threatened the independence of the judiciary during his first prime ministerial campaign; Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi attacked supposedly elitist judges; and Trump has suggested that, as president, he could impose new restrictions on the media and federal judges or send Clinton to jail.

Many elected autocrats have also radically transformed political norms, which are hard to rebuild even after the bad actors exit the scene. In fact, they change these norms even when they lose the first elections they compete in. They fill party ranks with sycophants, essentially hollowing out their party as experienced tacticians flee. When Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally steps down from the ruling AK Party, he’ll leave it with few independent-minded political strategists, because he’s cashiered anyone not totally loyal to him. In Thailand, a similar process has unfolded. The Thaksinite party, now called Puea Thai, initially attracted a broad range of political activists and respected political leaders; it’s increasingly dominated by Shinawatra family loyalists.

Trump, too, could leave the GOP hollowed out for the long term. He has spokespeople and many campaign staff with little experience other than working for him. He oversaw his family’s takeover of the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July, according to Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. “The hall began to empty as soon as the Trumps left the stage,” he says. Young staffers who aren’t total Trump loyalists are leaving the RNC; in particular, it’s lost many younger Hispanic and black strategists. It may be difficult for senior Republican politicians to persuade these young men and women to become so involved in party politics again. Many will leave for more lucrative jobs in the private sector—and they’ll be loath to return if Trump continues to wield influence.

Trump’s crossing of red lines suggests to future candidates that they can do so as well, avoiding the pitfalls of public disclosure and not learning about policy. All they have to do is take steps to be less alienating than Trump, such as not openly clashing with members of their own party. If countries such as Thailand and Italy that have had their own Trumpist figures are any indication, future American candidates will mimic Trump’s dangerous strategies.

The Republican Party also may well embrace Trumpist policies for years. Trump can say that he’s hit on economic and cultural issues that resonate with the base. As a Gallup study shows, his support is highest among Americans who think the country has gone desperately wrong. His supposed remedies for these challenges, which include tariffs and highly restrictive immigration policies, are unlikely to be solutions, but this group of voters responds to them. Indeed, one recent study by Justin Gest, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, suggests that 65 percent of white voters in America would support a new, nativist-oriented party that might be similar to the hard-right parties of Europe.

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Or, if a new party doesn’t form, the GOP could become more ideological, like the European hard right, transformed by Trumpism. It won’t be easy for a man to step back when he’s taken over a party, believes he’s built a movement around himself, and destroyed political norms. After Thaksin failed to become prime minister of Thailand in the mid-1990s, his ambition was hardly drained. He regrouped, used his money to build a more powerful party centered on himself, and won elections in 2001 that allowed his family to mostly dominate Thai politics for 13 years, until a 2014 military coup.

After more than a year in the middle of the presidential race, the nominee is unlikely to simply lock himself back in Trump Tower, regardless of some Republican leaders’ hopes. Despite defections from his cause, Trump knows there is substantial, ongoing support within the GOP base for his brand of politics.

Yet uniquely among modern nominees, he retains a clear animus toward other party leaders—and the financial means to do without GOP donors. Trump also has no Senate or gubernatorial job to return to, meaning that, even if he loses, he can keep setting fires on Twitter without worrying about whether they might damage his ability to legislate. Surrogates such as talk show host Sean Hannity are already publicly claiming that if Trump loses, the blame will fall on traditional GOP elites who didn’t line up behind him—paving the way for Trump to purge them from the GOP.

There are reports that he wants to start his own cable TV channel after the election—just one more reason he won’t go quietly into the night. After all, fueling speculation about a 2020 run would be one of the best ways to promote a Trump channel or a future Trump show. And many of his supporters, like those of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, Thaksin, or Erdogan, have come to identify the party only with the man himself or his family, prodding them to remain in the spotlight. Notes Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo: “The excitement, the galvanization of a large part of the electorate … that’s all too transformative to be dropped in favor of the pre-2016 GOP.” It’s hard to believe that, after Trump, the GOP can just act like nothing happened in 2016 and pick a mainstream politician as its next presidential candidate.
Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of the forthcoming A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.

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