Even a few days ago, friends of Donald Trump could have told him sincerely that, all things considered, he had a pretty good election. He had outperformed the polls by a greater margin than he did four years ago. He had expanded GOP support with the fasting growing minority groups—giving a real boost to the idea that Hispanics were not likely to join Blacks as a permanently Democratic and left wing voting bloc. Instead, Hispanics were conceivably on a path resembling the history of Italian-Americans—Democratic as new immigrants, but more Republican as they became more settled. Trump did this notably without an iota of ethnic pandering—there was no softness on immigration, no embarrassing attempts to hablar espanol, no sucking up to professional ethnic activists. Simply treating Latinos as normal potential Trump voters, interested in economic prosperity (and not in socialism), in border control and in law and order, seemed to work. In fact, it worked well enough to put into play an optimism about the innate conservatism of Latino immigrants that few had voiced since the 1990s.
And the country might not have recognized it yet, but it would: Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, summoned into existence two seemingly very effective coronavirus vaccines many months before experts deemed it possible. Of course, it was the scientists and America’s infrastructure who did that, but it was Trump who cleared out that obstacles and made sure the money was available. It’s precisely the kind of thing he was good at in his career as a real estate developer, getting around and through hurdles, quickly. Would another president have done the same? Perhaps, but Trump did it—exactly what he said he would do. Under normal circumstances, it would be impossible to deny him the credit due him and he would eventually recoup it.
His foreign policy record was mixed—he started no new wars, which is a low bar, but his record certainly is superior to the last Republican president; he had tremendous effect on the way people in his party talked about war and peace. Neoconservatism was no longer the GOP’s default discourse, and this was in great part due to Donald Trump. It is an historic achievement.
One can debate how much Trump was responsible for the pre-coronavirus booming economy, but certainly he did no economic harm. On the coronavirus, America has had the same kind of dismal performance as all large Western democracies. For instance, able technocrats like Emmanuel Macron and (formerly) hugely popular figures like Boris Johnson fared no better. Basically, Trump’s answer was federalism—a concept he probably didn’t understand very well last March. He delegated key decisions to governors—Democratic and Republican—may not have been the most effective policy, but it did conform well to exigencies of American political culture. It should also have put to rest the ridiculous charge that Trump was some kind of would-be authoritarian, eager to use any excuse to consolidate total power in his own hands.
For these reasons and others, Trump could have looked forward to a genuinely interesting post-presidency, probably the most consequential one in our lifetimes. Appreciation for his genuine accomplishments would only grow. He would certainly maintain a role as kingmaker in GOP politics. After all, his smashing the prognostications of the pollsters and his unanticipated strength with new-to-the-GOP constituencies put to rest any notion that anyone would soon succeed in the GOP by repudiating “Trumpism.” It was not inconceivable that he could run again, though he would be old.
I’m not sure these possibilities are now irretrievably lost, but if Trump’s efforts to deny he lost the election keep up they will be very soon. It’s impossible to fairly judge his pique with the electoral results without noting that much of America’s media and political class themselves denied the legitimacy of Trump’s win—seeking to frame it as the result of Vladimir Putin’s meddling. Trump eventually overcame that, but it must still rancor. This massive deep state and Democratic effort to impugn Trump’s victory four years ago was unfair to Donald Trump—to which one can only respond that life is unfair, and that Trump, despite it all, had ended up in a pretty good position.
But becoming a sore loser wrecks whatever prospects his post presidency held. There is no evidence available so far that the Democratic urban machine shenanigans were more egregious than they have been in the past, though certainly mail in balloting increases the possibilities of electoral fraud. Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to claim a meta conspiracy involving Hugo Chavez and George Soros seem, to people who are otherwise pro-Trump, simply unhinged. The Trump effort to deny Biden’s victory has lost the support of Tucker Carlson. On Thursday night, Carlson noted that Sidney Powell—Giuliani’s cohort—had resisted the invitation to give actual evidence, or point to where it might be, on his show. As Carlson is far and away the most important media personality in the American conservative universe, and has been a longtime friend and supporter of Trump, it’s a significant defection. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, the most important immigration think tank in the conservative world and generally supportive of Trump, has called for Trump to rein Giuliani in. Jonathan Turley, probably the most eminent constitutional law professor, and a regular backer of Trump in the media, spent part of Thursday on Twitter pouring cold water on the outlandish claims of Giuliani and Sidney Powell. The list of significant Trump defectors—people of independent stature who supported him for his policies, not the jobs he gave them, grows by the hour.
Trump is not going to win the election by persuading various GOP state legislators to carry out an historically unprecedented nullification of their state’s vote. If he did, there is no way he could govern. But if he continues on this path, he is going to lose a post presidency which had every indication being extremely promising. There should be no shame in losing amidst an unprecedented pandemic, but there is in being a sore loser.
There might be some nasty real consequences. Several days ago presumptive president-elect Biden said that he didn’t want his presidency consumed by Justice Department investigations of Trump—a gesture which also sent a signal to the more banana republic inclined Democratic district attorneys eager to prosecute Trump on some inconsequential matter or other. But if Trump continues efforts to deny Biden’s victory, the resistance to seeing him prosecuted—which would have been very widespread two weeks ago—will begin to evaporate as well.
Scott McConnell is founding editor of the American Conservative and author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches from the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.