President Donald Trump isn’t giving in. “No, it’s not over,” he declared about the election. He stated that it was the single “most corrupt election in U.S. history.” Asked on Fox News about whether he would attend Joe Biden’s inauguration, he said, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Nor is this all. He is threatening to fire Attorney General William Barr, who said last week that he couldn’t detect any serious instances of election fraud and who kept the investigation of Hunter Biden for tax fraud quiet before the election. Both moves enraged Trump. For good measure, Trump is battling GOP Senate Republicans over a $740 billion defense bill that was passed with a veto-proof majority. “THE BIGGEST WINNER OF OUR DEFENSE BILL IS CHINA!. I WILL VETO!” he tweeted on Sunday.
Welcome to the Trump permanent campaign. Trump may lose these individual battles, but his aim is to win the war for the GOP. Can he do it?
One scenario is the following: Trump’s actions amount to a giant nothingburger. After issuing a flurry of last-minute denunciations of Joe Biden, he retreats to Mar-a-Lago as a spent force, refusing to attend the inauguration. Once Joe Biden becomes president, media attention inexorably shifts away from Trump, who looks churlish for becoming the first president since Andrew Johnson to refuse to show up for his successor’s inauguration. Trump may hold rallies, but only the hardcore faithful will show up. His Twitter account takes a beating, losing myriad followers. Trump and his children are enmeshed in a welter of lawsuits that stymie any efforts at a political comeback.
At the same time, the GOP starts to distance itself from him. On Sunday, for example, Sen. Lamar Alexander said that Trump needs to “put the country first” and accept his defeat. Sen. Bill Cassidy, too, acknowledged that Trump has lost. He said, “Our nation, our conservative movement, our Republican Party can’t stand if we are divided against ourselves. So, at some point, we have to come together for all those reasons.” If Congress passes a $908 billion stimulus deal before Christmas, it will further strengthen the economy and Biden’s hand before he enters office. As the economy perks up in the spring, Trump continues to bluster about why it’s all a hoax and looks like a one-trick pony.
Scenario two is that Trump garners strength from a defeat that he never acknowledges. Instead, he seamlessly integrates every setback—from the over fifty court cases that he has lost to the failure of Congress to overrule the vote to install him in office for a second term—into a wider campaign to argue that the election was stolen, rigged, purloined, or whatever term you choose, from him by liberal elites in the media and government. Biden is an illegitimate president, a pretender who must be ousted. Nothing less than the restoration of Trump in 2024 will lead to the final abolition of the deep state that is denying America its true greatness. Throughout, Trump maintains an iron grip on the GOP, functioning as a kingmaker. This position also permits to deem any federal or state lawsuits aimed at him as products of a political vendetta, helping to provide him with a kind of insurance policy against any real fiscal harm.
Right now, either scenario could occur. But it has to be said that Trump has displayed a kind of improvisational skill at maintaining attention on himself. He has paralyzed the GOP. He has the media tracking his pronouncements. Even the protests this weekend in Washington, DC, helped boost his cause of keeping the spotlight trained on him.
Trump has been continually underestimated. If Trump decides that it’s in his interests to look magnanimous, he is fully capable of turning on a dime to welcome Biden to the White House and attend the inauguration. The Trump show may be coming to an end, but it will only reach its terminus on the final day of his presidency, and not a moment before then.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.