As we move into the home stretch of the living nightmare that has been Campaign 2016, many Republicans have already begun to look ahead of the impending electoral train wreck awaiting us in two weeks to the next presidential election, where we’ll get another crack at beating the second-least popular political figure in modern history. Who will run? What will the party even look like four years from now? And, of course, who will be the Trump candidate?
Trump has brought a whole new wing of protectionist nationalists to the forefront of the party and has established a permanent seat at the table for them. The ~30% of the party that carried Trump to a victory in the primaries demonstrated that this is a much larger subset than previously imagined. Inevitably, even if Trump were to fade away, someone would pounce on the opportunity to carry the Trumpian flag. So who will it be?
Well, the obvious choice at this point seems to be Donald Trump.
Let’s start with the fact that Trump already seems to be laying the groundwork for casting himself as a martyr in the likely event of him losing to Hillary Clinton in two weeks. Having spent the previous week taking any chance he could get to tell his supporters that the election was rigged against him, Trump rebuffed the opportunity in the last debate to say that he would accept the election results were he to lose, instead saying he would “hold us in suspense.” That message is registering loud and clear with his supporters; a POLITICO poll conducted earlier this week found that 41% of all voters, including 73% of Republicans, believe that the election could be stolen from Trump.
Then there are the pervasive rumors about the possibly soon-to-be-unveiled Trump TV. With media bias hysteria at an all-time high, Trump may be crafting a 24 hour echo chamber for his supporters to marinate in, wherein he will have four years to foment rage against an establishment that so unfairly derailed his campaign and stifled the true will of the people.
Think of what Trump was able to accomplish with less than a year of rhetoric and vitriol, wholly transforming his image from loudmouthed reality television star to de-facto leader of a major political party (and that was just during the primaries.) Now imagine what he could do with four years of that rhetoric, compounded by four additional years of Republican frustration over Obama-era progressive politics in the Oval Office.
Trump will be 74 in 2020, making him two years older than John McCain was when he ran in 2008. But when have traditional concerns over the viability of a potential commander-in-chief ever been damaging to Trump? His image, his temperament, his vulgarity, and his continually transforming and always subject-to-change viewpoints have been immaterial to his supporters. What’s a little thing like age?
Think the party will stop him next time? Good luck with that. Trump already has the 30-35% of Republicans who backed him in the primaries, plus thousands of additional former holdout Republicans who have since been fully assimilated into the Trump bandwagon and who will also be inflamed by Trump’s rigged election mantra. The party establishment seems to be more concerned with punishing those Republicans who refuse to get behind Trump than preventing another insurgency candidacy like his. And even if they weren’t, let’s not pretend like we’re just now figuring out that a Trump nomination was disastrous for the party. We’ve known since Day 1, and yet Republican leadership did nothing to prevent it. Why should we believe they’ll try harder next time?
Ultimately, it comes down to Trump either resting on his laurels and preoccupying himself with building a new media empire or pursuing what may be an even clearer path to the nomination in 2020 than the one he had in 2016. But even more than that, it comes down to whether or not conservatives will come together to clear the field for a candidate who can rail against the Trump message and get the party’s vision back to that of freer markets, freer trade, and freer people. Because even if Trump doesn’t run again, the Trump candidate will most definitely emerge, this time with a fresher, cleaner image. This candidate must be opposed as surely as Trump has been.
Don’t look ahead four years with rose-tinted glasses just yet. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, that future may not be so bright.