As the Electoral College affirms Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump is ending his presidency in full bombast. His refusal to concede and his hints about running again in 2024 fuel belief he’ll become a combative kingmaker-in-exile, able to install Trumpy supplicants in powerful positions and dethrone the disloyal. But it’s more likely Trump will become a spectacle of sound and fury whose power will never again match his ambition.
Trump has had three careers: real-estate developer, entertainer and politician. He was most successful as an entertainer hosting reality shows, which burnished his brand and made other Trump ventures more successful. Trump tried to remain an entertainer as president, with his riffy rallies, his gilded pageantry, his showy stunts, his never-ending dramatic tension. But Trump’s approval rating never cracked 50% and voters canceled his show in 2020.
Some canceled shows find a second life on another network, and that’s what Trump will do. After Jan. 20, he won’t have a communications staff, a press corps reporting on him 24/7 or a daily claim on the world’s attention. But he’ll remain a media phenom one way or another. He could form his own network, or co-opt another, or get his own TV or radio show. There’ll be a book, for sure, and he’ll doubtless continue to tweet. And it’s a good bet he’ll lash into Biden from his first moments in office, unlike other departing presidents, who have given their successor the courtesy of silence.
But a media loudmouth isn’t the same as a power broker, and Trump has a fatal shortcoming: He has nothing to offer but anger. He’s good at it, with the rare ability to summon fellow ragers to rallies and protests, and even solicit money from them. But Trump stopped offering ideas or solutions in 2020—one reason he lost.
Trump won in 2016 because he made enough voters think he could improve their fortunes better than a traditional politician. He was mean and crude, as now, but he also said he’d bring back jobs from China, rebuild decaying towns and get government out of the way. By 2020, Trump’s agenda had shrunk. He didn’t have much to say about how he’d help working and middle-class Americans in a second term. Instead, he spent the campaign trying to scare voters away from Joe Biden and venting about imagined anti-Trump conspiracies.
Trump is even more aggrieved now that he lost, with every effort to overturn Biden’s victory repudiated by courts and vote-counters. His mantra now, and possibly forever, is the bogus claim that a mysterious cabal somehow cheated him out of reelection. Trump disguised his self-interest in 2016, when he ran for president at least in part to publicize himself. His self-interest is now overt. He no longer talks about the “forgotten men and women” he supposedly ran to help in 2016. Trump is all about Trump and the Trump grievances, all the time. This will get tiring, even to loyalists, and Trump doesn’t seem to have anything else to talk about.
For now, there’s money in sore losing. Trump’s campaign and the Republican party have raised more than $200 million in donations from people who think they’re helping fund a legitimate effort to save Trump’s presidency. Trump will keep doing this as long as he can make money in one form or another. The prospect of a 2024 run will be a pretext for Trump to complain about the injustice of it all for the next four years, at least, and keep dunning supporters for cash.
But Trump is entering a new market where there will be lots of competition for conservative umbrage, from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Laura Ingraham and hundreds of others aiming to cash in on right-wing pique. Trump will have the status of his former office, but he’ll also be an election loser. He’s already broken his alliance with Fox News, in favor of bit players like the fawning One America News website. Trump thinks he’s throwing his weight around, when in reality he’s marginalizing himself.
When the mainstream press is no longer obligated to cover everything Trump says, he’ll probably resort to more and more outlandishness. Maybe his diatribes will give supporters something to feel good about, but they’ll also drive everybody else further away. Trump didn’t become president because of his famous base of loyalists. He became president because he drew just enough mainstream support, in addition to his base, to create a winning coalition in 2016. He lost the middle in 2020, and his post-election efforts to sabotage the election have proven that moderates who turned against him made the right choice. They’re not coming back to him.
One place Trump will remain influential is within the Republican party, which may ultimately fracture if Trump continues to exert force upon it. Trump will have a much harder time forcing Trumpism on the party once he’s out of office. His influence could help candidates he favors, and doom candidates he opposes. Plus, Trump will apparently have a political action committee to dole out funds. But there are counterweights to Trump in the party, and they’ll reassert themselves once Trump exits. Less than a third of the electorate identify as Republican, anyway. The Republicans can fight over the future of Trumpism all they want, but nobody else has to care. The Trump Outrage Show isn’t disappearing, but it’s downsizing for leaner times.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.