In a blistering and brilliant essay in The New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole maintains that although “the malignant presidency of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump floats a Doug Collins run against Kemp for Georgia governor Defiant Trump insists election was ‘rigged’ at rally for Georgia Senate Republicans Trump offers condolences to family, friends of Loeffler campaign staffer who died MORE seems moribund, [it is] also vigorously alive.” After all, life after death has been the “governing trope” of Donald Trump, the bankrupt businessman, candidate, and president. This fall, O’Toole writes, Trump crafted a narrative in which he contracted COVID-19 as a “Jesus-like self-sacrifice,” “died” at Walter Reed Hospital and then rose again. Those who believe the system corrected itself in the 2020 election must confront a Republican base that is “immune to its results” because “everything is rigged against them” and “an afterlife that is not in the next world but in this one — the long posterity of Donald Trump.”
O’Toole may be right.
But a compelling case can also be made that while hyper-partisanship continues to poison American politics, Trump will become a spent force.
Here are four reasons that lend support to this conjecture:
1) A substantial number of Americans who embraced Trump because he advanced their evangelical or economic agenda or because he stuck a finger in the eye of the establishment may stop hanging on every Tweet when he relinquishes the platform, prerogatives, and power of the presidency. Other MAGA-hatters may conclude that Reality TV is not nearly as engrossing when the boss can’t hire — or fire — any apprentices. A Gallup poll released on Nov. 30 finds that Trump’s approval among Republicans dropped 6 percentage points in the last month.
To help him command the attention of the mainstream media, cable news networks, talk radio and streaming services, Trump is apparently considering signing on with or buying into One America News Network or Newsmax. But the post-Nov. 3 spike in the previously modest ratings of these fledgling, conspiracy-driven outlets will probably be temporary. More important, any deal with competitors is certain to alienate Fox News, which now has fewer incentives to be “Trump TV.” Having provoked the president’s ire by declaring on election night that former Vice President Biden carried Arizona (which he did), Fox will in any event no longer give Trump unlimited access to its viewers.
2) Aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 are already stirring. A short list includes Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump 2024 talk threatens to freeze other GOP hopefuls in place Loeffler campaign staffer dies in car crash Senate confirms Christopher Waller to Fed board MORE, Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTrump 2024 talk threatens to freeze other GOP hopefuls in place Overnight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, ‘chronic fatigue’ in military plane crashes Compromise defense bill excludes competing nuclear testing language MORE (R-Ark.), Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate GOP brushes off long-shot attempt to fight Biden win GOP senators back Christian school’s push for COVID-19 carve-out Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners MORE (R-Texas), Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump 2024 talk threatens to freeze other GOP hopefuls in place Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by ‘international norms’ | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Trump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs MORE (R-Fla.), Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenate GOP brushes off long-shot attempt to fight Biden win GOP senators back Christian school’s push for COVID-19 carve-out Trump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback MORE (R-Mo.), and former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyBiden’s foreign policy team has a surprising lack of diversity Katko fends off Democratic opponent in New York race Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE. To remain relevant, Trump will hint that he will run again or declare his candidacy. Nonetheless, keeping all the hopefuls “as frozen in place as a COVID vaccine” for years will be difficult — especially if Trump begins to falter or fade and it seems likely he would be defeated in 2024.
3) The mountain of litigation Trump faces will very likely result in politically as well as personally damaging revelations about him. Courts will compel Trump to turn over records — including tax returns — and to testify under oath. New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance are investigating “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct,” including insurance and bank fraud connected to misrepresentation of assets. Even if Trump pardons himself and the Supreme Court were to affirm the action constitutional, he would not be immunized from prosecution by New York State.
The Internal Revenue Service will complete its audit of Trump’s tax returns. The House of Representatives has subpoenaed the financial records of the Trump Organization. Trump has been named an unindicted co-conspirator who violated campaign finance laws. In a defamation suit involving an allegation of rape, magazine writer E. Jean Carroll is seeking DNA evidence. Ivanka, Donald Jr., Eric, and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerMary Trump doesn’t think Trump will run in 2024 Trump pardon scandal would doom his 2024 campaign Enforcing the Presidential Records Act is essential for preserving our democracy’s transparency, history MORE are likely to find themselves in legal jeopardy as well.
While Trump thus far has been adept at parlaying such legal challenges to his own political advantage, that is likely to change — despite his efforts — once he’s out of office and the cases actually proceed.
4) Legitimate questions have been raised about Trump’s health. Now 74 years old, Trump is obese, has a penchant for fast food, takes medication for high cholesterol, and believes physical exercise drains the body of finite energy resources.
Despite his stated interest in returning to the White House in 2024, he may simply not be up to it. And that may become obvious — even to his base.
Prognosticators, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense often emphasized, should always take into account known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (things we don’t know we don’t know).
As they peer into the future, pundits can bank on two known knowns about Donald Trump: His only motives are money, power, self-interest, and self-promotion and he will not stay — or go — anywhere quietly.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”