It was predictable, and widely predicted, that Donald Trump would respond to an election loss, particularly one by as narrow a margin as this, with claims of fraud, efforts to delegitimize the outcome, and increasingly implausible attempts to find some lever to overturn it. Handling setbacks without grace or acknowledgement of their legitimacy has been part of the Trump brand since long before he entered politics.
But it didn’t have to be this way. Nobody should expect Trump to wake up one morning and stop being Trump, but he could have taken a different path from this, to his own benefit as well as that of the Republican Party and the broader cause of the Right. And it would not have required him to act out of character, or prevented him from airing issues about voter fraud.
Certainly, the road Trump has taken has its drawbacks. For Republicans, not only is Trump currently driving a wedge into the Georgia Republican Party just when it needs unity ahead of the momentous Senate elections, but the drumbeat of stolen-election talk also deters Republican voters from going to the polls. And for Trump himself, Victor Davis Hanson addresses the dangers to his legacy of his current approach:
Currently, Trump-affiliated lawyers claim they can prove their bombshell allegations. But so far none of these advocates have produced the requisite whistleblowers, computer data, or forensic evidence to prove their astounding charges. If they do not produce it in a few days, and if Trump pivots to put his fate in their hands, then the pilloried Republicans may well lose the Senate races in Georgia. And with that historic setback, he would endanger his legacy, his influence, and perhaps a crack at a second presidential term. Trump would risk being reduced to the status of sore presidential losers such as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton who turned ever more bitter, shrill, and conspiratorial — and ended up caricatured and largely irrelevant.
What could Trump have done differently, if he were looking to (1) maintain his standing within the GOP as a kingmaker or potential future candidate, (2) preserve his legacy, and (3) drive his left-leaning media and cultural critics up the wall? Consider: Election Day was, relative to expectations, a pretty smashing success for Republicans. Turnout was huge, one Senate race after another defied predictions of doom, Republicans proved they could hold Florida and Texas in high-turnout environments and solidify their hold on Ohio and Iowa, Republicans picked up far more House seats than expected, Trump drew support from communities with no real history of voting Republican, and Trump missed sending the presidential election to an Electoral College tie (and thus victory) by just 43,673 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin (all decided by less than a point), and missed an outright Electoral College victory by 66,004 votes (if you add Nebraska’s Second District) — both margins narrower than Trump’s victory in 2016.
To be sure, the news was not all good for Trump even beyond the fact of losing. He ran behind down-ballot Republicans (if somewhat narrowly) in many places, and the big Democratic surge in turnout was almost certainly attributable to his personal unpopularity. Even adjusting for the fact that the final national polls had Trump down seven points and he lost the national popular vote by four points, as of Election Day, Trump had positive marks with the electorate on his handling of the economy, but was underwater by double digits on whether he was viewed favorably. A president with Trump’s record who was not as passionately personally disliked would have won in such a close race.
Moreover, since the election, there has been a battery of good news about the development of coronavirus vaccines on Trump’s watch. This is the Manhattan Project of this administration. Some of the vaccines have benefitted from funding from Operation Warp Speed; all have benefitted from its efforts to remove regulatory barriers to approval.
Just imagine: Instead of the combination of tantrum-throwing claims on Twitter about how he was robbed, while remaining mostly subdued and low-profile in public, Trump could have taken the opposite stance: refuse to be downcast, do a victory lap on the vaccines, and hammer Congress to pass a second COVID relief package. He could do this while still airing his usual grievances about voter fraud (which he did even in victory in 2016). Picture a beaming Trump doing rallies right now, coming out to an upbeat soundtrack, telling crowds that you can’t stop Trump, that he’s leaving the party in great shape, that the end of the pandemic is in sight thanks to his leadership, and that the economy is on the rebound so strongly that only Joe Biden could screw it up. (Polling shows Trump’s approval rating on the economy soaring since Election Day, with the latest Harvard-Harris poll putting his approval rating at 60 percent.) Surely, Trump has the chutzpah, the pure shamelessness, to pull this off, and despite his age (he’ll be 78 in 2024), it would place him in a surprisingly strong position to run again on “Make America Great Again Again” if Biden and/or Harris is in rough shape in four years. At a minimum, it would build a counter-narrative that would be important to how the Trump presidency is remembered — and that could matter as well if other Trump family members want to run for office in the future.
Nothing would madden more the people who spent four years fantasizing about a sulking Trump being frog-marched out of the Oval Office than to see Trump publicly refusing to be disappointed. If he truly cared about “owning the libs,” that is how he would have played this. But Trump has never been master of his emotions. He instead allowed the “Resistance” to playact one more time as heroic defenders of democracy while glorying in Trump’s transparent inability to handle his loss.
True, there are narrower winnings to collect from what Trump is doing instead: adhering Republicans more strongly to Trump against other Republicans by demanding that people believe increasingly unbelievable things, making war on Fox News, generally setting Trump up to divide and rule the ruins. But if that is what he expected, Donald Trump has — unusually — harmed himself by thinking too small.