4 min read.Updated: 09 Sep 2021, 01:00 PM ISTHolman W. Jenkins,JR, The Wall Street Journal
Admit it: You don’t want him to run again yet his absence hasn’t solved any problem
Is Donald Trump playing the game badly? The question needs to be asked. If you think Mr. Trump the worst thing that ever happened to America, the answer might not be entirely reassuring.
Let’s put aside the elephant in the room, his post-election antics. If you were Mr. Trump’s Twitter strategist, you’d be kicking yourself right now. Assuming he could be persuaded to bring a modicum of discipline to his tweeting, he would be on an “I told you so" roll: My vaccines are the global gold standard. I warned you about the China lab leak possibility. I warned you about “defund the police," runaway urban crime, and the Democrats with their woke racism, which they call critical race theory.
I warned you about illegal immigration, with hundreds of thousands risking their lives and their children’s lives to get here illegally. I offered a big beautiful wall with a big beautiful gate. We got instead Sleepy Joe’s border chaos. Next he may throw away the post-Covid jobs boom I gave him. And which president has been eating out of Putin’s hand—canceling weapons for Ukraine, surrendering on the Nord Stream pipeline, begging for relief from the ransomware reign of terror? Could anybody have done a worse job of getting us out of Afghanistan? It’s been a travesty, with America looking weak rather than strong by smartly putting America First (the eternal privilege of the out-of-power is the fanciful counterfactual).
The elephant in the room is his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 race, which has become an albatross for millions of former fans and many who served in his administration. You don’t expect a mea culpa but, because it’s how he operates, you might expect him to emerge with a new story about how his now-admitted defeat was really a moral victory. This story would actually have some persuasive power:
I got 11 million more votes (he would say) than I did in 2016. I got more votes than any presidential candidate in history except Joe Biden. And that’s not because Joe Biden is Washington and Lincoln rolled into one. If the race had been Biden vs. Jeb Bush, do you think 155 million would have turned out? Not a chance. That was my doing. Real change was on the table. Real change upsets a lot vested interests. It upsets a lot of nervous nellies and swamp creatures who were happy under the “America Last" policies of my critics.
The only way Democrats could beat me (he would go on) was with every trick in the book, using the pandemic to permit wide open mail-in voting, bringing out a lot of low-information, low-motivation voters who could be bullied by the media into voting for Joe. I still won going away with voters who voted on Election Day, who care about our country and the sanctity of the ballot box.
If you had Mr. Trump’s ear, you might be advising him that a political gold mine lies in making this concession to a Biden victory (without, of course, acknowledging that it amounts to a concession). Mr. Trump could then position himself to benefit from the inevitable Biden buyer’s remorse, taking credit for what promises to be a strong GOP showing in 2022. He might even mend fences with untold thousands of GOP voters who never forgave him for the loss of two Georgia senate seats.
Democrats are lucky Mr. Trump has no long game. He goes from contretemps to contretemps, playing tit for tat. Yet luck is working for him here too. America doesn’t feel noticeably less chaotic with him out of the picture. A cynic might also notice that, for all his bluster, Mr. Trump generally refrained from letting himself be pinned down on any specific allegation of voter fraud. It was always “people tell me" or “what I hear." So Mr. Trump perhaps did not completely throw away the possibility of digging out from under his post-election behavior, with some typically brazen piece of Trump revisionism.
My own estimate is that Mr. Trump can’t afford not to run for president between now and 2024—it’s too lucrative. His business life now appears to consist largely of paying himself for services his companies provide to his own campaign, funded by thousands of small donations and sales of Trump merchandise. And yet a hunger for him to serve again as president, even among his fans, is not conspicuous. I also ask myself: Would he be selling his Washington hotel, one of the few ways he successfully synergized his business interests with this political interests during his presidency, if he planned on being president again?
I doubt it. Mr. Trump has likely already decided he will be happy with just picking the next president, which explains the troop of hopefuls outside his door in Mar-a-Lago.