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Donald Trump is still good for troublemaking

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Donald Trump was seen golfing at the time Joe Biden claimed the lead in the presidential race (Screenshot via YouTube)

Options for Donald Trump after losing the U.S. Presidency include moving to form a continuing extremist political movement based on personality, even dynastic with his politically-driven children in leading roles.

Republican Party – Trump’s toy?

In question is whether he could make the Republican Party be that movement. It is already no longer the Grand Old Party (GOP), a conservative formation that used to be committed to preserving whatever is valuable, including nature and protecting tradition and broad human rights. Almost in preparation for Trump, its Tea Party faction – “taxed enough already” – had driven out many actual conservatives and promoted a radical neoliberal agenda: low government revenue, poor services, growing inequalities, rape of the environment in the name of economic growth.

Yet it is still an ensconced party of government, not yet a screwball movement. Without the Presidency, other leaders, like some of its senators, might get up the will to exclude Donald Trump.

Lock him up?

Another question is whether Trump will be at liberty to run wild doing business and politics as he likes, expressly because certain law enforcement agencies are interested in prosecuting him. In the lead, New York Attorney-General Letitia James has a list of prospective charges over taxation matters and malpractice in business.

Even if the exiting President could organise an extension of legal immunities he enjoys while Head of State, those would apply specifically to federal laws, not so much state ones like the matters in New York.

During his campaign rallies, Trump cryptically suggested that if beaten he might go and live overseas. It raises the image of Air Force One ferrying a fugitive out of the country, with his gaudy entourage, maybe loaded up with chandeliers and carpets from the White House, just before leaving office.

Trump — ingredients for future success

The first key ingredient for continuing major involvement in politics for Donald Trump is the dynamic and impactful showbusiness personality. All political formations need a leader and at the extremes, especially with fascism, they call for a larger-than-life character — if sane, demonstrating abnormal energies, unmoveable will, strong animal intelligence, perversive creativity and comedic genius. 

Sometimes with Trump, the “cult of personality” phenomenon gets out of hand, as with the Mussolini postures, all strutting, set jaw, clapping himself, random saluting. But then he can be engaging, at his last rallies, facing possible defeat, almost projecting an impression of modesty and warmth.

It supports that adage from fellow New Yorker Groucho Marx:

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.” 

The second key ingredient is the huge popular following. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump, including many conservative people who would always back a Republican, but others wanting to follow the showman and his pitch. It is a familiar cultural and political phenomenon. They enjoyed the tough attitude against migrants and foreigners, millionaires’ tax cuts, “deregulation” against the environment, denial of medical protection, bullying, incitement to violence, vindictiveness and insults.

These, even if “non-political” people to start with, appear to have become politicised and mobilised under the spell of the leader and his media, getting the lines off-pat if interviewed in the streets: “they stole the election”, “liberal elites”, “make America great again”. Should he continue with it, they might prove a useful political army for any rough-stuff in the streets and shouting down “enemies”.

He did lose

Keeping in perspective, the 70 million figure bulked out what was otherwise a compromised electoral performance as, after all, the Democrats got out a much bigger vote — building to a lead of five million. He did lose. Most usually, a President seeking a second term gets it and wins both the popular vote and the Electoral College where the votes are assembled state-by-state. First-termer Trump did not get either — in Australian terms, a dud, a “oncer”.

There are close parallels with John Kennedy’s slim victory in 1960, done by narrowly winning Pennsylvania, as crucial as it would be in 2020 to get the College. He did get the popular vote, although by less than 120 000 votes — 0.17 per cent. His opponent, Richard Nixon, promptly conceded.

Kennedy, incidentally, was the first Catholic elected to the Presidency. Joe Biden is the second. Before Kennedy, there had only been one other candidate from that faith, Al Smith, the unsuccessful Democrat in 1928 who suffered from sectarian prejudice, rife against the Catholic minority in his time.

Higher level

Some Christian inspiration found its way into Biden’s victory speech on 7 November in Delaware. Messages for the followers, the faithful and the country from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3, 1-8 – ‘...a time for every purpose under heaven’ – and the Catholic hymn, On Eagle’s Wings.

‘And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.’

That was from the man of government and his message. To Trump – the movement politician, where governance is not the game, where the game is the game – religion is just a place where you can get votes, from the Evangelical Right wing, and the Bible is a prop. The mid-campaign posturing with the Bible in his hand on the day of tear gas outside the White House had to provoke a question: would this individual ever have read any of it, or know any of its message? 

Polls were not a disaster

Were the polls all wrong? Monitoring of the publicly available polls on voter intention showed early and accurately that Trump would hold out in the states of Ohio and Texas and identified tight contests where there would be crucial movement in Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania. They showed the northern states of Michigan and Wisconsin would be regained by the Democrats, although as in that case, they generally cut it fine. The overall picture they gave came true, much tighter than expected, producing, as is being said, a comfortable win for Biden, just not a landslide.

Late in the campaign period, more polls started to get listed by aggregators such as 270toWin, FiveThirtyEight or RealClearPolitics and most newer ones appeared to give more strength to the Republicans. Organisations such as Rasmussen, Trafalgar and IBD/TIPP showed up more “Right-wing” findings. In the end, they did us a favour as signalling a late move back to Trump helped to keep the average of polls within a credible range.

Joe the political genius

One more factor in the future of Trump and his movement, working against them, is that the President-designate shows some capacity to manage them at a level of subtlety, guile and political expertise. Donald Trump got frustrated during the Election campaign by Joe Biden not actually campaigning, staying in his basement; he complained in their second debate that Biden was a “politician”.

On the night, as the early votes piled up against him, Biden made a strategically, even ingeniously, well-timed appearance to declare he would be hitting the front later-on — achieving a kind of initiative. It got in ahead of a likely move by Trump to declare that he had won, deflating that move, so it did not carry the intended psychological momentum.

Biden, the practised, experienced old politician, did not quite beat him like a drum as he promised for Trump, but did beat him. With that and holding the Presidency, he gets some edge over a movement bent on mayhem.

A longer version of this article is published in Subtropic.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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