Presidents who leave office in the modern era recede from public life, often happily so. They write memoirs, plan their library, and pick up new hobbies. As a courtesy, they give the sitting president space to govern without catapulting themselves into the national conversation. Donald Trump will be different: He isn’t going anywhere.
Even after his defeat, the soon-to-be-former president, who feeds on attention, will make sure that he’s not deprived of any of it. From his exile at Mar-a-Lago, he’ll phone in to favored TV anchors and radio hosts to carp about the election results. If he’s not banned from the platform, he’ll use Twitter to keep up a running commentary on incoming President Joe Biden. He might start a new media venture or tease his base by vowing to run again in 2024. Whatever he does, he’ll remind a nation that rejected him after one exhausting term that it can’t easily forget him. “There is nothing about him that goes gently into the night,” Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and a presidential historian, told me. “He has bathed in the fountain of real power, and he’s going to want to again. He doesn’t want to become a third-rate, has-been figure.”
Or an even bigger target for prosecutors. No small part of his return to private life will be spent fighting a range of legal threats and investigations into his business dealings. So far, Trump has staved off the Manhattan district attorney’s efforts to get eight years’ worth of his tax records in a case that has been winding through the courts. D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. has suggested in court filings that his office is investigating Trump’s business activities. Separately, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, has embarked on a civil probe into whether the Trump Organization inflated its assets to obtain bank loans.
Whether or not he escapes punishment, Trump could be a kingmaker of sorts. Over the past five years, he’s forged an emotional bond with his base that isn’t about to vanish; after all, millions of Americans likely accept his self-serving verdict that the election was stolen. Some Republican candidates will still look to him as the party’s de facto leader. They’ll trek to Mar-a-Lago for endorsements and position themselves as heirs to the movement he rode to power. He showed that there’s an appetite for an inward-looking nationalism, and that pumping out mistruths and conspiracy theories can have more rewards than costs.
His influence could extend well beyond individual candidates too. Trump availed himself of press attention for decades before his first campaign. Post-presidency, he would fit seamlessly into the same right-wing media ecosystem that fueled his political rise, cultivating a new generation of Republicans much in the same way talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh gave voice to waves of conservative voters.
Trump may relish his followers’ adoration, but some in his party would rather he disappear. They believe that the GOP needs a makeover and that its toppled leader symbolizes much of what’s gone wrong. “The most critical task, postelection, is to cut the Trump albatross off from around our neck,” John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, told me. “That’s the source of the problem.”
One problem, anyway. Trump built his candidacy on a losing bet: that enough aggrieved white voters were left to squeeze out another victory. In the coming years, Republicans trying to follow that playbook could meet a similar fate. “Because he’s gotten this far, there’s this idea that he is talented at politics,” David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, told me. “There are surprisingly few voices who will articulate this, but this guy is just not very good at politics. Politics is about persuasion and addition, and he’s not even made those attempts in his short-lived political career.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign started as something of a branding exercise, and once he leaves office, he can chase business ventures that preserve his celebrity and keep the paychecks coming. One option discussed in anticipation of a loss four years ago was a television project that some advisers dubbed “T TV,” Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, told me. Should he revive the idea, a television deal could achieve a trifecta: It would guarantee him more publicity; possibly turn a profit; and compete with Fox News, the cable network that he insists never did enough for him. (His irritation with Fox may be further stoked by the network’s early, yet correct, verdict that Trump had lost the crucial state of Arizona.) If Trump could redirect even half of his 100 million–plus social-media audience to a new Trump-branded platform, it would be a formidable player, Cohen said. “He will not lie low. He will sound the dog whistle to engage his MAGA army.”
Mobilizing the MAGA forces may not be as easy when he’s out of power. His Twitter feed is a less essential read now that he can’t use it to threaten nuclear war. Once Trump leaves office, social-media networks may be less tolerant of his messages that promote conspiracy theories, peddle misinformation, and run afoul of their rules. Already, Twitter has gotten bolder about flagging tweets that make baseless claims. On Wednesday, the company attached a warning label to a tweet in which Trump claimed, without evidence, that Democrats were “trying to STEAL the Election.”
If Trump’s abuse of social media persists, tech companies may consider “terminating his account,” Leonard Niehoff, who teaches the First Amendment and media law at the University of Michigan Law School, told me. “Once he’s no longer president, when everything he says is a matter of public interest, then you get into a fairness argument. If he’s abusing the platform, why give him more opportunities for abuse than anyone else gets?” (When I asked the company how it might handle Trump after he leaves, a Twitter spokesperson explained that “people should be able to choose to see what their leaders are saying with clear context. This means that we may apply warnings and labels, and limit engagement to certain Tweets. This policy framework applies to current world leaders and candidates for office, and not private citizens when they no longer hold these positions.”)
One way Trump can guarantee his continued relevance and keep his supporters enthralled is to flirt with the notion of running for president again. He’s done it before, teasing presidential runs in past decades only to hold back in the end. He wouldn’t need to be serious about the idea; floating a comeback would be enough to commandeer attention.
Allies aver that another run isn’t mere fantasy. Trump will be 78 years old when the 2024 election arrives, the same age Biden will be when he takes office in January. If Biden moves further left and is seen as out of step with the electorate, Trump could find an opening, one adviser told me. Should Biden push a “socialist agenda, I don’t think you’ll have seen the end of Donald Trump,” Corey Lewandowski, a senior Trump-campaign adviser, told me ahead of Election Day.
Either way, Trump has left an imprint that isn’t easily erased. He’s coarsened the nation’s political dialogue, showing that a politician can mislead and prevaricate, demean and humiliate, and still win the presidency. He mishandled a pandemic that so far has killed 230,000 people and tanked the economy. People worldwide will be living with Trump’s legacy deep into his post-presidency. In that sense, too, he’s not going away.
“Despite all the misleading statements Donald Trump has made, he has never fallen much below 40 percent approval,” Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to the United States, told me. “That’s pretty solid. What does that tell you? That we’re living in a post-truth world. Politicians around the world will be looking at this and saying, ‘You can get away with it.’ It’s a shift in the landscape that may be irreversible.”