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Worst-Case Trump

What if losing the election only makes him stronger?

Illustration by Wesley Merritt

In this most apocalyptic of presidential races, the received wisdom among liberals is that a victory by Donald Trump would represent the ultimate na­tional disaster. There’s plenty to be frightened of. He has proven himself to be a bigoted and ill-informed narcissist, and an anti-intellectual fabulist with a nanosecond attention span. He’s prone to defensive and misogynistic outbursts of aggrieved masculinity, and he gleefully manipulates the country’s most racist and xenophobic impulses for his own gain. What would happen if Trump were given authority over America’s armed forces, its nuclear arsenal, even—shudder—its tax code? The end might very well be nigh.

But what if there is a fate worse than Trump? What if, by finally vanquishing him at the polls, we only make him stronger?

For most of the summer, liberals enjoyed a respite from their nightmares of a Trump presidency. After the cheesy tin-pot spectacle known as the Republican National Convention, which had all the charms of an infomercial directed by Leni Riefenstahl, and the long Trumpian meltdown that followed, the pollsters and pundits all seemed to sing the same tune: that the Republicans were facing a landslide defeat not seen since poor Walter Mondale was sent packing in 1984. That scenario soothed bicoastal Democrats in Los Angeles and Brooklyn as they drifted off to sleep to the murmuring sounds of Philip Glass and Terry Gross. A crushed Trump, after all, would pose little threat, his lies resoundingly rejected by the American people.

But that’s probably not what we’re going to get. The election is far more likely to take a familiar shape: partisan, nasty, and a nail-biter. Hillary Clinton may well come out on top, but her victory will probably be too narrow to give her a conclusive mandate for change. And that outcome, from a certain perspective, might actually serve Trump better than winning.

As president, Trump—a con man who traffics in dark fantasy—would quickly find himself constrained by the realities of actual government. The Constitution makes it difficult to pull off the kind of Putinesque strong-arming that Trump admires. Instead, he would be forced to try, and ultimately fail, to be what he is not: a capable and measured leader, his power subject to the checks and balances of a democracy. Congress has its own political stories to tell. Supreme Court justices, unlike reality-show apprentices, can’t be fired.

President Trump would face, for perhaps the first time in his life, an environment in which the law—not his word—is the law. Top military and intelligence officials have already vowed to disobey Trump if he ordered them to commit war crimes, as he has promised to do. Try to imagine Trump negotiating the finer points of public policy, even with a Republican-dominated Congress or Senate. His loyal followers will become disillusioned because he will be unable to deliver on his promises to build a wall and deport everyone without documentation and make the rest of the world bow before America’s might. Or they will become disillusioned because he won’t even try to deliver on his promises, which were nothing but lies in the first place. Or they will become disillusioned because their entire political philosophy requires them to reject the very existence of government, and Trump will be the CEO of the world’s most powerful government. Whatever the scenario, a single term beckons—assuming that Trump can evade impeachment that long. In Trump’s victory lies the defeat of Trumpism, as his wish-fulfillment agenda comes crashing, finally and inevitably, to earth.

But a narrow loss would hold no such pitfalls for Trump. Robbed by Crooked Hillary and a rigged election, undermined by politically correct wusses and Mexican rapists, Trump will don the mantle of martyrdom. Nothing is more central to Trump’s brand than a sense of grievance, and nothing will make him and his followers feel more righteously aggrieved than losing to Hillary Clinton in a close election. In defeat, his power and appeal will grow a thousandfold.

Even worse, that sense of grievance may find its ultimate expression in the form of TrumpTV. Free from the responsibilities and limitations of the presidency, Trump would be his new channel’s greatest star, a pretender-president expounding in prime time from a mock Oval Office. Imagine the network’s all-star lineup, personally recruited by Roger Ailes and Steven Bannon: Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter. Trump will be president in the same way he is a successful businessman: He will play one on TV. The ultimate source of his power has always been ratings, and a narrow defeat by Hillary Clinton will send his ratings through the roof, enabling him to proclaim his message more loudly than ever.

And make no mistake what that message will be: the promotion of civil insurrection, and perhaps even race war. If Trump loses, it will be because his base—white men, many of them without a college education—is now outnumbered by racial minorities and college-educated women. Trump’s defeat, coming after Barack Obama’s two terms, would affirm that white men are no longer guaranteed what they consider to be their rightful place at the center of national politics. Stripped of their political and social hegemony, they will increasingly resort to violence to maintain their hold on power.

Trump has taken to describing the election in apocalyptic terms, as the final chance his followers have to hold on to their way of life. “This will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning,” he proclaimed at the Values Voter Summit in September. “You’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in, and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote, and once that all happens you can forget it.” This do-or-die rhetoric has been echoed by many of his followers. Michelle Bachmann has called the election “a math problem of demographics and a changing United States.” Ann Coulter tweeted, “This is it. This is our last chance. November 8.”

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who also spoke at the Values Voter Summit, spelled out in chilling detail what happens after this “last” election:

I did an interview recently and they said, “Do you think it’s possible, if Hillary Clinton were to win the election, do you think it’s possible that we’ll be able to survive, that we’d ever be able to recover as a nation?” And while there are people who have stood on this stage and said we would not, I would beg to differ, but I will tell you this. I do think it would be possible, but at what price? At what price? The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood of who? The tyrants, to be sure, but who else? The patriots. Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood that is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.

Bevin borrows language that Thomas Jefferson used to justify the suppression of an insurrection. But I am reminded of a different patriot, the poet Langston Hughes: What happens to a dream denied? What happens when people who think an election is their last chance to save their way of life lose? They become angry. They turn to extra-political means, including violent ones, to achieve their end. They explode.

There has always been an air of menace to Trump’s campaign: praising Vladimir Putin for his “strong” leadership, hinting that Hillary might be assassinated, egging on his supporters as they assault peaceful protesters. On the night of a narrow defeat, Trump will not phone Hillary Clinton, congratulate her, and issue a call for political unity. In all likelihood, he will whip his true believers into a frenzy. Clinton will confront a challenge no president has faced since Lincoln: how to govern a country in which an angry and armed minority rejects the very legitimacy of the federal government.

There is no clear antidote to the toxins Trump has introduced into the American body politic. But the first step toward a cure is obvious: Make sure that he not only loses in November, but that he loses big. Clinton’s core supporters may be enough to win her the White House, but they’re probably too few to give Trump the electoral drubbing he so richly deserves. That means that the anti-Trump factions who are hostile to Clinton—all those disaffected Sanders supporters and moderate Republicans—have to put aside their differences and do what’s best for the country. They may detest Clinton, and they may be tempted to express their displeasure by staying home, or by opting for some third-tier candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or—for the true protest-vote connoisseur—Evan McMullin. In a normal election, Americans of all political persuasions should feel free to waste their vote in whatever way they choose. But the menace represented by Trump—a menace that could subject millions of American citizens to detention, deportation, and even physical violence—is too dangerous for symbolic gestures. Our collective safety resides in an electoral landslide that buries Trump once and for all.