I’m not very good at math, which is probably how I ended up writing for a living. Fortunately, the statisticians over at FiveThirtyEight do not share this shortcoming. Nate Silver’s famed poll-processing models currently predict that there’s a roughly 80 percent chance that Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in November. In other words, Earth-1 through Earth-4 will watch a Democratic president wrestle with a pandemic and a recession for the next four years. Earth-5 will watch a Republican president try to tweet through it.
To my innumerate mind, though, the odds of a Biden win are basically 50-50. Trump will either win reelection next month or he won’t. While Democrats enjoy a number of strengths at the moment—in fundraising, in early voting, in general voter support, and in the seeming desire to not actually serve the interests of a deadly virus—some of the GOP’s potential advantages can’t be so easily modeled. How can polling averages factor in extraordinarily long lines to cast a ballot in person in Texas and Georgia? Can surveys of voters who mail in their ballots adjust for strict signature-matching requirements, or confusing ballot designs, or a dozen other potential sticking points?
So whether you think it extremely unlikely or somewhat unlikely, the question remains: What would a second Trump term look like? This is where I note that how Trump obtains that second term will play a major role in those determinations. If the polls are wrong again and he wins in a quick, 2016-like upset, the next four years would look very different than if he emerges victorious from a bloody, protracted courtroom struggle over flawed absentee ballots or claims of voter fraud. One outcome could demoralize and de-energize American liberals for a generation; the other could only intensify the majority’s backlash to his administration.
In either event, some recent developments give perhaps the best window into what his presidency would look like if it lasted until 2024. On Tuesday, Politico reported that the White House is planning to cut a wide range of federal funds that go to what it deems to be “anarchist jurisdictions,” a nonlegal term used by the administration for major Democratic-led cities, including New York City, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Those cities received the oxymoronic label for allegedly taking steps to “disempower” their police departments and for not cracking down hard enough on rioters and protesters earlier this year, at least from the Trump administration’s perspective.
The move, which will almost certainly draw legal challenges, would cut funding for efforts ranging from coronavirus relief to combating HIV/AIDS and the opioid crisis, according to Politico. It reflects a deepening animus from the White House toward parts of the country that are aligned with Trump’s political opponents and don’t share his approach to policy. On the campaign trail, Trump himself has vividly denounced “Democrat-run cities” to his suburban and rural supporters, often in racist or racialized terms and with little regard for the truth. An Associated Press review of federal defendants arrested on riot-related charges this year, for instance, found that few are affiliated with movements like antifa and many come from suburban areas instead of urban ones.
In theory, the president of the United States acts like the president of all the states equally. Trump does not. He lavishes favors and assistance on states that he perceives as friendly, whether because they’re ruby-red strongholds or potential electoral battlegrounds. States led by his political foes lose out on things like federal assistance with the coronavirus pandemic—unless their governors praise him in public, of course, so that their comments can be spliced into misleading campaign ads. And while every state’s tax base has been hammered by the pandemic-driven drop in revenue, Trump has denounced congressional proposals for relief as a “blue-state bailout.” For his friends, everything. For his enemies, nothing.
Another insightful development was The New York Times’ success in obtaining the holy grail of Trump-era journalism: his tax returns. They capture a broad array of financial irregularities by a president who spent most of the last 20 years over-leveraged and overextended, only to be saved by his turn toward reality television with NBC’s The Apprentice. What’s more, he faces a substantial amount of debt—at least $400 million by the Times’ reckoning—that’s set to come due during his second term, if he has one. “Should he win re-election, his lenders could be placed in the unprecedented position of weighing whether to foreclose on a sitting president,” the Times noted.
Even more revealing, according to the Times’ latest reporting on his tax returns earlier this month, was how Trump leveraged his presidency to create new revenue streams for his failing family businesses. Reporters charted how a host of corporate interests and ideologues funneled money into places like his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where memberships now cost a quarter-million dollars, and the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. At the same time, they received access, influence, and sometimes even favorable treatment from federal agencies and officials. Trump’s hands-off approach to matters doesn’t extend to this sphere: The Times describes him as keenly aware of who’s giving what, and what they want.
All of this presents a quandary. For most presidential candidates, “how will you govern?” can be answered by their policy proposals, by their staffing choices, and by their track record. Trump defies this analysis. His legislative agenda, as it were, is practically nonexistent. And even when the White House musters up a set of proposals, Trump’s plain disinterest in the hard work of passing legislation foils them. He refuses to negotiate himself with Speaker Nancy Pelosi because she led the effort to impeach him last year. He can’t even bring himself to properly cajole GOP lawmakers into passing a massive stimulus bill and boosting him a few weeks before Election Day, perhaps the easiest political lay-up of all time.
Trump compensates for this shortcoming through the many levers of executive power bequeathed to him by past generations of lawmakers. But even then, he doesn’t seem to have any genuine passion for policymaking beyond what he thinks will please his base. Trump’s interests are far more personal. At rallies, he complains about the slights heaped upon him by Democrats, by news organizations, by social media companies, by the Chinese government, by blue states and major cities, and by whatever other perceived enemy crosses his mind. To Cabinet officials, he demands the arrests of Barack Obama and Joe Biden on, well, trumped-up charges. Trump won in 2016 by making it seem like he shared his voters’ grievances and alienations; now he just wants voters to share his.
So when we think forward to what four more years of a Trump presidency might look like, one can’t help but consider the rampant clientelism, the sectional and partisan favoritism, and the unabashed grift that characterized his first term in office. Reelection would only strengthen these forces. A victory of any kind for him in November will be taken by Trumpworld as validation of their corruption, as an affirmation of or indifference to their worldview. Once freed from the political considerations to which he had to adhere to win a second term, Trump will likely grow bolder and more ostentatious as he hurtles toward the Constitution’s two-term limit and the end of his wild ride. Voters who oppose Trump already have many reasons to fear this outcome. But even those who support him can only wonder what he’ll do when, after reelection, he doesn’t actually need them anymore either.