During his speech at an Allentown, Pennsylvania, rally, a week before the 2020 election, President Donald Trump briefly became distracted by one of his favorite sights: big trucks. “By the way, nice trucks,” he said. “You think I could hop into one of them and drive it away? I’d love to just drive the hell out of here. Just get the hell out of this. I had such a good life. My life was great.”
Trump has, throughout his presidency, returned to this theme, often as proof of his selflessness.
“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Trump told Reuters in an interview commemorating his first hundred days in office, in which he expressed surprise at how hard the job of “being the president” really was. He never really moved on from those sentiments: “From the moment I left my former life behind—and it was a good life—I have done nothing but fight for you,” he intoned during his speech at August’s Republican National Convention. Trump is almost convinced that he is an aging playboy Cincinnatus, who left behind his gilded plow to cut the top marginal tax rate for high earners in faraway Washington, D.C, as duty called him to do. But Trump isn’t the self-sacrificing type, and he knows it. He just doesn’t want to be president. Not a good one, at least. The protection from prosecution is, of course, a nice perk.
One irony of President Trump’s pathetic, drawn-out, and futile assault on American democracy over the last month has been that he is desperately trying to hold on to a job that he’s seemed neither to want nor enjoy. He is now, at long last, getting his cherished old life back: He can resume the perpetual political campaign he launched more than five years ago without having to attend to any of the nagging responsibilities that have bogged him down since his inauguration. He can claim, as he would have in 2016, that the election was stolen from him and continue to rake in dollars from the supporters he has always treated as marks. Four years ago, losing the election would have cost Trump little because he had a plan: Use the presidential campaign as a marketing exercise, a way of opening up a revenue stream that had closed after he was booted from The Apprentice. It’s not clear what the plan is now.
Trump, by many accounts, lost by winning in 2016. “Mr. Trump would often say this campaign was going to be the greatest infomercial in political history,” his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress in 2018. “He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign for him was always a marketing opportunity.”
But the mere act of running for president has long been a way for a few political luminaries to open revenue streams. For Trump, the mere act of campaigning opened the possibility of rekindling the lucrative branding deals he’d previously wrought from the corrupt nations that had sustained him during fallow periods before Mark Burnett dusted him off and got him to play-act as the tycoon he wasn’t. He could use his status as an icon to tens of millions of nativist true believers to sustain his flagging empire and pay down the hundreds of millions in debt he owed. The actual outcome of the election didn’t matter to Trump in the week before he made the terrible mistake of winning it: “I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing,” Trump reportedly told Roger Ailes. “We’ve totally won.”
In this version of events, Trump could lose in 2016, retreat to Mar-a-Lago, and possibly establish a sort of cable news–based Avignon presidency that would have permitted him to constantly harangue Washington losers from both parties, as he had successfully during the primaries. From there, he could transform himself into a modern-day version of a nineteenth-century pop culture figure, a political P.T. Barnum barnstorming the country, selling snake oil and geek-show thrills, raking in wheelbarrows full of boodle from paid speeches. His business, however fraudulent, would still more or less be intact. He would have it both ways: He could dress up as both the mogul and the political leader without ever having to be either one.
When he leaves office, Trump will likely have to reconstruct some version of the life he was dreaming of for himself when he confidently cooed about his future to the now-deceased head of Fox News. The hoped-for “Trump TV” network might no longer be in the cards: Such a proposition is quite an expensive endeavor, and the field has become too crowded, ironically by new organizations who’ve muscled their way onto the scene thanks to their slavish devotion to Trump. It’s unlikely that a week will ever go by without Trump giving his time to these outlets, such as Newsmax, One America News Network, and even Fox News’s late-night programming. (His rift with Fox’s news division may never heal, but Trump will quickly learn that he needs Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson almost as much as they need him.)
In this way, the campaign that Trump began in the summer of 2015 never really ended, it just got badly sidetracked when he tragically won the election. Trump will undoubtedly continue to do rallies, like the one he held in Georgia on Saturday, until he is physically or mentally unable to carry on with them. It should not be surprising to see him launch a 2024 presidential campaign before Joe Biden places his hand on a Bible to take the oath of office next month. Trump’s life from 2015 to 2024 should be best understood as one long political campaign. Given that there was so little governing involved—and that Trump only really cared for the pomp and circumstance of turkey pardons and medal ceremonies—that near-decade will quickly blur into a succession of rallies.
But ex-President Trump will be entering a much different world than he would be if he’d been smart enough to fail the first time. He is currently being investigated by the attorney generals of a number of states; the financial shenanigans undertaken to sustain the illusion of enormous wealth, herculean even by American standards, are being put under a microscope. Even if Joe Biden opts to let bygones be bygones and decline to sanction investigations into the president’s conduct, Trump will be facing a number of serious and costly legal probes. (He is reportedly considering wide-ranging pardons for his adult children, who are also being investigated.) These probes, combined with his fragile ego, essentially demand that he continues acting as the leader of the Republican Party.
One wonders if Trump still thinks about what might have been if everything had gone right the first time he ran for president. Running in 2016 was a lark; the expectation was that he could always go back to his old life, whenever he wanted. He had nothing to lose, and Mar-a-Lago was waiting. He’d fashioned for himself a lucrative carnival act that played sold-out crowds and got him home to sleep in his own bed after every performance, with all his old revenue streams open to him. The only thing he needed to do was lose an election. Trump, of course, did get his wish, although in a monkey’s paw sort of twist, the electoral loss he needed came four years too late. He’ll soon be sent packing, back to the old life for which he longed. But there’s no getting the hell out of his presidency now.