If Trump loses his bid for reelection this November, which according to opinion polls is an increasingly likely outcome, what’s next for Donald Trump?
Those who are hoping to see the back of Trump if Biden beats him may be disappointed. If Trump loses this November, he could run again for president in 2024 — there’s nothing to stop a one-term president seeking a second non-consecutive term.
It’s more than just a theoretical possibility. Trump may be well placed to win the Republican nomination in 2024 if he wanted it.
United States presidents serving no more than two terms is a tradition that started with George Washington and was made formally a part of the constitution with the passage of the 22nd amendment in 1947. The amendment was largely a reaction to FDR’s unprecedented four election victories.
The beginning of the 22nd amendment states, ‘Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice…’. So any president that loses re-election or did not seek a second term is still constitutionally entitled to run for president again. Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, could have run in any and all of the 10 presidential elections that took place from 1984 to 2020 and served an additional term if he had won. The 22nd amendment, preventing them from running again, has only applied to 6 presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Jr, Clinton, and Obama.
Both before and after the 22nd amendment, if a sitting president lost reelection there was little prospect of them running for president again — principally due to the lack of popularity that led them to fail to win their re-election. The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms as president was Grover Cleveland — the 22nd and 24th US President. While he lost reelection in 1888, he won the popular vote — helping him secure the Democratic nomination in 1892. He went on to defeat President Benjamin Harrison who had defeated him four years earlier.
It’s been 28 years since a sitting president has failed to be re-elected. The two most recent examples, George Bush Senior and Jimmy Carter had little chance, even if they wanted it, of gaining their respective parties’ nominations for the third time. Their parties had moved in a different direction. Bush Senior for example was considered by many Republicans to be insufficiently conservative even when he was president. Trump however is incredibly popular, with an approval rating around 95%, within the Republican Party, a party he has largely refashioned in his image. Such is Trump’s popularity that few leading party figures have been willing to break with the president or disavow his more controversial, even unprecedented, statements and actions.
The temptation for any party normally would be to go with a new candidate with considerably less baggage than not only a defeated nominee but a candidate who had also been president for four years. The Republican party though is increasingly unpragmatic and unwilling to compromise because of electoral concerns. In recent years Republican primary voters have chosen a series of candidates for the Senate and the House who went on to lose otherwise winnable seats.
While there was much resistance to Trump becoming the Republican nominee within the party establishment, this abated once he secured the nomination and has been largely absent since the beginning of his presidency. Despite a series of controversial actions, scandals, and of course, impeachment, Trump’s popularity with the Republican party rank-and-file has insulated him from criticism from leading Republicans who have wanted to avoid gaining RINO (Republican In Name Only) status and risk the primary challenges that would come with that. His success in securing a record number of judicial appointments and reshaping the American judiciary has helped as well.
Political observers have been waiting to see if this will change. With Trump’s increasing unpopularity with the wider public, decreasing chances of reelection, and now potentially harming the chances of Republican candidates for the House and Senate, if it was ever going to happen, it would be about now. There are indications that it may be finally happening. Rep. Liz Cheney is increasingly critical of Trump in what is seen as the battle for the Republican party in the post-Trump era. Cheney is seen as representing establishment or non-populist conservatism while others will want to push on with Trumpism and right-wing populism.
While some Republicans will be eager to turn the page on Trump, especially if Trump’s unpopularity harms other republicans running for office, could the heir of Trump be Trump himself?
The mindset of both Trump and Republican voters is key. Critics of Trump argue he is an astonishingly narcissistic and ego-driven politician. Will Trump see a loss in 2020 as something that must be avenged? Trump may also relish running against Biden again or Biden’s vice-president if the 81 years old Biden (in 2024) declines to run again (though Trump will be 78 years old in 2024). Trump seems to be more comfortable running against something as an insurgent candidate than having to defend a record. He will also hope that COVID-19 and his substantial failure in tackling it will be a distant memory. Trump will also no doubt blame any continuing economic problems on the Democrats, and deny any responsibility for his part in creating them.
If Trump loses by a little, he will argue he was robbed. Perhaps he will do so even if he is overwhelmingly beaten. Trump claimed millions of non-citizens illegally voted in 2016. There is simply no evidence for this.
The most committed Republicans are becoming increasingly extremist with a willingness to accept conspiracy theories. Perhaps they will support a supposedly cheated Trump for the third time as the Republican nominee.
Trump has used racism as a political weapon. He may relish the prospect of running against an administration that could include the first vice-president of color. 2024 could be a more fraught election than even those of recent years.
Could Trump win a general election in 2024? As unlikely as a second, non-consecutive term would be for Trump, it is hardly more unlikely than Trump becoming president in the first place, an outcome many considered impossible until it happened.