Donald Trump makes a fist during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 14, 2020 (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters).

Come January, Donald Trump will no longer be president, at least not for the next four years. I include that ominous final qualification for a reason: both in the run-up to the election and in its aftermath, many worried that Trump might refuse to admit defeat and stubbornly cling to power. As I write this, Trump has indeed refused to concede, though he appears to lack the institutional backing he’d need to pull off a genuine autogolpe. Faced with the humiliating prospect of being escorted out of the White House by law enforcement on Inauguration Day, he will almost certainly choose to go quietly.

Yet for all of the angst about how Trump could try to ignore the outcome of a democratic election, I have not seen many political commentators reckon with what has always struck me as the more likely possibility: that Trump does in fact leave office on schedule, even if he never formally acknowledges that he lost fair and square, then announces a run for the Republican nomination in 2024—and wins.

In modern times, U.S. presidents who have lost reelection have generally not gone on to attempt another campaign. Grover Cleveland is to date the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, though other failed candidates—William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, Adlai Stevenson—have managed to earn their party’s nomination a second time only to go on to a second loss. But given that Trump has already violated so many of the unwritten rules of American politics, most recently by declining to concede to Biden as soon as the election’s outcome became clear, why should we expect him to abide by this one?

A July piece in the National Interest by Salvatore Babones featured one of the few predictions of a Trump comeback that I saw before the election:

If Trump loses, he will not squat in the White House, surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of MAGA-hat-wearing gun enthusiasts. He will, however, retreat to Trump Tower, rename it Barad-dûr, and spend the next four years plotting his revenge.... [Trump] will claim that it was stolen from him: by the liberal elite, by the mainstream media, by ballot fraud, by Democratic judges, by Republican Never Trumpers, by the coronavirus, by whatever. He will not gracefully accept defeat and grudgingly support a Biden presidency. He will demand a rematch, and in 2024, he will get it.... Woe betide any Republican who stands in his way.

Some might dismiss this scenario as implausible. After all, Trump built his political brand around the idea of “winning,” and now he is quite literally a loser. There will no doubt be some Republican primary voters who decide that Trump is no longer fit to be the party’s standard-bearer if he couldn’t even finish off Joe Biden. Given that Biden won so narrowly, though, it’s not clear that this will be the conclusion most of Trump’s followers draw. In any case, his base will still be large enough to make him an early front-runner in the 2024 GOP primaries.

Democrats should take the threat of a third Trump campaign extremely seriously. Biden is not inclined to pursue the sort of transformative policies that will be needed to address the structural unraveling of American society—by his own admission, his healthcare plan would still leave millions uninsured—and he will likely be hemmed in by an obstructionist Republican Senate for at least two years, and perhaps also by a Republican House after 2022.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to pass legislation authorizing aid for states and localities on the scale required to undo the fiscal damage wrought by the pandemic, the next several years will probably see brutal austerity at all levels of government and massive cuts to vital public services like education and transportation. This will not help the Biden administration’s popularity. If the 2020 election was fairly close even with a pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, then the margin for error in 2024 is slim.


If the 2020 election was fairly close even with a pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, then the margin for error in 2024 is slim.

What, if anything, can be done to ensure that Trump—or one of his children—is not able to slip back into office in four years? For starters, the new president needs to work hard to undercut the GOP’s growing populist appeal and to expose the emptiness of claims that the Republican Party has become, as Trump said in his Election Night remarks, “the party of the American worker.” Biden can do this most effectively by taking tangible steps, such as passing over corporate lobbyists and consultants when staffing his administration, to ensure that “the party of the American worker” is in fact the Democratic Party. Trump’s attacks on Biden as the “candidate of Wall Street” may have been flagrantly hypocritical—the 2017 GOP tax reform led to a massive upward redistribution of wealth—but lines like that will continue to resonate if Biden, like Barack Obama before him, appoints bankers and CEOs to key positions of power.

Biden should also learn from some of the other unforced errors of the Obama years. In pressing for another round of emergency economic measures, he ought to demand a package on par with the needs of the moment and not preemptively scale back the price tag because of expected Republican intransigence or concerns about the unpopularity of “government spending.” When Obama entered office in 2009 with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, his top economic adviser, Christina Romer, was calling for a stimulus on the order of $2 trillion; Obama ended up asking Congress for less than half that amount, and the economic pain continued, only slightly alleviated. Republicans would go on to win landslide victories in the midterm elections of 2010.

Instead of capitulating to the GOP’s inevitable handwringing about the national debt, Biden should make the case to the American people that pursuing austerity during a pandemic is a reckless course of action. The importance of presenting a positive vision that contrasts clearly with the plutocratic agenda of the Right was underscored by the results of this year’s election. Biden’s strategy of focusing his campaign on Trump’s character may have succeeded at winning him some votes from disaffected Republicans, but it doesn’t seem to have done much for Democrats in general: in most places, Biden ran well ahead of down-ballot Democratic candidates. Republicans are on track to retain their Senate majority and to gain seats in the House and in state legislatures across the country—a truly dismal result for a census-year election that in many states will determine who controls the redistricting process for the next decade.

Some would say there’s a good chance Trump won’t be able to run again because he will be in prison for one reason or another. It is important that he and any complicit associates be prosecuted for their crimes. But Democrats should not assume that jailing Trump would mean the end of Trumpism. (Plus, even incarceration might not be sufficient to take Trump himself off the field: a century ago, Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes for president while behind bars for his public opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I.) Only by presenting a pro-working-class alternative to the counterfeit populism of the Right can the wind be taken out of Trumpism’s sails.

In his National Interest article, Babones recounts how “Grover Cleveland’s first lady, Frances Folsom Cleveland, is supposed to have exhorted the White House staff ‘to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again four years from today.’ And return she did.” If the Biden administration settles for mere political redecoration instead of championing bold economic policies, it will be leaving the White House door open to the return of Trumpism, if not of Trump himself.

Matt Mazewski holds a PhD in economics from Columbia University. He is a research associate at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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Published in the December 2020 issue: View Contents
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