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.