Donald Trump has called his campaign for the presidency the greatest movement in American history. Maybe not. But what happens to that movement if Trump doesn’t win the presidency?
How the losers behave tells you a great deal about the system as well as the competitors.
Madison’s goal in designing America’s political institutions was to keep dissatisfied people focused on competing within mainstream political institutions. The system works when those who lose at the polls focus on organizing to compete again–rather than simply taking to the streets.
The standard concession speech features thanks to the
voters and campaign workers, more or less gracious congratulations to the victor, and praise for the system. Almost all successful politicians, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton suffered significant defeats and persevered.
Senator Bernie Sanders waged a vigorous campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and conceded defeat when all the states were done voting. Deeply committed to a cause, he threw himself into his rival’s campaign, carrying his ideas. The Democratic platform responded to his concerns about issues like access to college and the minimum wage, and Sen. Sanders used the Clinton campaign to continue making his case for the cause. If he felt personal slights or disappointments, he certainly didn’t show it.
When New York senator Hillary Clinton lost a hard-fought campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, she quickly made her peace with the nominee, and worked to get him elected. Committed to public service–or personal ambition–Clinton joined the Obama administration and worked hard on behalf of the president’s policies, counting on his support when she again ran for office. It’s hard to imagine something far off the standard script if she loses the election.
But what about Donald Trump? He has repeatedly announced that an electoral defeat would probably be the result of a rigged system. Regardless, he’s said that failing to win the presidency would reflect a tremendous waste of time and money. Does any kind of Trump movement continue after a defeat?
Trump has demonstrated no clear commitment to any set of issues. He’s backed off even his central campaign themes of stopping Muslims from entering the country and Mexicans from crossing the Southern border without navigating a wall. Very much unlike Bernie Sanders, he has no cause that is greater than his own personal ambitions.
There’s also no reason to see a clear commitment to the Re;publican party from its nominee. Whatever happens next, it’s hard to imagine Trump putting much effort into healing a divided party after the election.
Many pundits have speculated that Trump will use an electoral defeat to build a rightwing news network, either on cable television or the internet. I don’t think the numbers work easily for such an enterprise (cable viewership is down; Glenn Beck’s The Blaze is faltering online). More than that, Trump’s business record offers little evidence that he has the management patience to launch such a venture, or that he would be willing to invest his money in it.
If it’s hard to see Trump making a substantial commitment to building a movement or a business after losing at the polls, it’s quite easy to imagine intensified whining about bias and mistreatment. After a defeat, however, I don’t see how many Republicans are going to have much interest or patience for the whine. Trump will offer little support for any agenda, nor anything helpful for their personal political aspirations.
So, who will listen?