This article is part of a series in which we have asked our contributors to imagine that populist movements continue to gain influence in the coming years. Here Michael considers what America looks like after a second Trump term.
How would America look after eight years of a Donald Trump presidency? Well, that depends on a host of unknowables: Which parties control each house of Congress throughout the remaining years? Does the special counsel investigation produce anything damning or exonerating about Trump or his close associates? Will any major natural disasters or large-scale terrorist or military attacks dramatically reorient the country’s focus? Which Democrat will run against Trump in 2020 and (in this scenario) lose? Will Trump receive a credible challenge in the Republican primary?
Regardless of these unknowns, however, we can assume a few big constants: the president will not change his style or approach to public office. The political Left will become more radical in its response to an immovable Trump. The mainstream media will get more reflexively oppositional. The administration will continue pursuing recognisably conservative policy goals.
With Trump himself, we can expect the sort of tweets and public statements we’ve grown accustomed to, where his combativeness and pettiness achieve little in the way of advancing his policy agenda, but continue to consolidate his base around cultural issues. And we can expect continued inconsistency between the president’s rhetoric and his actions, whether he’s dealing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill or with foreign leaders.
In response, Trump’s opponents on the Left will only be more energised, not deflated, by their failures to oust Trump through democratic means. The cultural response to Trump will get more extreme. Popular culture will be saturated in anti-Trump content and themes. There will be more and larger mass demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, and they will be much more violence. The lingering memory of the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville has obscured the simmering rage on the Left, manifested in the antifa demonstrators in California and elsewhere during 2017. That ugly side of the left-wing response to Trump will only intensify.
The mainstream media opposition to Trump will become more radical as well, with the patina of objectivity fading more and more. Trump and many in the Washington-New York-based news media already view each other as enemies, and the war between them will heat up. Television anchors will be further drawn to pontificating on Trump’s sins, while reporters and editors will see a duty to focus even more of their fire on Trump, to the exclusion of other necessary stories and topics. The separate realities fostered by a more explicitly partisan mainstream media will mean even less agreement among voters about facts.
Racial polarisation, too, will grow as Trump continues to make implicit appeals to an older, whiter America. His administration will continue stumbling through policy disasters like the 2017 travel ban and the family separation at the border that at best look insensitive to certain racial groups and at worst are intentionally targeted at them.
The new racial-grievance-based political correctness will spread beyond campuses and left-wing intellectual discussions as evidence piles up that one political party, under a racially problematic leader, favours whites over racial minorities. Politicians in both parties may begin to feel liberated to make more explicit racial appeals, the likes of which America hasn’t seen since the Civil Rights era.
Politically, all of this will have the effect of continually narrowing Trump’s base of support and building up political opposition from all other angles. It won’t just be the #Resistance on the Left; it will put off the educated suburbanites who lean Republican but find themselves increasingly unable to justify their support for a president and a party that antagonises racial and cultural resentments. These Americans may have been willing to ignore the Trump sideshow when the economy’s roaring and life is otherwise good, but an economic downturn, or a national security crisis, or some other major test for the country, will remove any incentive to stick with Trump.
The effect on Trump will be like that of a cornered dog – he will get more ferocious and aggressive, not less. More divisive tweets and statements, more opposition from Americans – and repeat.
In terms of actual policy, however, where Trump has little personal interest, inertia means conservatives and right-leaning populists continue to dominate choices in many key areas, at least in the executive branch. The president’s second term will match that of the first – a hands-off approach to the federal realms of education, environmental regulations, and health care. Trump will continue to nominate conservatives to the federal bench, including to another Supreme Court seat. The coupling of Trump’s divisive style with conservative policy means those goals will become toxic with the growing number of Americans who find Trump and his party noxious.
Despite these constants, however, things will undoubtedly change over the course of Trump’s presidency in ways that will not only make the country worse off but will not satisfy the hopes right-leaning populists placed in this unconventional leader.
The populists’ position within the political system (i.e. in the Republican party) will diminish considerably. Their economic goals – a broadening of opportunity for the working class, a manufacturing renaissance, wage increases – will crumble under the weight of a mismanaged trade war that ends with high consumer prices and growth stagnation. Their desire for a more humble foreign policy will not be realised as Trump ping-pongs between populist realism that weakens America’s hegemonic position, and a reckless hawkishness that exacerbates tensions with antagonists on the world stage.
For these reasons, it’s not hard to imagine Trump’s fragile coalition beginning to break apart the moment his re-election in November 2020 is confirmed. Because Trump’s political strength among Republicans is chiefly oppositional (he stands against liberal Democrats, against the liberal media), the president has done little to settle the disagreements among Republicans or make a strong empirical case for conservative populism. Economic populists clash with supply-side tax-cutters. Both national security hawks and realists try to wrest control of the party’s narrative on foreign policy. Small-government conservatives are outraged that government has continued to grow. Immigration hawks are split (as they already are) on whether Trump did enough to secure the border. There may be a wall by 2025, but Mexico will surely not have paid for it.
The trade wars which Trump has waged on the populists’ behalf have erased the gains in the economy that were realised in his first term. There are higher prices for consumers thanks to tariffs and inflation. And a withdrawal of capital has been triggered by an economic downturn, meaning massive job losses in those parts of the country that needed employment opportunities the most – and placed their trust in Trump to deliver them. A bigger budget deficit as a result of Trump’s economic policies has forced cuts to social services.
In terms of the Republican party itself, the political fracturing of the Trump coalition will be especially sharp if Republicans are not in control of one or both houses of Congress, and if they’ve lost significant electoral ground in the state governorships and legislatures. That was the result for the Democrats under Barack Obama, thanks to the former president’s own unwillingness to tend to his party while in the White House.
To the extent Trump bequeaths his political operation to someone else – to Mike Pence, or one of his children – it will be devalued. Much of Trump’s operation is centred around the man himself, and personality is impossible to transfer. There will be an open market on the centre-right for an alternative to Trump’s Republicanism, one that won’t necessarily be friendly to the economic populism preferred by the core part of the Trump base. This alternative could take over the Republican party or split off from the GOP to form a more centrist third party. It will likely be the former, given the structural barriers to third parties in the American system, but either way it leaves Trumpian populists in a weak political position.
And that’s not even considering what will happen to the political coalition on the Left, which has continued to move toward a sort of populist democratic socialism in the mould of Bernie Sanders. Many of the swing voters from the Rust Belt that Republicans brought into the GOP fold with populist promises were Barack Obama voters in 2008 and 2012. Who’s to say a failure to Make America Great Again won’t push these voters back toward the Democratic party – one that’s interested in punishing millionaires and billionaires in the name of the people?
And so America faces a choice in 2024 among a more radical and populist left, a diluted centre-right coalition, and an exhausted right-wing populism that has little to show for its eight years in power. That political situation represents a failure of Trump and Trumpism, with the nation more divided and less prosperous than before he took office in 2017. Is that the future conservative populists want? Hardly.
The following scenario isn’t crazy: It’s January 2025, two months after a presidential election unlike any America had seen in more than a hundred years. Three major parties had vied for the White House. Had the Republican party found a way to hold together for just one more election cycle, perhaps it could have eked out a win. Instead, the split that seemed inevitable throughout Trump’s two terms – between Trumpian Republicans and the Never Trumpers – was unfixable.
The Trump wing fully embraced its populist roots in selecting its nominee. The GOP dumped Vice President Mike Pence for House minority leader and ultra-conservative Mark Meadows after an eleventh-hour endorsement by President Trump. The outgoing commander-in-chief, who skipped the convention and retreated instead to his golf club in New Jersey, wrote in a series of late-night tweets that Meadows would continue the fight against both the ‘crazy socialists’ and the ‘hateful (and weak) RepubliCAN’TS who did everything to stop me for more than 8 years.’
The Meadows nomination was just the spark the anti-Trump New Federalist party and its nominee, former Trump Cabinet official-turned-critic Nikki Haley, needed. Although Haley’s party qualified for the ballot in all 50 states and had gained some prominent converts like Senators Mitt Romney and former House speaker Paul Ryan, polls showed Republican voters were planning on sticking with the GOP after Mark Meadows’s promise to reverse much of Trump’s second term trade policies. Haley’s poll numbers inched up over the summer until they were even with Meadows’. But the selection of moderate Democratic congressman and former marine Seth Moulton as her running mate wasn’t enough to overtake Meadows and the Republicans.
Most Democratic leaners stuck with the Democratic nominee – a resurgent Kamala Harris, the progressive Senator from California who after a second-place finish in the 2020 primaries came back stronger and more left-wing than ever. Buoyed by picking up those important big-state electoral votes in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, her plurality victory was enough to win. As 2025 begins, Harris looks set to turn the page as dramatically on the Trump era as Trump had done eight years earlier on the Obama era.