Will he go rogue if Biden beats him? Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

May 6, 2020   6 mins

“There is not a chair to sit in. The beds and bedding are in a woeful pickle. This house has been a scene of the most scandalous drinking and disorder among the servants that I ever heard of. I would not have one of them for any consideration.”

Presidential transitions are often messy affairs. That was the first: John Adams is writing to his wife Abigail, in 1797, about the scenes two weeks after George Washington had left office. Washington had left his servants in charge, and they had little consideration for the new man or for the decorum of the new republic.

In 1801, when Adams handed over to Jefferson, things were even worse. Adams used his last months in office to appoint judges he thought would block the programme of his successor, and refused to attend the inauguration.

So what happens on November 4 this year, if Donald Trump has lost his bid for re-election, which most presidents manage pretty easily? How haywire will things be?

Let us begin with a fact that many Americans find uncomfortable, but which is broadly true: Donald Trump won the election of 2016 because the Democratic party put up a candidate who failed to enthuse the nation enough to muster the necessary votes to beat him. It really was as simple as that. And the Democrats — remarkably — could be about to repeat the feat in 2020. They have a job of work to do in getting Joe Biden to look and feel like the natural man for the job.

But rather than focus on addressing their failure of 2016, and the risk of repeating it, some in the party are going full Apocalypse Now: they’re claiming the President is going to delay the election or not accept the result. Joe Biden himself, at a fundraising event last month that was meant to be about his programme for office, managed to darken the mood. “Mark my words,” he said. “I think [Trump] is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.”

But ask yourself this, Joe: would Donald Trump like the election to be fought amid wild talk of cancelled democracy, history ending, systems collapsing? Or would he prefer to dive into the weeds of post-coronavirus planning, health system reform, future pandemic readiness? It’s the former, obviously. This is his thing. He is comfortable here. Famously, in the White House when they want him to do something they say: “it’s never been done before!” Or: “the lawyers will never allow it!” I mean, come on: have we learned nothing?

So let us assume that the election will go ahead on 3 November. It is constitutionally mandated (and, as I have noted before, the lower the turnout the better for the Donald so there is really no reason at all that he would delay it even if he could). But what if he loses? Here is where some Democrats are getting really excited, and not in a good way. They think, or pretend to think, that he will refuse to leave.

There is a body of Trumpocalypse theorising out there. To begin at the scenic end: a book by that name, Trumpocalypse, co-written by Paul McGuire, who is described as “an eschatology professor and prophecy expert”. The front cover depicts the White House in flames and no wonder because the book is an “explosive exposé of the chilling truth about the fierce opposition to the Trump presidency, and why the globalist elite and Deep State will stop at nothing — assassination, military coup, staged economic collapse, or worse — to overthrow him”.

Laugh (or cry, or cower) if you must but there are others, of a more serious bent, who think it will all end in tears. Steve Bannon — Trump’s former campaign chief — suggested years ago to the author Michael Wolff that the end of Trump would not be pretty. Nixon went quietly in the end, mused Bannon, but with Trump it would be “ugly”. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, was blunter: “there will never be a peaceful transition of power” he said, if the re-election bid went badly.

Mr Trump is his usual self in these matters. When Jerry Falwell Jr., one of his most prominent evangelical supporters, suggested Trump should get two years tacked on to his first term as “pay back” for the Mueller Russia investigation, Trump re-tweeted the idea. As if he were mulling it over.

But is he, really? Many of his supporters would suggest that the no-respect-for-elections shtick is a Democratic party thing. How often do those who hate the President talk of the fact that he lost the popular vote in 2016? That the Russians were involved, despite the lack of firm evidence that their involvement swayed the result? That the Donald is unfit for all manner of reasons, including mental incapacity? In other words, who is it, actually, that doesn’t accept the result of the 2016 poll?


And how long have they been up to this? A few days ago George W. Bush released a video message of solidarity and affection for all Americans in the time of coronavirus — a message that Trump hated and his opponents swooned over. How short are their memories? Or how selective? They hated Bush back in the day and they wondered, too, whether he would end freedom — or, in the words of one book, End America. Naomi Wolf — author of The End of America — said free America was under assault. There was little time to lose. There were parallels between George W’s rule and the 1930s. A fascist shift — whatever that might mean — was under way.

We know how this ended: with the Bush-Obama transition a model of decorum and George and Michelle Obama seen since, flirting like school kids.

I am not suggesting that Donald Trump will be a happy man on 4 November if he loses. Or that he will go quietly and gently. I doubt he would attend Biden’s inauguration. But there is simply no evidence that he is planning a revolution. He is mandated by law — a new law passed by Congress during Obama’s time in office — to prepare a transition team even while trying to win re-election. He is, it seems, doing it. Only days ago, according to the Associated Press, Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a directive asking federal agencies to select transition coordinators by the end of the week. It is in hand. Joe: relax.

It’s worth remembering that Trump might like fizzing drama and the Democrats might be tempted to fight in this territory but most Americans are not comfortable here. Not at all, and certainly not in this terrifying year of all years. So does that turn them off Trump, as the Democrats might hope, or does it frighten them to such an extent that they decide to placate a man portrayed as a danger to the world if he doesn’t get his way? Four more years: perhaps that’s a price worth paying for not crashing the whole show? I have no evidence that this is true, but knowing how little many Americans focus on politics, it seems to me by no means impossible that talk of ‘what Trump might do’ will play right into his hands.

To focus on the wildness, the oddness, the danger of Trump may be to commit a terrible tactical error. The former Obama speech writer Jon Favreau has a new job now as truth-teller to his party. He conducts focus groups in which potential Democratic voters are asked about the political scene. Favreau’s conclusion: “They really do see Trump as part of a broader political media culture that’s just out of control, silly, nasty, and not focused on what they care about.” Favreau says he comes away from his focus groups “thinking that Trump may not be as big of a challenge as the cynicism and distrust that a lot of these voters have towards the entire political system and the media”.

Hysterical talk of cancelled elections — terrifying talk of incipient totalitarianism — either leaves folks cold or, if I am right, could actually push them into the ‘placate Trump or something ghastly might happen’ camp. I think Mr Trump might know this too.

But if he does lose it does not follow that he actually blows up. We should be prepared, in other words, for anything, including anti-climax. Victor Davis Hanson, a Trump supporter, wrote a book in which he compared the president to Clint Eastwood’s police anti-hero Dirty Harry who, at the very end of the whole long violent saga of chasing a baddie “shoots the psychopathic Scorpio, ending both their careers, and walks off after throwing his inspector’s badge into the water”.

I doubt there will be an actual shooting. There may well be legal action to void the result in some states, particularly if it’s close. But the Dirty Harry metaphor is a good one. In the end Trump walks off. Back to the golf course. Back to New York. Back to the TV career.

The Democrats, if they are to win, need to focus on what happens in a sequel that they, finally, have the power to write.

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.