December 16, 2020

The Electoral College formally convened this week, and with it expired the last faint hope of Donald Trump retaining the presidency. While the outcome had never been in real doubt, Trump and innumerable Republican boosters had for six weeks kept up the mirage of frantic irresolution, with Trump issuing a daily barrage of ALL-CAPS tweets claiming that despite what you might have heard, he’d actually won.

In any event, all states have now ratified their results without serious incident, and the hucksterish post-election litigation efforts undertaken by Trump’s various sundry representatives have predictably gone nowhere. Yesterday, Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell even declared Biden the “president-elect” and now the Democrat is faithfully filling his forthcoming administration with a cast of characters drawn directly from the pits of the Washington, DC Democratic Party professional class — the same people whom he openly campaigned on rehabilitating and restoring to power.

The election is well and truly over, whatever toothless protestations may continue to arise.

What’s far from over, however, is the political influence of Trump. No one can say with total certainty what he’ll do when he eventually leaves office; no one can even say exactly on what terms he’s going to leave. But in just over a month now, we may face a scenario that would be a first in modern US history: an aggrieved former president making a competing claim to the presidency and refusing in perpetuity to acknowledge the reality of his defeat. In other words, a “shadow” president.

Trump’s lack of compunction about doing something like this would seem to solidify his position as the most thoroughgoing “post-exceptionalist” president since at least World War II. That is, he is entirely unmoved by the kind of bipartisan “American exceptionalism” dogma that had previously bound together the elite US political class, across partisan lines. It’s the dogma which holds that, in short, the US possesses a singular uniqueness that sets it apart in all of world history. Often blended together with notions of Christian providence, it ascribes the very foundations of the US Constitutional order with a kind of divine import.

But over the last four years, Trump has thrown these old assumptions into doubt. For one thing, the Constitution certainly makes no provision for a “shadow” president. How could a country with a mystically-endowed “exceptional” nature — the “shining city on a hill,” Ronald Reagan once proclaimed — be said to retain its “exceptional” status if its elections are, as Trump vigorously maintains, structurally and systematically fraudulent?

“The whole world is watching, and the whole world is laughing at our electoral process,” Trump recently charged, during the same rant in which he also condemned Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State as “an enemy of the people”. He’s also taken to referring to the US as a “third world country” on similar grounds. A president for whom the doctrine of American exceptionalism was a genuinely animating principle would be less inclined to encourage the impression that America’s system of choosing its elected leaders is so hopelessly corrupt that it deserves to be the object of international ridicule.

That Trump has harped on this theme with negligible public opposition from conservatives and Republicans suggests an ongoing reformulation in how the US Right conceptualises the very notion of “American exceptionalism”. It’s the culmination of a longstanding trend in terms of how conservatives have processed the experience of Trump; nationalism has been disentangled from reverence for institutions like the FBI and CIA which have been among the most frequent targets of Trump opprobrium. Even his popularisation of the term “Deep State” cuts against traditional American exceptionalist theology — America was never supposed to be the type of country that could even have a “Deep State” in the first place.

Given that Trump is so profuse in his proclamations of nationalistic fervour, this element of his underlying worldview has often been obscured. But it’s not as though he’s really tried to hide it: shortly before launching his candidacy in 2016, he went on an extended soliloquy explaining how he “never liked” the term “American Exceptionalism” in the first place, and accused US politicians of “insulting the world” when they use it.

Nor did the prestige of office meaningfully change Trump’s attitude on the matter. During a pregame Superbowl interview shortly after he took power in 2017, he was asked by interviewer Bill O’Reilly about Russia. Drawing a kind of off-handed moral equivalence that would have once been unthinkable for a sitting president to propose, Trump replied: “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” This dark — but again, not-entirely-wrong — view of everything from the US intelligence services, to the principles undergirding US foreign policy, to the motives of workaday state and local election officials, always set him rhetorically apart from his more guarded predecessors.

And as is typical with Trump, the grievances he wildly purveys usually have at least a kernel of truth to them. He will have a reasonable argument in his post-presidency, for instance, that his tenure was “rigged” from before it started due to the depredations of select CIA/FBI malefactors who colluded against him. In December 2016, when the first official accusation that he’d been sinisterly aided by “Russian interference” was leaked via unnamed members of the “intelligence community,” he instructed his press department to retort: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” It was a justifiable statement. But then, a few weeks later, Trump would liken the CIA and FBI to the Third Reich. Again — not the rhetorical style of your typical “American exceptionalist”.

It’s in that context that both Trump and his supporters feel they have more than ample justification to claim, possibly for decades to come, that he was defrauded rather than defeated in this election. The issue is not even so much that they believe the election was literally fraudulent — although they do. But more elementally, what they believe is that the opposition to Trump was the culmination of a “rigged” process in a sense that far transcends the administrative mechanics of absentee ballot distribution in Wisconsin.

These grievances will persist whether or not Trump wields state power. But there are plenty of informal powers that a newly-christened “shadow president” could conceivably wield. Having garnered 74.2 million votes — more than anyone in history, except Joe Biden — he’ll have a limitless range of options to continue exerting political influence. The first thing virtually any ambitious Republican who wants to win a competitive primary election will seek is his endorsement. We can likely expect a steady stream of flamboyantly-orchestrated pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago.

President Manuel López Obrador of Mexico — a Left-wing populist who developed an idiosyncratic bond with Trump — potentially provides something of a precedent for the Trump to emulate. After Obrador’s loss in the 2006 Mexico presidential election, the candidate openly rejected the outcome on the basis of what he said was widespread fraud. He even went so far as to participate in his own counter-inauguration event, attended by huge numbers of supporters, and declared himself head of a “parallel government.” It took another twelve years, but Obrador eventually won the official presidency on his own terms.

Trump probably lacks the concentration of mind to replicate Obrador’s feat; governing always seemed to be his least favourite part of the job, anyway. More probably, he will be permitted to once again inhabit his most natural state, which is that of pundit-in-chief. However should he choose to forge this new, yet-to-be defined role as a “shadow president”, he’ll have hastened the reversion of the US to a country with a manifestly less “exceptional” stature — and it would be perfectly in keeping with his long-expressed worldview.

In a way, this isn’t an entirely bad thing — it could bring a much-needed dose of humility to those whose livelihoods have long been predicated on fictionalised “American Exceptionalism” fantasies — especially to the DC think-tank class whose foreign policy obsessions usually entail imposing Americanised democratic customs on other countries by force. That will be far harder to rationalise when a former president dedicates his life to insisting that American democratic customs are… a farce.