When Americans go to the polls in two months, it is likely that Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump, perhaps by a very substantial margin. Although, nothing can be known for certain until the voters are cast, we are now late enough in the campaign that a victory for Trump would be an enormous upset. Not only is Trump behind in national polls and polls in most key swing states, but his campaign organization is still not strong. This will make it difficult for him to close the gap with a strong GOTV campaign or to even effectively bring out all his voters.
The Trump campaign has been an extraordinary political event, but it has also been, even more than most campaigns, a glimpse into the inner working of the man himself. Some voters like what they have seen, while many more appear to be repelled or frightened. However, Trump’s supporters and detractors would agree that this is a man with an enormous self-regard and an almost unslakable need for the media spotlight. This raises the question of what Trump will do after he loses the election, a very likely outcome. It is clear that he cannot go back to being a reality television star and that it is unlikely he would be happy simply returning to running his businesses.
Following Trump’s most recent campaign shakeup where he brought in Steve Bannon from Breitbard Media to serve as campaign CEO, and established a campaign relationship with right wing Fox personality Sean Hannity, many speculated that Trump was preparing for a post-election transition to starting a media company, presumably targeting his political base. Given the state of the media today, and the difficulty of making money in that highly volatile sector, it is unlikely that even a businessman who has failed in so many diverse endeavors as Trump has, would be able to succeed in that arena. While it remains possible that Trump will pursue that option, we have learned in this campaign that Trump does not have the patience for building something has complex as a media business. A more feasible option for Trump would be to lend his name to his chosen media outlet and let somebody else, presumably, Bannon run it. However, this will not be easy given both how badly Trump has damaged his brand during the course of the campaign. Additionally, allowing somebody else to run the media outlet would not keep Trump in the spotlight the way he wants.
Because Trump entered the campaign as a well known celebrity and immediately became the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, he has received enormous amounts of coverage for over fifteen months now. Given that, it may be hard to imagine, particularly for the candidate himself, how quickly all of that will disappear within a few hours of the polls closing. Other than those candidates who ran for President again, such as Dewey in 1944 and 1948, Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, Nixon in 1960 and 1968 and Humphrey in 1968 and 1972, when he lost the nomination, all candidates who lost the general election receded into obscurity very quickly. Some, like Goldwater and McGovern were able to go back to the Senate, but they were not leaders in that body or national political figures. Losing candidates like Dukakis in 1988, Gore in 2000, Dole in 1996, even Mitt Romney in 2008 either essentially retired or worked very hard to remain relevant. Gore had some success with through his film An Inconvenient Truth, but that did not last long. Romney, for his part, largely failed in his efforts this year to insert himself into the leadership of the #NeverTrump movement.
Trump, however, has no Senate seat to which he can return, nor is he young enough to run for President in 2020. It is also unlikely any President would appoint Trump to a cabinet post as Barack Obama did for John Kerry fully eight years after the latter’s defeat. The day after he loses, Trump will return to his office in Trump Towers and find that the media is no longer very interested in what he has to say,his latest Tweet or what he eats for lunch. Perhaps he will be content with the long vacation he said he would take after the election should he lose, but given what we have seen from Trump these last months, that is difficult to believe.
The question of what a wealthy, older and egotistical man chooses to do after losing an election, potentially in a very humiliating manner is not, on its own, a particularly interesting one. It is, however, significant because the fear of being bored and neglected by the media could push Trump into further efforts to destroy the social fabric of the US and undermine our political institutions. Given how much Trump has spoken about the potential for this election being stolen, it is easy to see how he might choose to pursue that narrative as a way to ensure that people pay attention to him. It is also not hard to imagine how Trump could continue to appeal to the most intolerant aspects of his political base to guarantee that at least some people are listening and paying attention to him. This is, of course, speculation, but the last sixteen months have demonstrated that Donald Trump will stop at nothing to pursue his need for attention and his political goals. There is little reason to think an electoral defeat, even a drubbing, will change that.