Opinion | Trump's Staying Power

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Pending the outcome in a few key states, Donald Trump may be leaving the White House, but he’s not exiting the room.

The fiercest Never Trump critics hoped for—and wishfully predicted— a cleansing landslide, a 2020 defeat so all-encompassing that every trace of Trump and his enablers would be erased from the Republican Party.

That’s not happening. Trump’s poll- and pundit-defying surge toward the cusp of a second-term vindicates Trump’s approach enough to give him and his potential successors continued traction, if not a dominant voice, in the party.

Trump’s possible loss is nothing like the shellacking the GOP experienced in 2008, when a deeply unpopular George W. Bush left office amid a controversial war and a financial crisis and Barack Obama won the presidency in a landslide together with a 60-seat Senate majority.

Trump’s party is set to retain its Senate majority and pick up House seats, while the margin of his own defeat may be a whisker in the Blue Wall states, just as his margin of victory in 2016 was a whisker.

He did his own side the inadvertent favor of perhaps buffering it from the worst consequences of his own possible loss—first, by filling the Ruth Bader Ginsburg seat on the Supreme Court that otherwise would have fallen to Joe Biden, and by performing well enough to aid the cause of Republican Senate candidates, who will neuter a Biden presidency from the outset if they do indeed manage to hold the majority.

Trump’s voters were still there for him—in fact, more so than ever. His tack of doubling down on his base wasn’t quite as insane as we were always told by commentators, but almost worked (it was an exaggerated version of the strategy that won George W. Bush a second term in 2004 and Obama a second term in 2012). His strong close proved his power as a campaigner, with his signature madcap rallies—featuring the intensity of a revival meeting and the yucks of Borscht Belt comedy—serving as effective organizing and messaging vehicles.

This is not to deny that Trump’s own failings helped sink him. There are a thousands pitfalls he could have avoided if he weren’t so thin-skinned, self-involved and undisciplined. No single one of them made the difference, but cumulatively they blighted his presidency and made him radioactive in the suburbs and among college-educated whites.

No one should want to repeat them, and the party should never again get behind such a flawed personal figure.

Nevertheless, Trump points to a viable GOP future even if he comes up short. He posted startling gains among Latino voters, particularly in Florida, although in other places, too. This shows it’s possible to imagine a working-class-oriented Republican Party that isn’t a demographic dead end, but genuinely crosses racial lines, even if this potential is still inchoate.

Given how Trump’s base showed up massively in the last two presidential elections, it’s also unlikely that these voters are going to be jettisoned anytime soon by some other Republican presidential candidate in favor of an entirely new coalition. Indeed, the education- and class-based re-sorting of the GOP—affluent suburbs peeling off and working-class voters coming on board—pre-dated Trump, although he accelerated the trend.

The concerns of these voters have to figure prominently in the agenda of the GOP going forward. That doesn’t require embracing any particular Trump policy—steel tariffs, for instance, have been a bust—but it does mean the party will inevitably be more populist going forward.

One lesson of Trump is that presidential politics rewards entrepreneurial candidates who figure out a new way to win a party’s nomination and to campaign. Trump imitators will likely fail. Instead, the name of the game should be figuring out how to hold the Trump base while recovering ground in the suburbs, especially given that Trump’s electoral path looks to have been too narrow even for Trump himself to duplicate.

But all this work will take place with Trump himself remaining an outsize presence. He will presumably continue to rate, and so will remain a fixture on Fox News and talk radio even if he is a one-term president. His supporters will still consider him a legendary fighter, a totem of resistance to the media and cultural elite. His endorsements will still be sought after. And ambitious 2024 candidates will seek to inherit his mantle.

Trump might not win the biggest, most important prize of a second term in 2020, but there’s no doubt he has staved off political irrelevance.

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