A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

White House Déjà Vu


The reelection of Donald Trump is not only possible, it is likely. So far at least, there’s no convincing answer to the question: Who could beat him in 2020?

© REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It’s November 4, 2020. Across the United States—and across the globe—liberals and Trump-opposing conservatives alike drag themselves from fitful sleep, red-eyed and exhausted, filled with dread, incomprehension, and déjà vu. How did he do it again?

The night before, Donald Trump won reelection as president—despite a chaotic and frustrating first term, multiple investigations, and a historically low approval rating. Of course, Trump had won in 2016 despite many of the same weaknesses, but that win was thought to be a fluke, a product of a weak Democratic candidate, Russian interference, and Trump’s novelty. His critics never imagined lightning could strike a second time.

With a second term, Trump has the potential to be among the most influential presidents in American history. The reelection gives him a mandate to continue his goal of dismantling historic U.S. alliances and trade deals. It means Congress will likely finally acquiesce to building the border wall that the president continues to demand. Trump has already started roundups of millions of illegal immigrants and cut the number of refugees the nation accepts to barely anything, and he’s now expected to forge ahead with plans to curtail legal immigration as well. Having appointed three justices to the Supreme Court in his first term, Trump will likely notch at least another or two in his second term, solidifying the first truly conservative court in almost a century for decades to come. The federal government will be radically reoriented around his form of laissez-faire conservatism. Stung by the Mueller investigation and impeachment attempt of his first term, Trump is also poised to purge the Justice Department and give the president broad protection from scrutiny and investigation.

In the press and the academy, Trump is almost uniformly recognized as a catastrophe, the worst president in history. And even though the public holds little regard for either institution, a majority of voters agree with them, and voted for Trump’s Democratic opponent by a margin of several million. It’s no matter: through a mixture of shrewd strategy and massive spending—both radical departures from the 2016 campaign—Trump has managed to wring out a sizable margin in the electoral college. It’s not an unalloyed victory: once again, Trump failed to win the popular vote, though he continues to insist otherwise. He is now considering new maneuvers to curtail the press, which keeps peskily pointing out his lies and hyperbole. For now, the president is willing to take a moment to enjoy his triumph. They said it couldn’t be done, and he did it—twice.

It Really Could Happen

Is this a euphoric daydream of Trump fans? The dystopian nightmare of pessimistic progressives? Or simply a plausible prediction about 2020?

Perhaps it is all three. Despite the struggles of the Trump presidency, which are acknowledged at home, abroad, and even dramatically inside the administration, as an astonishing anonymous New York Times op-ed in September 2018 demonstrated, the president stands a decent chance at reelection in two years’ time. There are other possible scenarios, as we’ll discuss later, but the prospect of a Trump reelection is both so widely disregarded among his many critics and also so plausible that it deserves serious priority consideration. With the midterm elections over, Trump is expected to ramp up the pace of his campaigning, even though the presidential election is two years away.

The fact is Trump enjoys campaigning far more than he enjoys governing. He never stopped talking about the 2016 race, filed for reelection the day he entered office, and has held campaign-style rallies throughout his presidency. His aspiring rivals will be on the trail soon, too. For years, American political analysts have talked about the “permanent campaign,” which refers to the importation of election-style tactics into governance. Trump has literally created such a permanent campaign, keeping the election-style tactics while largely ignoring the work of governance, save for a few top priorities.

In his bid for a second term, Trump will benefit from systemic features of US politics as well as a few attributes particular to himself. Let’s start with the system. First, incumbency is a powerful force. Since the Second World War, only two elected presidents who sought a second term have failed to win it. One, Jimmy Carter, was hobbled by a poor economy. The second, George H.W. Bush, was also hurt by the economy and by the fact that Republicans had run the country for 12 years, enough for voters to be ready for a change. Even presidents whom voters have harshly punished during midterm elections by pounding their allies in Congress have won reelection (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). So have those overseeing failing wars (Richard Nixon, George W. Bush).

The incumbency advantage is particularly strong if the economy is good. With remarkable consistency, a president overseeing a growing economy wins at the polls, even if—as is usually the case—he had little to do with creating it. As of writing, the American economy is chugging forward. Employment and stocks are both up, and while wage growth remains frustratingly slow, it is positive. A lot could change between now and November 2020, and some economists believe the US is due for a recession, but as long as current trends hold, Trump has the wind at his back.

White vs. Non-White Voters

Trump also benefits from the peculiarities of the American electoral system. For years before his election, progressive demographers have pushed the “Emerging Democratic Majority” theory. It  holds that as white voters shrink as a portion of the population, the new makeup of the electorate, with greater shares of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters, as well as younger voters of all races, will slant heavily toward liberal candidates. Barack Obama’s two victories, carried by surging votes from African Americans, convinced the theory’s proponents they were right. A high-profile Republican Party “autopsy” of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 concurred, arguing that the party needed to open up to non-white voters or risk irrelevance. In the meantime, Democrats benefited from their legacy of strong support in the Rust Belt. There, the shrinking but still large number of blue-collar workers would provide Democratic candidates with a built-in electoral-college advantage. This “firewall” could protect the party until the minority youth movement arrived.

Then Trump came along and demolished both of these basic premises for electoral forecasting. The 2016 race proved that a candidate could still win by relying on white votes—in fact, he could win enough white votes to be elected while explicitly stoking racial grievances. Meanwhile, the return of minority votes to pre-Obama norms suggested that only a rare Democratic candidate can produce the high turnout required to win. At the same time, Trump demolished the Rust Belt firewall, winning Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and coming close in Minnesota.

On the remade electoral map, it is Republicans who have the built-in edge. If Trump can hold most of the states he won in 2016, he’s well on his way to victory. Meanwhile, the list of Republican states that Democrats can hope to flip is short. Liberals are hopeful about someday taking over Texas, as well as minority-heavy Southern states like Georgia, but that’s likely an election cycle or two away. The minority surge is coming, but it’s still on the horizon. In the medium to long term, relying on white votes and racially divisive rhetoric may well be suicidal for the Republican Party, but Trump will be long gone by the time it’s too late.

Trump’s Palace Media

Finally, Trump benefits from his media environment. First, he has the unstinting support of what effectively are palace media. Partisanship in the press is nothing new, but for decades, the United States had nothing resembling the party-aligned organs that exist in many other democracies. Instead, there was a center-left mainstream press that mostly aimed for objectivity, and a small, scrappy conservative media alternative. The right-wing press has grown in strength for the last three decades, but in the Trump era, it has reached its apotheosis, becoming a servant not so much of conservatism as of Trump himself.

The most prominent example is of course Fox News, where star anchor Sean Hannity reportedly speaks to the president daily, but there are dozens of other important outlets of all sizes. The network’s former head, ousted for covering up sexual harassment, is now Trump’s communications director. These conservative media outlets wield enormous influence over their audiences. John Dean, the Richard Nixon aide-turned-informant, has said his boss would have survived Watergate if Fox News had existed to spin alternative narratives.

At the same time, trust in the media as a whole is low—in part thanks to unrelenting attacks in the conservative press—though it has rebounded somewhat since the beginning of Trump’s term. A certain segment of the population will dismiss anything that CNN or The Washington Post reports simply because CNN or The Washington Post reported it, which has lessened the impact of the impressive investigative journalism focussd on the Trump administration.

None of this is to discount the specific characteristics of the 2020 race. Trump’s flaws have been so extensively rehearsed that it’s easy to lose sight of his strengths as a politician. One reason why so many observers didn’t take Trump seriously in 2016 was that for years, businessmen had announced their arrival in politics and expected it to be easy, only to flame out. But unlike his failed predecessors, Trump possesses an unequalled instinct for connecting with voters and exploiting their grievances. One of his great weaknesses is also a great strength: He is willing to do and say almost anything, and he shows no sense of shame.

A Prolifically Mendacious Figure

The most important skill Trump learned in business and cross-applied to politics is media manipulation. His reputation in business always far outstripped his success, because he was so adept at courting coverage, and he quickly applied that to campaigning, offering nonstop press conferences and interviews (he only later curtailed access.) As the 2016 campaign showed, the traditional media is ill-equipped to deal with a prolifically mendacious figure like Trump. As a candidate, he perfected the art of making an outrageous and often false statement and then quickly changing the focus by replacing it with another outrageous and often false statement. This means that no story ever got full scrutiny, but Trump was constantly the center of attention. According to one media tracking firm, Trump captured the equivalent of $5 billion in advertising in the 2016 election. There’s no indication the mainstream press has solved the problem of how to cover Trump without playing into this ploy. If anything, it’s harder than ever to avoid taking his bait now because he’s the president of the United States.

Although Trump is deservedly known for his dishonesty, he is surprisingly dogged in pursuing his core campaign promises, even over the noisy objections of his Republican allies and even when it’s clear that by keeping a vow to his base, he is undermining his popularity with the nation at large. Though he has been repeatedly stymied, he has shown no indication of letting go of his dream of a wall on the border with Mexico. He has pursued trade wars even when they have begun to hurt American consumers and producers. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal over the objections of his advisers. His Supreme Court picks have been the conservative Christian crusaders he promised—in contrast to previous Republican presidents who, despite more religious piety and commitment to conservative ideals, chose moderate justices.

Trump is also expected to enter the election with a huge campaign fund. While he ran his 2016 race on the cheap, he won’t do that again. By summer of 2018, he had already amassed close to $100 million. Trump also benefits from a Republican Party that not only isn’t ambivalent about him, as it was two years ago, but has largely been reshaped in his image.

Finally, Trump could once more be lucky in his choice of opponents. Hillary Clinton was a slow-moving and clumsy candidate who cleared the field in 2016. The 2020 field is crowded, with no obvious standard-bearer. The Democratic primary will likely be expensive and bruising. While there are many potential candidates, all have major possible flaws: Too old (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders), too young (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris), too boring (Kirsten Gillibrand, Eric Garcetti), too exciting (Michael Avenatti), too liberal (Sanders, Warren), too moderate (Biden), and so on.

Backlash against Midterm Winners

While Democrats are expecting midterm victories this November, there’s a real danger of overreach that comes with renewed heft in Congress. The party has already planned extensive investigations into alleged corruption as well as other schemes to confound Trump. It is true that Trump, as an unusually divisive figure who is despised by his opponents, is susceptible to inquiries. But aggressive pressure from opposition parties following midterm victories has backfired in the past. Voters swept Republicans into power in 1994 but opted to keep Bill Clinton two years later. After making Barack Obama’s life miserable by electing Tea Party Republicans in 2010, voters resoundingly reelected him in 2012.

Without knowing how the economy will perform for the next two years or a clear vision of how Democrats might behave with control of Congress, and without knowing whether Trump is likely to face a true crisis not of his own creating, it’s too early to declare him the 2020 favorite. But it’s well within reason that he could be.

Who Can Beat Him?

Nonetheless, Trump’s weaknesses are real, and it’s easy to envision him joining Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as one-term presidents—one of the few things that would unite the three men. The question is who would beat him, and how.

Trump might choose not to run again. He will be 76 on election day 2020, older than any nominee in history. His first term has been beset with frustrations and investigations, he often seems plainly unhappy, and by some reports, he never especially wanted or expected to win in 2016. Given Trump’s defiant demeanor, it’s hard to imagine him ever resigning from office, but retiring after one term could give him a comparatively graceful exit. It would probably be a relief to him and the country.

Grace, then again, has never been Trumps’ strong suit. What would his opposition look like? At this stage, Trump seems likely to face some sort of primary challenge by fellow Republicans, with John Kasich generally considered the most eager contender. It’s no surprise that a president as unpopular as Trump would face a rival, but the president is in a surprisingly strong position to withstand it. Despite poor approval ratings overall, Trump’s remains extremely popular with Republican voters.

Though there will surely be calls for a third-party challenger, the American system as constituted continues to make it all but impossible for any third-party candidate to do more than play spoiler. Besides, the two most obviously formidable independent prospects have both ruled themselves out: Kasich said he’ll only run as a Republican, while perennial potential independent candidate Michael Bloomberg is exploring running as a Democrat.

The Democratic field remains packed and up for grabs, but the party’s options fit into three basic groups. The party could opt to nominate a reliable, familiar face: former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 runner-up Bernie Sanders, or former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. They could opt for a fresh face—Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Kamala Harris; Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado; or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, to name a few. Or voters could choose a wild-card candidate. It’s a sign of the desolation of the Democratic Party’s ranks of leaders, following the down-ballot losses of the Obama years and Clinton’s defeat, that each of these paths is fraught with danger.

Take the old reliables. Biden has run for president before, and has never fared well. He has something of Trump’s touch with blue-collar voters, but otherwise is out of step with the Democratic Party of today. He would be 77 when inaugurated. Sanders, also at the end of his career, surprised most observers in 2016, but it’s still unclear whether his dyspeptic leftism has broad enough appeal in a general election. Patrick was a well-regarded governor, but he has little national profile.

Fresh faces have the advantage of novelty but the danger of being unproven. Warren might be the strongest (and oldest) of the bunch, though she’s only ever run in very liberal Massachusetts. The highly ambitious Booker is charismatic but a political cipher. Harris has captured the imagination of many Democrats, but she’s only just barely arrived in the Senate. Gillibrand has a longer track record and the advantage of representing wealthy and populous New York, but she isn’t the most exciting candidate. As for Garcetti, no mayor has been nominated for the presidency since 1812. Hickenlooper is a heartthrob for centrist pundits but his broader appeal is unproven.

Democratic voters could also decide to fight fire with fire and choose an outsider, celebrity candidate to mirror Trump. The appetite for such a plan became clear in January 2018 when a speech by Oprah Winfrey at an awards show sparked widespread calls for her to run for president. She demurred, but others may not be so restrained. Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is said to be considering a run. Michael Avenatti, the brash lawyer who represents Stormy Daniels, the porn actor and director who claims to have had an affair with Trump, has declared his interest in running and has even visited the key early state of Iowa.

Driving the Minority Turnout

The preceding analysis makes barely any mention of what is often portrayed as the central battle in the Democratic Party: between the center-left and the quasi-socialist left wing. If Sanders or Biden won the nomination, that dispute might become operative. Otherwise, it’s likely to be beside the point. For one thing, even the more cautious, moderate candidates like Booker have increasingly adopted Sanders-esque policy ideas like a guarantee of a job for all able adults. For another, the priority for Democratic voters as a whole in 2020 likely is to choose a candidate who can beat Trump, regardless of what particular platform he or she proposes.

Given the party’s increasing reliance on minority and women’s votes, it is however difficult to imagine Democrats nominating a white man to lead their ticket this year, and perhaps for several cycles to come. There are some members of the party who believe the best way to beat Trump is to win back the blue-collar white voters who once backed Democrats but flipped to Trump in 2016. But the prevailing view at the moment holds that in a party with a large crop of women and minority candidates, and given Trump’s divisive rhetoric about women and minorities, nominating a white man is politically untenable.

That may be true. If so, the result will be that the party leans hard on driving turnout among minority voters, just as Obama did. The Democrats will also be able to rely on heavy turnout in large, strongly liberal states like California, Illinois, and New York—which will inflate the vote for the party’s presidential nominee, but won’t affect the electoral college, since all three states are reliably Democratic. But they’ll still have to fight to win back the Rust Belt states Trump clawed away in 2016. The Democratic candidate in 2020 could win the popular vote by a landslide or by a small margin, but if they win the electoral college it’s likely be a very tight victory. Or they could find themselves stunned and defeated by Trump once more.