Is Trump immortal? The question is transparently stupid and the answer is obvious. But the president has had an extraordinary comeback from Covid. As an obese man in his seventies, he has beaten the odds, recovering without any of the lagged, second phase of the disease others have suffered. He is bounding around with great energy, unlike our own prime minister, who is still seemingly weighed down by its after-effects.
If I were one of the millions of true believers – whose continued devotion to Trump seems beyond reason and experience – I would start to wonder if he has some supernatural powers. His resilience cannot all be put down to large doses of remdesivir, vitamin D and bleach.
The president will, of course, eventually succumb to the fate awaiting us all, and graduate to the afterlife. But we should prepare for him to be around for some time yet. Next week, he may yet win the election; he may lose narrowly but win on appeal to the courts; he may lose decisively but cling to office anyway. If he is finally extracted from the White House, he will in all likelihood continue to lead an influential movement in his name.
Politicians create political creeds that live on long after they leave office. Witness Thatcher in Blair and Blair in Cameron. At a greater extreme, witness Juan Peron in Argentina, now on its sixth Peronist president ploughing the same disastrous furrow as his political ancestor.
I am on record as arguing in this column that Trump is likely to win (9 June 2020). In the light of current polling and the feedback from early voting, that opinion could charitably be described as contrarian. The factors working for him – a recovering economy and booming stock market, the absence of wars, the white backlash against anti-racist protests, success in packing the courts with supporters and religious fundamentalists, picking a fight with China – seem, at the moment, to be swamped by fear of Covid and anger over his handling of it.
Moreover, the Democrats have been disciplined and unified. Biden has largely avoided gaffes and, on Covid, been relentlessly on message. Time is also running out for the expected “October surprise”: a sudden, alarming, crisis overseas, real or contrived, in the Middle East or east Asia, or some spectacular piece of good, if fake, news on a Covid vaccine.
Pundits far better informed than me about American politics are saying that the polls are such that there is only one question left: whether Biden wins narrowly or by a landslide. They may, however, be discounting the effect of vote suppression and voter intimidation in the southern states and the ability of the administration to organise the disappearance of large numbers of mailed ballots.
The prospect of sound sleep between now and election day is also disturbed by several recurring nightmares. One particularly awkward, but all too plausible, scenario is one in which Trump appears to win “on the night” in terms of votes cast that day, claims victory, backed by Republican supporters at home and friendly governments abroad, but the outcome is altered once postal votes are counted.
Given that the president has already sought to discredit mail-in ballots, this situation would inevitably lead to huge choruses of “foul” from Republicans, however wrong they are. Overseas governments may find they are more than passive spectators of the drama. An early recognition of an alleged Trump victory from Britain, alongside Russia, Israel and India, would reinforce his determination to cling on.
Even if Trump is clearly defeated on the night, he could dismiss the verdict of the electorate as produced by “fraud” and sit tight. He could then justify obstruction through a “state of emergency” in the face of a real or imagined crisis.
He has millions of fanatical supporters who have been fed fantasy stories about the Biden camp. There are also grim reports of gun stores doing very brisk business ahead of election day. It does not require much imagination to see how Trump could use any kind of disruption as a pretext for suspending democratic processes. Those who think that scare stories surrounding the election are the stuff of bad thrillers might reflect that Trump managed to create an emergency out of an “invading” column of destitute, unarmed, Latin American refugees, which hadn’t even reached Mexico.
Even if none of these chilling possibilities occurs – Trump is decisively beaten and for the first time in his life is gracious in accepting defeat – his influence will linger on. His Supreme Court appointees, and their thousands of fellow-travellers in lower courts, will have a powerful conservative influence for years, if not decades. The extreme fringe groups he has legitimised have been boosted. The grievances he has fed will remain. The Republican Party will not be able to return to “normal” because its grassroots have been taken over by Trump’s supporters.
Indeed, should Biden succeed in being inaugurated on 20 January, Trump’s supporters have the makings of a seriously intimidating extra-parliamentary opposition. As a Democratic administration struggles with the inevitable problems of government, there would be a raucous, hostile, divisive unofficial opposition clamouring for the return of their hero. That opposition will surely be fired up by constant tweets and TV appearances from the leader who was “robbed” by the “deep state”.
Meanwhile, Trump’s economically damaging but popular protectionist trade policy will continue, too. The confrontation he has started with Xi’s China will almost certainly be amplified rather than diminished by renewed cooperation among US allies. I am old enough to remember how the early optimism around John F Kennedy soon gave way to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then the missile crisis, as he needed to show that he wasn’t “soft on communism”. History could well repeat itself with a Chinese variant as a new, likeable and moderate US president tries to show that he is as tough as his “macho” defeated opponent.
I hope that Boris Johnson and his entourage are thinking through these possibilities, and how best “Global Britain” can be a benign influence on events. Their desperation for a US/UK trade deal to “replace” our relationship with the European Union is likely to cloud their judgement. Either way, those who fear and hate this president must brace themselves for his ghost to enjoy a longer political life than his presidency.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats
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