There’s doubling down, and then there’s John Harris. By his own admission, Politico’s founding editor has been predicting that Trump would quit “for a couple of years now” to his colleagues and sources, “usually to dismissive grunts or quizzical stares.” With less than 100 days before the election and almost nothing new to offer as support for this theory, Harris insists that it’s still a distinct possibility:
As it happens, the Trump Drops Out scenario is one I have trafficked to colleagues and sources for a couple years now, usually to dismissive grunts or quizzical stares. It is true that there is scant time left for the scenario to come to pass. It’s true also that, if I were a reliable predictor of Trump’s political fortunes, Hillary Clinton would now be running for reelection.
But even if one doesn’t really think Trump will drop out of the race—as a proselytizer of the theory I acknowledge it is a stretch—it is worth examining the reasons he just might, as a way of illuminating the bleakness of his situation with just over three months to go before the general election.
Is it worth examining? Or is it just a rehash of polling data and gut reactions to Trump? YMMV:
No doubt Trump would savor the validation of winning a second term. Under the current trajectory, that looks less likely than not; By the light of some evidence it looks highly unlikely. One question is whether Trump genuinely believes he has a plausible plan—beyond throw a lot of stuff against the wall and hope some of it sticks—to change that trajectory. The second question is how Trump conceives of the balance of his lifetime—and his historical reputation after that—if he were to lose to Joseph Biden and join the ranks of defeated incumbents.
The Trump-drops-out scenario hinges on the assumption that Trump is less concerned with wielding the levers of government than he is preserving his role as disrupter at large in American politics over the next decade. The latter might be much easier to maintain if he avoids being tattooed as loser in November—especially if the margin is larger than could be attributed, even by his most conspiracy-minded supporters, to media bias or vote-counting manipulation by Democrats.
Fair use prohibits me from excerpting much more, but this theory is the core of Harris’ argument. The rest of it is mainly images of Trump from after the disappointing Tulsa rally and Trump’s lamenting that Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are more popular than he is, mixed in with a high degree of confidence in June-July polling. In other words, there’s not much support for this theory and Harris’ prediction than wishcasting, although it is still entertaining to read.
The theory itself has big holes in it anyway. Is Harris sure that Trump’s interested in leading a movement for the next decade? Or did he jump to the front of a movement in order to run the country for a while? Trump’s a narcissist — like many other politicians, only less refined about it — and it seems much more likely that he’s interested in the office a lot more than leading a movement. Remember when people thought Barack Obama would lead a movement, too? Where’s he been for the last four years? Cutting deals to make lots of money, and mainly staying quiet, even to the point of letting his former VP sink or swim on his own until very recently.
That’s precisely what Trump will do as well. The “balance of his lifetime” will be spent getting back to making money, both in real estate and in bookwriting, or at least telling his story to a ghostwriter. That might actually be the only reason Trump might have called off a re-election campaign — to get back to his business and start raking in the cash. Maybe he’ll even follow Obama’s lead and get back into the entertainment-production business, where he had significant success before. But Trump’s not going to spend the next decade in political organizing, nor would it work anyway without himself as the center of it. Trump’s success has almost exclusively been in self-promotion, and he knows it.
Finally, Trump would have bailed out long ago if he planned to skip a re-election bid. It would have freed him in many ways — allowing him to fully vent his agenda and his tongue. Instead, after the campaign shake-up earlier this month, Trump has gotten somewhat more message discipline and focus (well, until this morning, anyway). He has shifted back to dealing with COVID-19 and become less shrill on reopening, and the tweets have even been a bit less problematic. That’s not the sign of someone hanging it up — it’s the sign of an incumbent getting serious for a general-election fight.
Perhaps Harris just needed one more opportunity to float this hypothesis. He should have taken a clue from the dismissive grunts.