Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump’s Path to the Political Graveyard

The president shares all the characteristics of history's forsaken leaders. In the end, he'll meet their fate.

There has been much speculation over Trump’s future. His intransigence over election results was widely predicted: the necessary increased use of mail-in ballots and resulting delayed counts provided an irresistible opportunity for synthetic martyrdom. But as with Mrs. Clinton’s similar claim of victimization by Russians attests, such claims only resonate with the truest of true believers.

Poor losers, or even good ones, usually do not fare well in later elections. Grover Cleveland and Richard Nixon are exceptions, but among the discarded are Herbert Hoover, Wendell Willkie, Jimmy Carter, Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. William Jennings Bryan, Thomas E. Dewey and Adlai Stevenson were found to have worn out their welcomes. The British Conservative party is especially notorious for swiftly beheading unsuccessful leaders.

In Trump’s case, there are added reasons for thinking he will not be successful as a ‘king over the water.’ Republican congressional successes were not on his coattails, but partially recovered positions that he had lost for the party in 2018. He was a classic protest candidate whose causes are largely exhausted. Recession and disease as well as his rhetoric have stemmed immigration; the bloom is off the rose of ‘neoliberalism’ in trade policy; the Supreme Court has been tamed; and there is reduced enthusiasm for regime-change wars and the refugees they produce. Bellicose nationalism, usually the last resort of unscrupulous politicians on the right, is denied him by the large number of disillusioned Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan war veterans and their families in his constituency.

But, more importantly, as the lack of a 2020 Republican platform shows, he is at heart a nihilist. He does not even offer the diluted Manchester liberalism of Hoover and Taft, thin gruel in recession years when, as Winston Churchill wrote in a book review of Peter Drucker’s The End of Economic Man in May 1939, men seek:

“the miraculous intervention of a demi-god. Men seek refuge in them not because they believe in them, but because anything is better than the present chaos…it offers the Heroic Man in place of the Economic Man. From the individual’s point of view, it may all be very well to have something to die for, but it is impossible to build up a society on a basis of lives that are meant to be sacrificed. That way lies anarchy, and it is because the organization which the dictators offer stands in the last resort for nothing that it will eventually fail.”

In Mr. Nixon’s final days, Rebecca West published an essay titled “The Plastic Gnomes of Washington” decrying the facelessness of Nixon and his aides and predicting that when gone he would be as forgotten as Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s quest for peace, however, gave rise to a eulogy that was one of Churchill’s most eloquent speeches. Pat Moynihan, just before Nixon’s resignation, wrote him a letter comparing the cynicism about institutions of his right-wing aides to that of his left-wing students at Harvard; Nixon had enough detachment to annotate the letter as “perceptive.”

In the end, people want a positive vision from their politicians as well as some signs of administrative competence. Protest candidates–Pierre Poujade and George Wallace as examples–exhaust themselves, even though, as the sociologist and lawyer David Riesman wrote in 1942, “the violence and daring of verbal onslaughts exercise a great appeal over the imagination of folks who lead insipid and anxious lives.” Charismatic leaders like those in the Crusades or the post-World-War I Ku Klux Klan also have a way of falling victim to sexual and financial scandals. If these have been water off of Trump’s back, eventually death by a thousand cuts takes its toll.

In the last analysis, it is inner emptiness that will doom Trump’s further ambitions.

George Liebmann is the author of various books on law and politics, including America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury 2019).