Restoration’s Second Chance?: Trump’s Possible Reelection

If Trump wins reelection his presidential legitimacy will be bolstered, even if his opponents attempt to diminish it, which they will. It’s his actual reelection, not the popular vote margins that matter.

The United States has never had a president quite like Donald J. Trump. He violated every rule of conventional presidential campaigns to win a race that almost no one, including at times he himself, thought he would win. In so doing, Trump set off cataclysmic shock waves across the country and world that have not subsided and are unlikely to as long as he remains in office. Critics of Trump abound, as do anonymously sourced speculations about his motives, yet the real man behind this unprecedented presidency remains largely unknown. In this innovative analysis, American presidency scholar and trained psychoanalyst Stanley Renshon reaches beyond partisan narrative to offer a serious and substantive examination of Trump’s real psychology and controversial presidency. He analyzes Trump as a preemptive president trying to become transformative by initiating a Politics of American Restoration. Rigorously grounded in both political science and psychology scholarship, The Real Psychology of the Trump Presidency offers a unique and thoughtful perspective on our controversial 45th president. Here is an excerpt of the book; 

by Stanley Renshon

There are many ways to view Trump’s first term. One way is to understand it as a presidency elected as the country faced a profound political and policy fork in the road. As one retiring Republican put it:

There’s a political realignment occurring in our country. The political ground is shifting right under our feet, and nobody knows how this is going to settle. It’s going to affect both parties, and we’ll see how it sorts itself out. It’s going to take a few years.

The domestic realignment noted above coincides with another substantial change, in the international political system. Discussing the rise of nationalism worldwide and the emergence of new powerful, assertive, sometimes even militarily aggressive countries, like Russia, Iran, and China one analysis concluded:

President Trump at the White House 

The Cold War could have ended differently; largely, it ended peacefully. What you’re now seeing, in my view, is across the board—not just in the United States, not just with Donald Trump—a coming to an end of that order.

Another lens through which to view Trump’s election is as a political and policy audition. Trump’s 2016 election victory was so narrow that it is impossible to completely rule out the impact of any single factor.

Numerous efforts have been made to ascertain whether or not FBI Director Comey’s off-again, on-again public statements about the Hillary Clinton investigation helped Trump or didn’t matter. The same holds for reported Russian spending on FaceBook and its motivation, and a host of other factors that may, or may not have had an impact.

Trump has now been impeached according to the House’s interpretation of the rules governing drawing up Articles of Impeachment. He has been acquitted on both impeachment charges by the Senate based on their governing rules. Trump’s Constitutional legitimacy rests on more solid ground, even if the opposition continues to dispute his political legitimacy. His presidency thus carries with it the weight of core legitimacy, as well as the reality of it. As a result, if he wins reelection he will have another four years, and a more substantial opportunity to turn his first term audition into an historically rare, transformational presidency. That aspiration is unfolding now in the context of a pandemic of, at this point, uncertain consequences.

Trading Places: Narrative Negation and the 2020 Presidential Election

The fast approaching presidential election is already scrambling each candidate’s best laid plans Neither is going be waging the kind of campaign they had planned for against the candidate that they had hoped to run against. Donald Trump was eagerly savoring a campaign against Bernie Sanders, the only Democrat who could make Trump look like a moderate centrist, while he ran on his real, and robust economic record.

The actual Democratic candidate Joe Biden envisioned a “return to normality” campaign. It would emphasize his steady, comparatively low wattage, and reliable political persona. That would present an obvious contrast to his opponent who would be portrayed as “President Bombast,” who has riled America's traditional allies, refused to act as a normal president, and perhaps is incapable of doing so.

The Coronavirus pandemic upended both those narratives. President Trump cannot run on the economy he built. It no longer exists. And however leftward Mr. Biden inches forward, he is no Bernie Sanders. Mr. Biden’s “return to normality” narrative has been compromised by events in which “normality” is in short supply. At some point he will have to convince the public that he is up to the task of leading the country and that he has the requisite amount of energy—both physical and cognitive, for being this country’s chief executive. Trump’s bull in the china shop persona—full steam ahead, explore any avenue, and get things done, is a possible advantage in the midst of this vast, enormously complex unprecedented pandemic challenge to the country, its leadership at all levels and its major institutions and agencies. Yet, there has been an erosion in the level of support in his handling of the pandemic and the demonstrations that followed.

In these new election defining circumstances, the likely campaign narratives are clear. Trump will lean heavily on James Madison who wrote that “energy in the executive” was “the leading character in the definition of good government,” to which Trump will add, especially in times of crisis. A shattered economy? Trump will argue that during his first term his administration built “the greatest economy in the world,” and will then promise, “we’re going to do it again.” He will compare himself, favorably of course, to “Slow Joe,” the aged icon of the Democratic establishment whose level of real time alacrity is likely to be and remain an issue. He will support a number of useful policing practice reforms, while insisting that the country’s basic premises of freedom and opportunity are worth preserving and building upon not “canceling” or tearing it down. Trump sending federal police resources to cities torn by violent demonstrations and spiking crime rates to help local police also sends a clear message of support for public order, as well as a signal of decisive resolve.

Mr. Biden does not have to do much to retain the support of Trump opponents. The question for his campaign is what real case can he make for his election? What will he promise? More solid, low key competence? More and better government programs defined by current progressive Democratic Party positions? A less combative presidential demeanor? The first of these is already being questioned. The second is likely to appeal to those government enthusiasts who have not yet lost their faith in those kinds of promises. And the last may prove preferable in theory, but not in practice given the many pandemic-caused crises that the country faces as the same time.

Still, Mr. Biden will present Trump as a president who had squandered valuable time responding to the pandemic by picking unnecessary fights with front-line governors desperate to get the resources they needed from an unresponsive administration. He will compare his “bipartisan” proposals to reforming policing practices in the wake of widespread public demonstrations with what he will characterize as Trump’s heavy handed “law and order” response.

No firm prediction of the outcomes of those dueling narratives can be made at this point. Voters may well prefer a president who is seen as willing to go all out to fight for them, their livelihoods, and their country to one who promises a return to presidential decorum. Or, they may prefer a president who promises a return to normality, defined as status quo prior Trump. In the end, the 2020 president election may well come down to a contest between two leadership styles—full speed ahead v. the promise of a retro style of relative presidential public peacefulness.

If Trump is not Reelected: What Then?

If Trump loses the 2020 election, the movement and the views that Trump represents and championed will die stillborn. Most of his executive actions will be rescinded. The pressure to rejoin the “international community” in “climate crisis” actions and to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement will intensify and probably be unavoidable. The new NAFTA treaty (USMCA) will be kept, but the political will to continue holding the Chinese accountable for their trade policies or to get NATO to spend more for their own defense will most likely dissipate. Here and there Trump policies will survive, but they will be dwarfed by the exploding cascade of the reestablishment of an even more progressive establishment policy paradigm. That holds as well for the one accomplishment that will be hard to rescind, but possible to negate—Trump’s record of judicial appointments. Courts can be enlarged.

The above observations presuppose that a Trump reelection loss would be accompanied by a loss of Senate control as well, though that need not necessarily be the case. Still, a reduced Senate majority coupled with a major presidential loss are the ingredients of a long defensive crouch, not a burst of sustainable legislative Trumpism.

More consequential for the longer term would be that Trump’s eight policy pillars and his approach to them would be ended for the most part, and the conventional establishment policy paradigm would be reinstated and extended. This would surely increase the disappointment, frustration, and anger, anxiety, and resentment of Trump supporters at what they lost. It would however turbocharge the opposition, making for a more volatile political climate. In terms of absolute raw political power there would be little Trump supporters could do with the levels of government power back in establishment hands. Nor is there much chance that a new Trump-like figure would rise out of the real Trump’s political ashes.

Trump himself, as this analysis has argued, is truly sui generis, a unique political character and president.

Who could possibly take his place? Mitt Romney? Ted Cruz? Jeb Bush? Nikki Haley? Listing the options answers the question. Moreover, after a Trump loss, NeverTrump Republicans and their establishment allies could legitimately argue: been there, done that.

If Trump Wins Reelection: Variations on a Theme

If Trump wins reelection his presidential legitimacy will be bolstered, even if his opponents attempt to diminish it, which they will. It’s his actual reelection, not the popular vote margins that matter. You can’t yield the powers of the presidency, which as both Trump and Obama among others have demonstrated are substantial, without being president.

That said, it does matter what the election means for the distribution of power in Congress. The most dire outcome for a Trump reelection would be the loss of a majority in both Houses of Congress. In that case, Trump’s legislative agenda would essentially be comatose. His Senate judicial strategy would definitely be dead. He would be substantially defenseless against a continuing and heightened onslaught of investigations

and lawsuits. They would be fueled by anger that he had somehow escaped electoral rejection. They would also be fueled by the still white-hot rage at his successful presidential accomplishments carried out in his first term, his leadership style in so doing, and ultimately his existence.

That would surely cripple Trump’s second term presidency. It would put his Restoration ambitions on life support. He would still have, and doubtless would make use of, his executive presidential powers. However his accomplishments would be downsized and minimized, and his political troubles and setbacks would be the larger and more frequent narrative.

Keeping control of the Senate would be an essential element of a successful Trump second term. A Republican majority in the Senate after 2020 would look very different than the Republican majority there in 2016. That body is now much more closely aligned with Trump perspectives, and the “moderate” Republican senators up for reelection and somewhat vulnerable in 2020 (Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina) if they won, would be past that kind of heightened reelection danger in seven years after Trump will have left office and could afford to be more supportive majority members.

A Trump aligned Republican Senate would act as a barrier to Democratic efforts to throw policy sand into the gears of Trump’s Restoration presidential ambitions. It would as well forestall, maybe, efforts to mount a second round of Trump impeachment articles. It would also allow Trump to continue his systematic and successful efforts to change the complexion of the federal judiciary and effectively respond to any Supreme Court openings that arise.

A more difficult election likelihood is for Republicans to regain a House majority. Here too, were that to happen, the political stance of the Republicans would also be much more aligned with Trump perspectives than they were in the last Republican controlled House. If that happened, a major legislative immigration bill that closely resembles Trump’s preferences would be a very distinctive possibility, if not a likelihood. So would another round of tax cuts, geared to the middle and working classes, which Trump promised if he and a Republican Congress are elected.

The implications of the Congressional election results for a second Trump term then are variable. It is not possible to say more about the future of the Trump presidency at this point without the election results. That leaves one more major theoretical question to again consider: How do entrenched narratives change?

Stanley Renshon is Professor of political science at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and a certified psychoanalyst. He is the author of over 100 professional articles and 18 books in the areas of presidential psychology and leadership, immigration and American national identity, and American foreign policy.  

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