Losing a presidential election is a crushing experience. In 2004, shortly before midnight on the day of the election, it became clear that President Bush would win Ohio and thus win re-election. The networks, out of an abundance of caution, didn’t call it until later the next day. It took Senator John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s nominee, longer still to accept the outcome.
President Clinton’s former press secretary, Mike McCurry, served as the go-between for the two campaigns, “negotiating” (if you will) Mr. Kerry’s inevitable concession. Messages went back and forth. President Bush was content to wait; he’d been there the night his father lost to Clinton and witnessed crushing defeat first hand.
After a while, Kerry accepted the inevitable and delivered his concession speech. In the aftermath, a conspiracy theory emerged. Ohio had been “stolen” from Kerry. The maker of (some of) Ohio’s voting machines, Diebold Corporation, had diabolically reported Kerry votes as Bush votes, tipping the final result Mr. Bush’s way. Chief among the promoters of this theory were Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who wrote a lengthy article about it for Rolling Stone magazine) and none other than Roger Stone, whose activities in 2015–16 on behalf of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump would lead to his prosecution and eventual conviction on seven counts of lying to Congress.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, a much grander, global conspiracy has emerged, involving (among others) a dead Venezuelan president, shady Cuban operatives, a nefarious corporation (Dominion) and one of the American right-wing’s favorite villains, George Soros. (Soros’s staying power as mastermind of global conspiracies remains one of the wonders of the modern world). Said conspiracy theory asserts that President Trump won the election in a “landslide” and that corrupt Black people in urban precincts in key states denied him victory in the Electoral College.
Not even the normally reliable Fox News Channel talk show host Tucker Carlson believes this, and for good reason. It’s bonkers. Even shards of supporting evidence are non-existent. Trump campaign operatives and an apparently large number of White House “aides” and “advisors” don’t believe it either, telling the press “on background” that the president will eventually accept the outcome and concede, he just needs time to let crushing reality sink in. The “give him time, he’s just having trouble adjusting, he’ll eventually do the right thing” narrative has been adopted by virtually every Republican Party elected official in the country.
It’s been 18 days and there’s no sign that presidential “adjustment” is imminent. If anything, he appears headed in the opposite direction. The latest scheme is to block certification of the results in enough states to prevent President-elect Biden from attaining an Electoral College victory and have Republican state legislators in those states vote to void the election returns and declare Mr. Trump the winner.
No one (or almost no one) thinks this is going to work.
If you’re a White House aide or Trump family member, getting The Big Guy to a safe space where he is able to accept the election’s outcome has become Job One. Said aides and family members appear to have settled on a narrative about the glorious promise of his post-presidency.
He might buy a cable news network or streaming service and lay waste to the suddenly disloyal Fox News Channel. He might buy Fox News Channel and return it to its rightful mission (supporting Trump). He might buy CNN from AT&T and have his revenge. Or he might sign a gigantic “talent” contract and host his own show on a cable news channel; which one to be decided later. A 5-star menu of choices awaits.
Back in June, I wrote a column on the subject of Trump TV that walked through how it might come together (and how it might not). Two or three of the scenarios still make sense, but the notion of the soon-to-be-former president running a cable news network makes no sense. He’s particularly ill-equipped to do so. His strength is showmanship, not stewardship.
So the question is, where would The Trump Show land?
It might land at the Trump Network, if enough private equity/family office/investment bank money can be marshaled and the Murdochs or AT&T decide to sell Fox News Channel or CNN, respectively. The president would probably insist that either network be re-branded as the Trump Network as part of the deal. He would not insist he be involved in its management (except, perhaps, as Chairman of the Board). Management is for less important, nameless people. Trump is only interested in being the star of the show.
The Trump Show will not land at OANN or Newsmax; the Fox News Channel wannabees. You don’t go from being president of the United States to hosting a TV show on a third-rate cable news “network” with limited distribution and a bargain basement brand. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it on the big stage.
Aside from Fox News Channel and CNN, the only other available “big stage” is CNBC, whose new management has been murmuring about revamping its primetime programming and using those three hours to attack Fox News Channel from the right. Putting Mr. Trump on once or twice a week in the 9pm time slot would catapult CNBC into a dominant position in the ratings immediately, at least on that night or those nights when “The Trump Show” ran. And CNBC would fit with Trump’s idea of himself; the self-described master of the “art of the deal” housed at the nation’s leading business network.
Part B of the promising Trump post-presidency is the do-over 2024 presidential campaign. Assuming no health issues arise, Mr. Trump would tower over the emerging field of GOP hopefuls, in the way that Ronald Reagan towered over the field in 1980, only more so. The Republican Party, after all, is no longer the Republican Party. It’s the Trump-Populist Party. And the Trump-Populist Party will nominate as its 2024 standard-bearer Donald Trump, not, say, Sen. Tom Cotton or Sen. Josh Hawley.
Part B is, I would guess, the exit ramp that finally enables Trump to concede-but-not-really the election results and leave the White House “bloody but unbowed.” He would do so with a mighty army of voters committed to his restoration. He would loom, on TV, as a one-man shadow government.
Whatever happens, the idea that he will go gently into that good night is as deranged as the conspiracy theories currently on display. On January 20th, shortly after noon Eastern Time, the Trump “re-election” campaign will commence. It may not make it to 2024, for any number of reasons. It won’t be for lack of trying.