The coming presidency-in-exile

In January 2021, Donald Trump will assume the title of pretender, the first widely-recognized President of the United States in exile. It will not be pretty.

The first evidence of this came in Trump’s inability to admit publicly that he lost the November 3rd election. Even when, this past Sunday, he admitted that Joe Biden won, he quickly took it back. Joe Biden won in the eyes of the “FAKE NEWS MEDIA,” Trump tweeted; it wasn’t a legitimate victory. But neither Trump nor his lawyers have offered evidence of voter fraud on the scale required to sway an election, and what they have offered in small-scale voter fraud is circumstantial at best.

The bigger evidence came amid the weekend’s Million MAGA March, an event in which far less than one million Trump supporters took to the streets of D.C. and other cities (mostly D.C., really), rallying behind the new cry of “stop the steal.” During that march, militia leaders said they would not recognize Joe Biden as the legitimate president.

Newsmax TV, the conservative outlet that – unlike Fox News – continues to maintain that its too early to call the election because of all the voter fraud that might have happened, has said that it’s willing to give Trump a platform after he leaves office. For Trump faithful, this will be even better than having Trump in the White House, because there won’t be Deep Staters trying to block him from his adoring fans. He can command the loyal public to do his bidding and they will – in the name of the true president, Donald J. Trump.

This isn’t exactly unprecedented – it happens a lot around the world – but it hasn’t happened in the U.S. yet and it’s a pretty big betrayal of the Revolution of 1800, which is arguably the point at which the United States truly became a functioning democratic republic. That doesn’t matter to Trump faithful, of course. In fact, many seem content to do away with the whole American Revolution and to instead crown Trump as the God-given King of America. What good is democracy? Democracy lets in, well, Democrats.

Trump knows the kind of loyalty he’s brewed. From Mar-a-Lago, he can tweet (well, no, he probably can’t, but he can parler) and, each afternoon, mount his live broadcast on Newsmax. Exactly how unhinged Trump’s show could be is anyone’s guess. Will he simply rail against President Biden? Or will there be more to it?

In other words, is Trump’s presidency-in-exile going to be a wink-and-a-nod to supporters? Or will it be overt? He could issue his own executive orders or command his militant followers to try to subvert the illegitimate Biden administration. He could call for armed resistance to COVID-19 vaccination programs, even if those programs are voluntary. He could dispatch supporters to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, and those supporters might claim that they’re acting in the name of the real president. This could get very sticky very quickly.

On the other hand, he might take to more of a begrudging exile, acknowledging that Joe Biden was lawfully made president but not legitimately made president. It’s the Electoral College that picks the president, after all. This careful splitting of hairs would give him the latitude to still claim to be the rightful leader but not risk the possibility that, now technically just a private citizen, he could actually face repercussions for cajoling his followers into insurrection. In this version, we get a Trump who calls for resistance to the Biden administration, still able to mobilize his loyalists but without the air of being the true president. His followers might still see him that way, but that’s their choice, he’ll say.

Either way, this is uncharted waters for American democracy. It seems certain that Joe Biden will be inaugurated in January. It is less certain where Donald Trump will be that day or for all the days after.