WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump, who defied political gravity with his extraordinary rise from reality star and businessman to the presidency, has fallen back to earth.
In the end, his flurry of raucous rallies, an unprecedented turnout operation and sheer force of will could not overcome the reality of his enduring unpopularity and a raging pandemic that has killed more than 236,000 people in the U.S. and thrown millions out of work.
Yet Trump’s acerbic brand of politics — his Twitter taunts, his vindictive drive to punish enemies, his go-it-alone approach to the world — made its mark across the far reaches of the government and beyond.
And his better-than-expected election performance against Democrat Joe Biden suggests his impact is likely to resonate for generations in politics, governing and policy, even in defeat.
It remains to be seen what Trump intends to do after his term ends on Jan. 20.
Retreat to the golf course? Launch his own television network? Lay the groundwork to run again? And how fiercely will he try to contest his fate?
“I would absolutely expect the president to stay involved in politics. I would absolutely put him on the shortlist of people who are likely to run in 2024,” Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said in an online interview with the Institute of International & European Affairs. “He doesn’t like losing.”
Trump retains the megaphone of his Twitter account, a far-reaching Fox News platform and the unflinching backing of his loyal base of supporters, who may never accept his defeat after he spent months insisting there was no way he could legitimately lose and even falsely claimed premature victory.
On Saturday, Trump declined to concede to President-elect Biden, instead promising unspecified legal challenges to try to overturn the outcome of the race.
Until a successor emerges to lead Republicans — likely not until the resolution of the 2024 Republican primary — Trump remains the de facto head of a party that he has reshaped in his image.
“Even in defeat, Donald Trump has exceeded expectations and helped other Republicans do the same,” said GOP consultant Michael Steel, who has worked on Capitol Hill and for campaigns. “He will remain a powerful force within the party.”
Still, Trump’s loss is likely to spark a reckoning over how much of Trumpism the party should embrace going forward, especially given that Republicans could retain control of the Senate and won additional seats in the House.
Had Biden won in a blowout, that would have put “wind at the back of a lot of Republicans who said character counts and the Republican Party should never put its faith into someone who pushed boundaries liked Donald Trump,” said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who served under former President George W. Bush.
But because it was closer, he predicted the party would likely “continue to be wracked with a split between insiders and outsiders, between the establishment and the Trump supporters who fault the establishment.
And the soon-to-be former president’s role will be a huge question mark because if he decides to stay active, despite the close loss, he remains powerful and effective, especially for Republicans.”
In the meantime, it remains unclear whether Trump will accept the results of the election or continue to contest them as he spends the next three months as a lame duck president.