What if Trump just gives up?
As the president grapples with his growing unpopularity, will he lash out or lose interest?
Even if you didn't know that President Trump's Saturday night rally in Tulsa was sparsely attended, a wordless video clip that circulated through Twitter on Sunday morning told the whole story: The president returned to the White House late at night and departed Marine One with his tie loose around his neck, a crumpled MAGA hat in his hand, with a bearing that was dejected, desultory, and defeated.
Internet wags dubbed it a "walk of shame." Trump usually appears immune to shame, though, so let us consider another possibility: that the president on Saturday night realized he can no longer deny that the end of his presidency is probably near, and that he is, for all intents and purposes, already a lame duck. As this sinks in, what will he do?
The term "lame duck" usually applies to presidents whose successors have already been chosen by the voters, and who are just waiting out the remainder of their tenure before vacating their post. We're not there yet, obviously. The general election is still nearly six months away, and Democrats who were confident that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016 are terrified that history will repeat itself — so talk that Trump may already be on the ropes is verboten in most left-of-center circles. No liberals want to put a jinx on this year's election, or get complacent.
But the odds do not appear to be in Trump's favor. A national Ipsos/Reuters poll last week gave his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, a whopping 13-point lead — the biggest gap between the two candidates so far. Battleground states are turning against the president, too — and there are signs he is losing his edge with elderly and evangelical voters. Trump has outperformed expectations in the past, but as my colleague David Faris wrote last week, this time may be different. Trump himself has departed from his usual bravado in recent weeks to acknowledge that he could lose the election. And that was before this weekend's under-attended rally. In the past, even when polls have been bad, the president had his rally crowds. Not anymore, it seems.
Many observers naturally expect this election season to be highly irregular. Biden has openly expressed concern Trump's allies will steal the election through voter suppression and fraud. Others are afraid he will refuse to leave the Oval Office in the event of an election loss. Either scenario would threaten the peaceful transition of power that makes a democracy a democracy.
But the president's weekend walk of shame raises another possibility: What if he just gives up?
The Constitution mandates a two-and-a-half month gap between the election and Inauguration Day. For a self-absorbed man like Trump, that's a long time to wallow in one's defeat. He might decide he has little to lose by making mischief with his remaining tenure — and little to gain by ensuring a smooth and peaceful transition to a new president. There is a reason he has earned the nickname "Toddler in Chief." And toddlers often react to losses in less-than-constructive ways.
Trump might respond to defeat by abandoning the critical duties of governance. He might try to cover up any wrongdoing he and his surrogates engaged in since arriving in the White House. And he might spend his remaining days in office indulging in conspiracy theories that the election was rigged against him.
Indeed, such scandalous traits already define this administration. Trump has given up on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic — the most critical health and economic challenge facing the country — claiming victory even though case counts are rising across the country. Attorney General William Barr over the weekend purged the U.S. attorney who was overseeing many of the remaining criminal cases against the president and his cronies. And the president continues to undermine American confidence in the election, baselessly claiming that mail-in voting is rife with fraud.
If Trump lost the election, these trends would probably be amplified in the remaining months of his presidency. Indeed, they might be accelerated sooner by the mere likelihood of a loss — which, after Saturday night, is a prospect with which the president now surely grapples.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.