President Trump has begun grappling in public with the possibility he may lose the election. At a rally Friday night, he floated the prospect of fleeing abroad. “Could you imagine if I lose?” he said. “I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”
Trump said this in a jokey manner, but he doesn’t make jokes, at least not in the ordinary manner most people do. His “jokes” are almost always the barely disguised expression of underlying distress. His running “joke” about staying in office for more than four more years, for instance, is a way of airing grievances over his treatment by the media and investigators and asserting some sense of dominance over his tormentors.
Trump’s rally material has recently used a new bit about how he will never again visit the various swing states he is currently touring (i.e., “I may never have to come back here again if I don’t get Iowa.”) This, again, is a joke that isn’t a joke. His relationship to states in the Midwest is transactional, based on their love for him. If they betray him by failing to yield electoral votes, Trump will respond the way he responds to any act of disloyalty. He won’t be back.
His joke about leaving the United States can be seen as a version of the swing-state joke, writ large. And yet, it is notable that he did not joke about leaving the country if he lost in 2016.
Perhaps one thing on the president’s mind is the developing criminal case against him. He faces serious legal jeopardy by prosecutors in Manhattan and New York State for what seems to be, on its face, fairly cut-and-dried criminal fraud in his private business dealings. It is also possible that, having left office, prosecutors may turn over some rocks and discover more criminal behavior as president of the United States. (The Department of Justice has a policy of not charging the president with crimes, but that expires if he leaves office.)
Musing onstage about leaving the country is a strange theme for a president who wraps himself in nationalism to the point of literally hugging American flags. He may simply be revealing some fear of hurt or rejection at his prospective defeat. But he may also be giving at least fleeting thought to a real plan. In the face of likely criminal prosecution, a defeated Trump’s best option may well be to leave the country and never return.