The MAGA rank and file whose main sources of information are limited to Donald Trump, his allies, and hyperpartisan pro-Trump media may truly believe the lies he is telling about what happened in the 2020 election. But the big scandal is that pro-Trump elites who assuredly know better are buying into the misinformation campaign as well. It’s not easy to identify a universal motivation for their complicity in duplicity. It could be a mixture of loyalty and cowardice, or sheer partisanship, or ideological consanguinity.
But no matter what their motives are, they will all soon have a common problem: how to treat the 45th president when he finally does move out of the White House, having failed to talk state legislators, military leaders, or the populace into stealing a second term for him.
They would be wise to proceed cautiously. This isn’t just a matter of 2024 presidential-nomination politics, although this mass obedience to Trump (conspicuously present among Republican pols who might otherwise be planning campaigns of their own) does keep any potential rivals or successors from moving forward. Even if Trump ultimately decides not to make a formal comeback bid, he has all the time in the world to fish or cut bait. But meanwhile, he will be like the hound of the Baskervilles, howling in the near distance and occasionally sniffing at the front door of every Republican gathering.
Mulling Trump’s prospective status in an interview with Peter Nicholas, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham (who once said of Trump, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office”) uttered words that may have been prophetic while carefully stipulating that Trump hasn’t lost just yet:
He has a lot of sway over the Republican Party. If he objects to anything Biden [does], it would be hard to get Republicans on board. If he blessed some kind of deal, it would be easier to get something done. In many ways, he’ll be a shadow president.
The notion of a “shadow” opposition leader, common in parliamentary systems, has never had any place in the United States, where defeated presidents (or presidential candidates) have no office to fall back upon and no formal status. On January 21, Trump will be a private citizen, albeit one with a Secret Service detail. If the idea spreads in Republican circles that Trump deserves quasi-official status as the victim of a “stolen election,” it could make him the most powerful ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt (or maybe more powerful, since Teddy had to cede party leadership to a designated successor).
Those Republicans who have privately hoped to rid themselves of Trump by jollying him along in his postelection misconduct really need to rethink their strategy. The only thing worse for them than a 2024 Trump comeback effort is a scenario in which he never goes away at all. A moment’s thought should convince everyone that becoming a “shadow president” is exactly what Trump wants if he cannot just continue to hold the White House by adverse possession.