Love him or hate him, President Donald Trump secured an unlikely victory in 2016 and could do it again. While few foresaw his initial win, even fewer predicted what this highly unusual president would do in office. Now we know. Ahead of this week’s Republican National Convention, and as Trump himself has struggled to articulate what a second term would look like, today’s Sunday Magazine explores how four more years would shape the U.S. government, American culture and the wider world.
how he could win
Electoral College Graduate. This is not a national election. If it were, Joe Biden would almost certainly win. But because the name of the game is getting to 270 electoral votes, there is a path for Trump to repeat his feat of winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote. How? Wisconsin. If Trump can hold on in this mostly white battleground, while keeping the advancing blue tide at bay in the South — especially Florida and Arizona — he can afford to lose Michigan and Pennsylvania from his 2016 tally and still pull off the win … even if he loses the popular vote by 3 or 4 percentage points.
Reversal of Fortune. We’re already starting to see polls tighten from Biden’s peak, and it’s unclear whether these telethon conventions will do much for either party. But the comeback path for Trump is fairly clear: An improving economy and a light at the end of the tunnel for the coronavirus. Trump has already committed billions to manufacturing vaccines that aren’t even proven to work yet. And one could easily see him doing a major announcement of a vaccine approval — even if preliminary — as his October surprise.
Unique Circumstances. Given the pandemic, no one has any real clue who’s going to vote, especially given how Democrats are more likely to be cautious in their approach. Trump has said he wants mail-in voting to be harder (unless he’s doing it), and has indicated that’s a key reason to block extra Postal Service cash — and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told lawmakers on Friday that he would not return the sorting machines that had been removed because they’re “not needed,” though he’s holding back on more cuts. But the real question is not the USPS, which can more than handle the extra volume. It’s our creaky localized systems, with county election officials combing through an unprecedented stack of mail-in ballots to make sure they were submitted correctly. Florida 2000 could look like child’s play.
Monkey Business. The Russians, by all accounts, are at it again with a fresh campaign of electoral chaos-mongering to back Trump, including social media influence efforts similar to 2016 and more, though intelligence officials have shared few details. China and Iran are getting in on the act by trying to hack campaign emails. (Let’s hope everyone has learned about two-factor authentication.) But there are far more serious and direct ways for nefarious actors to sway the vote: Think hacking electrical grids to shut down transportation in major cities on Election Day. Read more on OZY.
The Aftermath. After a year of pandemic lockdowns, racial justice protests and, in some cases, violence in the streets, Trump’s re-election could set off a powderkeg. Expect a response in the streets … and perhaps a more draconian counter-response from a newly unrestrained president with a second mandate. Oh, and gun sales have been surging in recent months, with Black Americans leading the way.
policies to watch
Brown New Deal. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist, while Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is a former oil and agricultural industry lobbyist. Rather than the showy, scandal-scarred politicians who preceded them, these nondescript agency heads are effective at tilting the playing field toward industry — and that will only accelerate during Trump 2.0 as their efforts work through the regulatory process and the courts. For example, Trump in July signed a rollback of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental reviews before launching projects like pipelines and highways. Environmental groups are suing to block the move, but Trump — pitching the rollback as a way to more quickly build vital infrastructure — will have time to win these court battles and more in a second term.
Made in America. Pre-pandemic, the U.S. had gained 480,000 manufacturing jobs under Trump, partially clawing back decades of losses. But gains were uneven and the jobs were mostly lower paid, as the Rust Belt continued to lose ground. Term Two would see Trump attempt to send this growth into overdrive, with his usual recipe of tariff hikes and cuts to regulations and taxes. But there’s a new tool in his arsenal: the Defense Production Act. In a recent speech at a Whirlpool plant in Ohio, Trump talked up the DPA as he vowed to make America a center of medical manufacturing — for national security reasons. So far he’s only sparingly deployed the DPA, which can force private companies to prioritize government orders, but it could become more of a feature to prep for the next pandemic.
School Choice. Second-term presidents typically have near-total turnover of their Cabinet. Trump started that early, burning through secretaries who displeased him or got caught up in scandal (Tom Price, we hardly knew ye). But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the most polarizing department head of all, has remained steadfast and could hang on. That would bring new vigor to the fight for school choice, starting with DeVos’ $5 billion tax credit to back privately funded school voucher programs, which support students opting out of traditional public schools for private or parochial schools. Pitting public school teachers’ unions against the (mostly minority) parents of kids in failing schools, it’s an issue that Republicans believe can help them make inroads in urban areas.
Judicial Legacy. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 87 and in failing health. Liberal colleague Stephen Breyer is 82. Conservatives Clarence Thomas, 72, and Samuel Alito, 70, could opt to step aside for younger right-leaning jurists. It’s not crazy to think Trump could appoint six of the high court’s nine justices (the most of any president since four-termer Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Say goodbye to Roe v. Wade, strict environmental regulations and perhaps Obamacare. And the conservative blockade could thwart liberal initiatives in Congress for decades. Trump says he’ll put out a new list of candidates, but all signs point to one woman to replace RBG: Amy Coney Barrett, the Midwestern mother of seven and outspoken Christian conservative. Read OZY’s 2018 profile.
Build the Wall. During his last campaign, Trump repeatedly promised a “big beautiful wall” on the Mexican border. But he had a hell of a time getting money out of Congress to build it. With congressional crumbs and facing down legal challenges, Trump has so far done little more than spruce up existing barriers to make them more imposing. (Alas, no alligators yet.) But the pandemic has offered an opportunity: The Trump administration has aggressively pursued its eminent domain cases against South Texas landowners while coronavirus has largely shuttered the courts, pushing for quick wins and land grabs so the government can build. Expect pedal to the metal during Term Two: Read more on OZY.
Family Separations Redux. One of the most outrageous moments of the Trump presidency was the separation of immigrant families at the border. According to an NBC News scoop last week, the policy was intentional and voted on with a show of hands by top Trump officials in the Situation Room. Dissenting voices like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen are no longer working for Trump, and there’s likely to be ample turnover in a new Trump term. But Stephen Miller, the architect of the administration’s hardline immigration policy, shows no signs of going anywhere. Expect an even more draconian outlook in the second term.
Tax Cut 2.0. In response to the pandemic, Trump has suspended collecting the 12.4 percent payroll tax for employers and their employees who make less than $104,000 — pushing Congress to forgive the levies for the rest of 2020 if he wins. (This is controversial because the payroll tax funds an already-struggling Social Security trust fund.) There are other ways he could further slash taxes after the $1.5 trillion tax cut, largely for businesses and the wealthy, that formed the chief legislative accomplishment of his first term. If — and only if — Republicans take back the House and hold the Senate with Trump’s win, influential anti-tax activist Grover Norquist points out the likely plan: reduce corporate taxes further and index capital gains to inflation. Read more on OZY.
Trump Inc. The president has already smashed through existing norms and ethics regulations regarding the mixing of government and business interests (i.e. charging the Secret Service up to $650 a night for rooms at Mar-a-Lago during his frequent stays). But second-term Trump could finally, for example, act on his idea to host a major international summit at one of his properties. He could link development deals with foreign relations, or release federal land so he could develop property. And he could finally push through his plan to build a new FBI headquarters at the existing site on Pennsylvania Avenue — to ensure that a competing hotel could not move in across from the Trump hotel there.
Infrastructure. The idea of Trump rebuilding America’s roads and bridges has become a running joke. Would an unleashed Trump in Term Two finally push through a long-promised infrastructure package in a kumbaya moment with Democrats? Trump’s early efforts mostly involved rolling back environmental regulations (see above) while Dems want a bigger pile of money. Perhaps in Term Two the president can conquer the literal and figurative gridlock.
Vax Attacks. For Trump, a workable COVID-19 vaccine is an existential issue for his presidency: Until we all have confidence that the coronavirus is contained, life will not get back to normal. And yet, 35 percent of Americans, most of whom are right leaning, say they wouldn’t get a shot if it were approved today. Plus, pre-presidency Trump was a prominent anti-vaxxer who used discredited science to blame vaccines for autism. So amid these competing impulses, does Trump go all-in on ensuring everyone is vaccinated — helping the economy and thus his presidency? Or does he do the “many people are saying … we’ll look into it” routine to avoid pissing off members of his base? Read more on OZY.
QAnon Caucus. Playing to the anti-vaxers would be similar to Trump’s public stance on QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory that believes Trump is in the midst of thwarting a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run the world. This week he claimed he didn’t know much about the theory other than “they like me very much.” Another Trump term would just toss gasoline onto a fire that’s already been declared a domestic terror threat by the FBI because of how these theorists encourage violence to save supposedly abused children. Congress is set to have at least one QAnon-believing member, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Are more on the way?
Reset America Fuel. The death knell of any movement is apathy. If Trump wins again, expect a boost of confidence among white supremacists just like we saw in the first term. But with it comes the opposite reaction: the masses we’ve seen marching in the streets for racial justice will likely surge again to express their outrage. And while having a sympathetic ear in the White House would be helpful, much of the change these activists seek is at the local level. Expect the president to respond forcefully, including encouraging ridiculously long sentences for arrested protesters.
Partisanship Reigns. Major parts of the federal government had long been considered above partisanship. Civil servants worked for decades across multiple administrations. But if there’s four more years of Trump, expect a mass exodus of career government employees from places like the Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even the U.S. Postal Service — places that have become newly partisan under Trump, and where service-minded employees feel they could weather four years, but not eight. And many of those positions will go unfilled — just like Trump hasn’t bothered to fill many political appointee jobs — as part of an overall tactic to shrink the federal government. Read about past partisan uses of the Post Office on OZY.
Winner? The Media! The Trump bump is real: Newspapers and magazines saw surging online subscriptions, and cable TV ratings were up. The media industry — teetering in the pandemic — is bracing for a very unsexy Joe Biden presidency. But a Trump reboot means the POTUS they love to hate (in a mutually beneficial relationship) is back for a new season, and the eyeballs will stay on the press as they crusade for truth while acting indignant at White House news conferences. Let the book deals and fat cable news contracts continue to rain.
key players to watch
Here are some people in Trump’s orbit who could see their stars rise in a second term.
Bob Asher. Trump’s leading rainmaker in Pennsylvania is the Asher’s Chocolate Co. magnate, a real life Willy Wonka, only if Willy Wonka was a 5-foot-9 millionaire bankroller of conservative candidates who once served nearly a year in federal prison for corruption. If he somehow helps deliver the Keystone State again, Asher will have Trump’s ear. Read more on OZY.
Bill Stepien. Flamboyant political novice and architect of Trump’s 2016 digital strategy Brad Parscale was sacked as the 2020 campaign manager last month in favor of Stepien. A New Jersey GOP stalwart and former college hockey player, Stepien, 42, was described by a former colleague to New York magazine as someone not driven by ideology so much as winning: “Politics was a sport to him.” If he pulls off this victory, expect his profile to soar and for him to be rewarded with a top White House gig.
Kimberly Guilfoyle. The former Fox News host and girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. is barnstorming the country as one of Trump’s top surrogates. As the ex-wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom who had bad blood with Kamala Harris going back to the San Francisco district attorney’s office, Guilfoyle, 51, has strong symbolic value as an ex-Democrat. While the knives are out for her within the campaign for her management of the fundraising operation, Trump doesn’t turn on family. You can imagine her in a Kellyanne Conway-type role in Term Two.
Mike Lindell. The MyPillow company CEO, Minnesota Trump campaign chair and recovered crack addict believes he has found the cure to coronavirus: oleandrin, an experimental extract of the extremely toxic oleander plant. He reportedly has Trump interested, too. While no study on oleandrin’s effect on humans has been published yet, you don’t have to worry: Lindell, 59, assured Anderson Cooper his interest in oleandrin is solely in saving lives … and not in the fact that he has a financial stake in the company producing it. Sounds like a second-term commerce secretary to us.
Steve Bannon. Sure, Trump just distanced himself from his former White House chief strategist after Bannon was busted for fraud last week, charged with siphoning nearly $1 million from a private effort to build a wall on the Mexican border. But the alt-right provocateur was sounding the alarm before most people about the coronavirus, and Trump would have been well-served to take his advice in the winter and spring. Perhaps there’s room for reconciliation and a pardon, or at least for Trump to take his old strategist’s calls in Term Two. Read more on OZY.
MBZ, the New MBS. The U.S.-brokered deal in which UAE recognized Israel comes at a time that Abu Dhabi, after living in the shadow of Saudi Arabia for decades, is flexing its diplomatic muscles like never before. What does it mean for Trump 2.0? The rising influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as a counterweight to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Read more on OZY.
Future UNclear. The United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions like the World Trade Organization, which the U.S. helped set up, have faced funding cuts in Term One. In Trump 2.0, they could wither and even perish altogether, as Trump has questioned their very existence. In a bid for survival, they could go the World Health Organization route and embrace China, but that would alienate second-tier powers such as Germany, France India and Japan.
China Standoff. The Chinese think about generations rather than four-year electoral cycles. So President-for-life Xi Jinping’s strategy has been essentially to wait Trump out. But with four more years, Trump will aim to put the screws to China on more than just the fate of TikTok and cracking down on Chinese leaders on social media. Expect more military confrontation in the South China Sea, more aggressive U.S. support for Taiwan and an overall more forceful effort to halt China’s economic rise on the part of Trump. The great question is China’s ability to counter these moves.
Retreat From the Stage. More broadly, pre-Trump America was often seen as a beacon of hope by those fighting for human rights and democracy around the world. Trump is far more likely to point out America’s past sins — CIA meddling, wars of choice — and give repressive regimes a pass if they serve his short-term interests. This trend would only accelerate in Trump 2.0. Europe could fill the breach, but has its own squabbles, allowing China’s nakedly transactional diplomacy and Russia’s chaos-sowing what-aboutism to advance.
Land Swaps. Former DHS chief of staff Miles Taylor said recently that Trump mused about trading Puerto Rico for Greenland during the cleanup efforts following Hurricane Maria. Since property deals are his game anyway, we could foresee Trump making a bid for Turks and Caicos or the Cayman Islands if a post-Brexit UK stumbles and needs a bailout. Who doesn’t love a nice beachfront property?
Show Trials. In his first term, Trump did not follow up on his pledge to “lock her up,” when it comes to Hillary Clinton. But with a more loyal attorney general in William Barr overseeing an investigation into whether the Obama administration “spied” on Trump’s 2016 campaign, expect a slew of politically motivated prosecutions into Obamaites in Term Two. Clearly it rankled Trump to see intimates like the now-pardoned Roger Stone hauled off in cuffs. Term Two could be payback time.
Why Stop at Two? In December, we took a semiserious look at how Trump could run for a third term. Now he’s openly talking about it, with the justification that the aforementioned “spying” from Team Obama justifies an electoral “redo.” The constitution does quite clearly bar him from serving a third term, but, hey, it’s worth a shot with a friendly Supreme Court.
Sunday Cover Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo