At the end of this long and bitter election battle, Donald Trump will almost certainly find a way to win.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to become president. At this point, polls suggest he’s more likely to be downed in an electoral landslide than to capture the Oval Office.
But there are other ways for Trump to parlay his political travails into future triumph, converting loyal supporters into loyal consumers, for example, or using his outsized public persona to anchor a new media empire. He could even become a kingmaker in the Republican Party, influencing future elections for years to come.
For now, all this is speculation. But if Trump’s meteoric political rise and pundit-defying success have proved anything, it’s that you underestimate him at your peril. Even when Trump seems firmly clamped in the jaws of defeat, he finds a path to victory.
Need an example? Just think of the tax documents that leaked out last month. The big reveal was that while Trump’s businesses lost $916 million in 1995, those losses were actually a boon for Trump himself. The headlines didn’t read: “Trump’s empire collapsed in the 1990s”; instead they blared “How a Simple Tax Rule Let Donald Trump Turn a $916 Million Loss Into a Plus.”
Moving forward, the big question is whether he’ll replicate that feat with what seems a near-certain Election Day disappointment.
One widening fear is that Trump simply won’t accept defeat, instead doubling down on his talk of a “rigged election,” leading to an uprising against the established political order. But there’s an obvious problem with this approach: It doesn’t lead to victory. What chance would his outsider movement really have against the full resources of the US government? And where’s the money in it?
A more conventional, business-like pivot would seem a surer bet, but that would require a certain amount of rebranding.
The old Trump business empire is now tarnished in the eyes of many American consumers, including overwhelming numbers of college-educated citizens, minorities, and women. Already, there are signs that his businesses are losing customers, leading to empty rooms and deep discounts at Trump’s latest hotel in Washington, DC.
But the new Trump has his own cachet.
Forevermore, he gets to say that he was the 2016 Republican nominee, champion of a limited but still potent group of American voters. That makes him a valuable commodity, with every advantage he needs to turn political defeat into a new business triumph.
Exactly what that means is anyone’s guess. Trump’s son-in-law has apparently started talking to investors about the possibility of a Trump-branded television network — possibly aimed at peeling Trump-loving viewers away from Fox News. During the third presidential debate, team Trump experimented with this approach, setting up a live feed with rudimentary news-style trappings and a direct appeal to those “tired of biased, mainstream media reporting.”
Alternatively, there’s the option of leveraging his new support from red America to sell a different kind of product. Not the luxury apartments, hotels, and golf courses that currently carry his name, but why not a chain of restaurants playing to traditional tastes and values?
Yet refocusing on business isn’t the only possible path to success. Even as he works to make Trump Inc. great again, Trump could hold tight to his newfound political influence.
True, Trump has long been shadowed by a powerful #NeverTrump movement. And if he loses this election in a landslide, Republican leaders may well drop their their current ambivalence and move towards outright disavowal. That could certainly complicate Trump’s post-election plans.
But time and again throughout this long campaign, we’ve seen voters stick to Trump, even when insiders peel away. He has fashioned himself as the authentic, unshackled voice of an overlooked political constituency — reactionary Republicans fed up with immigration and political correctness.
These voters aren’t about to disappear if Trump is defeated. They will continue to make up a substantial mass of the party, and future candidates will be hard pressed to win the nomination without their support.
So as long as Trump can keep his face and message alive in the minds of these voters — whether through a TV network or otherwise — he’ll be able to shape American politics for years to come.