‘Desperate’: Trump’s unpredicted next move
Insurrection? Resurrection? Obscurity? Donald Trump may be out of the White House but he remains very much in the public eye. So what does his future hold?
Ex-presidents are usually eminently predictable.
They write their memoirs. They appear on chat shows. They join the lecture circuit. They preside over commemorative libraries.
But perhaps not Trump.
He's already set up court in his Mar-a-Lago golf club. He continues to deny his electoral defeat. His close circle of confidantes are still concocting tales of conspiracy and fraud.
Such claims led thousands of Trump's most ardent supporters to storm Capitol Hill on January 6. They wanted the vote overthrown. They wanted Vice President Mike Pence hung for refusing to rule the election result invalid. They wanted to 'put a bullet in the head' of key Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
That violent insurrection was put down. But was it just the opening chapter of a more epic tale? Or are the Trump years already being consigned to the dustbin of history?
Here's how the story could pan out.
THE IDES OF MARCH
Trump has a lot of troubles. But the loyalty and enthusiasm of his followers aren't among them.
"Now that he has been stripped of the title 'commander-in-chief,' he could find a different army, within the United States, to command and control," surmise a group of analysts at the Brookings Institute policy think-tank.
It's a notion the US armed forces takes seriously.
This week, senior Pentagon officers addressed their troops on the dangers of extremism and their vow to uphold the constitution and defend "the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic".
But the seditious movement remains strong among US militia, white extremists, fringe Christian and conspiracy communities.
The QAnon movement is whipping itself up towards another crescendo.
It insists Trump is still president. That he's just biding his time. That all his enemies are about to be arrested. That he will return to the White House in triumph on March 4.
Despite all "Q" prophecies so far having failed to eventuate, its followers are still standing by for a sign. Any sign.
"Does anyone think that a sh*t show will begin tomorrow during this fake impeachment?" one QAnon adherent asked on Telegram. "I really want to see all the morons to be arrested & charged! For the [call to arms] to happen soon. My family are thinking that I'm nuts!"
But the near-religious fervour of such supporters presents an opportunity: "Trump could well become so desperate that he opts to continue to stoke violent flames of tension," the Brookings analysts write.
Trump thought is deeply entrenched.
He ran for office on the basis of being an "outsider". A businessman uncorrupted by decades of political power plays and compromise. Of not being part of the "establishment".
Now, Trump and his followers are the establishment.
He appointed top party officials including National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. Likewise, Republican officials at the state and local levels got their job through being true believers.
"The state party leaders are the activists, not the elite," notes former Republican senate strategist Liam Donovan. "The rank and file are hardcore Republicans, and hardcore Republicans are hardcore Trump people. He has absolutely converted them."
"The 2020 election put to rest the comforting fable that Trump's election was a fluke. Trump is the United States - or at least a very large part of it," writes Professor of political science Jonathan Kirshner.
"One cannot paint a picture of the American polity and the country's future foreign policy without including the significant possibility of a large role for Trumpism, with or without Trump himself in the Oval Office".
Trump's followers are loyal to Trump. Not the Republican party.
Just how large - and powerful - that cohort is yet to be seen.
The first tests will come as the Republicans select candidates for the next round of elections. Who Republicans vote for during the 2022 midterm elections will clinch it.
Trump's ultimate goal: swaying the 2024 presidential primaries.
Will he make a political comeback? Or will he seek to have one of his favourites installed?
Not all senior Republicans are enthralled by Trump. A few key figures have openly rejected the bombastic former president's behaviour as dangerous and subversive.
Congresswoman and House Republican leader Liz Cheney voted to impeach him. He's now preparing candidates to oust her from the preselection for her seat.
Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell baulked at Trump's demands at the last moment, saying he'd been "fed lies". He's now the target of intense internal pressure.
"Trump's most ardent supporters not only offer allegiance to him but are deeply sceptical of any Republican who does not do the same," the Brookings analysts say.
This may allow Trump to "go rogue" and splinter from the Republican Party.
He's already voiced the idea.
But any such move would be handing the Democrats an enormous advantage. He's not likely to steal many of their votes.
And any division of existing Republican ballots would be less likely to propel a candidate over the finishing line.
Then there's the gulf between words and actions. In an anonymous vote, Cheney retained her position as House Republican leader 145 in favour to 61 against.
"There are plenty of foot-soldiers (quite literally), affiliated political staffers, and streams of grassroots funding to get such an effort off the ground," the analysts write. "But Republican politicos know that while the Trump wing of the party is not large enough to be successful, it's large enough to be devastating to their election chances."
Trump's relationship with the media is a love-hate affair.
The former reality television host knows how to work a camera and apply words to best effect.
But being banned from his beloved Twitter social media platform has hit hard.
"It dramatically cut down on his ability to spread misinformation and instruct his supporters," Brookings says.
He's said he would do it. Now, he can.
"Trump could look at the media landscape, see a significant prospective audience and launch new ways to communicate with the world. This could include establishing his own news channel."
Social media may also be in his sights.
And he has a ready and willing audience waiting in the wings.
"The former president could establish a social media platform to allow his supporters to post what has gotten them banned from Facebook and Twitter: espouse hate, misinformation, death threats, Qanon conspiracies, and other lies".
Trump's show business skillset was in full play as president.
A personal social media and television stage would give him a new voice. He'll have the adoration of fans. He'll have a platform for his opinions. He can perform to the crowd.
Does Trump magic have what it takes to persist?
Tea Party frontwoman Sarah Palin's fate may suggest not.
After storming the political scene with her MAGA-esque message in the early 2000s, Palin now finds herself marginalised.
A similar fate may be in store for Trump.
"People will stop seeing him as the former president and instead view him as that obnoxious relative who retired to Florida and yells about the conspiracy theories he read online," the Brookings article reads.
Without a powerful platform to weave his spells, reality will intrude.
More and more of his claims may turn out to be empty.
More and more criminal charges and civil suits may lead to convictions.
More and more of his wealth may be stripped away through fines and settlements.
More and more Republicans may see opportunity in rebuilding the party in their own image.
Whatever the outcome, Brookings argues Trump has already paved the way for a successor seeking to ride on his coat-tails. "His supporters will still remember him fondly, but will have moved on to a new, shiny, race-baiting candidate like Josh Hawley or Marjorie Taylor Greene."
Tax evasion. Fraud. Money laundering. Foreign influence. Sexual assault. All are among a mountain of allegations confronting Trump in court.
And insurrection isn't just the subject of his Senate impeachment.
The state of Georgia has opened a criminal investigation into Trump's efforts to influence its election results.
"Trump's legal problems could place him before state and federal judges who are unwilling to let his celebrity and claims of wealth supersede sentencing guidelines," the Brookings analysts surmise. "It's unlikely but possible that the former president could find himself in a place none of his predecessors found themselves: an orange jumpsuit."
Behind bars, Trump would not be able to campaign or raise funds. He would not be able to add fuel to conspiracy fires. He would have no audience.
But it's a scenario full of risk.
He could well become a martyr to the Trumpism cause.
With supporters ranging from extreme evangelicals to QAnon, the Proud Boys to neo-Nazis, from the Oath Keepers militia to white supremacists - the odds of such an outcome are high.
"Trump presided over dozens of ethical scandals, egregious procedural lapses, and startling indiscretions, most of which would have ended the political career of any other national political figure of the past half-century. But the trampling of norms barely registered with most of the American public," says Professor Kirshner.
But a prison sentence could have a silver lining, he adds.
"Trump will claim that he is a political prisoner, but the reality would be that Republican politics would no longer be a prisoner to him."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as 'Desperate': Trump's unpredicted next move