There is a limit to the power of positive thinking.
Positive thinking, in general terms, cannot overcome facts. And so it is, that two months after the election, it has been impossible for the current president of the United States to convince the country, and the world, that he has been re-elected to a second term. In the end, the numbers add up differently.
Declaring, “I won,” or even, “I won by a lot,” doesn’t make it so, no matter how many times it is repeated. What works in real estate, as a sales tactic, does not change the results when the conclusion is derived from simple counting, as is the case in elections.
More than half the country looks forward to a fresh start on the afternoon of January 20. Even a large part of the other half, will soon be forced to move on when the new president takes the oath for all the world to see.
There is still however a question about how the 45th president will behave once he leaves. Based on his behavior in office, it is difficult to see him receding to the sidelines, to be heard from only sporadically when world events require the wisdom of an elder statesman. He is not a statesman to begin with and wisdom was never his biggest selling point.
The history of his administration tells us to assume the worst. At base, we should expect to see him use social media to remain relevant in the public square, he is likely to stage rallies in an attempt to demonstrate that a large portion of the country recognizes him as their leader, he may try to build a media business to serve as a platform for a movement, he may continue to attempt to rule the Republican Party by demanding loyalty, and he may launch a 2024 campaign(serious or not) for president.
Whether he succeeds in any of this is dependent on three other forces in American life and how they shape public opinion. Those forces are; the news media, the Republican Party, and law enforcement. The months ahead will be a test for all three.
The news media has already been tested by the current administration. It has done its best to catalogue the daily lies and act as a governor on the powers of the presidential pulpit. But it has faced a basic challenge; whatever any president says is news, because the president, the most powerful leader in the world, says it. That changes on January 20. The power of his words will be greatly diminished unless the press continues to amplify his message by giving him unwarranted coverage.
There are already signs the news media is prepared to treat the 45th president differently when he leaves office. This was apparent two days after the election when most major news networks broke away from live coverage of one of his news conferences, because he was uttering a string of falsehoods. There has also been a greater tendency, since the election, to directly label his statements as false and — at times — ignore those statements altogether. For the good of the country, this approach to coverage must continue unless the former president is able to use other means to have a direct impact on public affairs or policy. His mere rantings cannot be allowed to carry the weight of actual news.
The Republican Party has an important role to play. And by “Republican Party” I mean both elected and non-elected Republicans, party operatives, and recognized current and former leaders. During the course of the administration, the leadership structure of the Republican Party has been too weak in calling out the president for his unorthodox, immoral, un-American and at times criminal behavior. That must end.
Republicans who see themselves running for president in four years must cease their public fealty to the former president. They must make a case to his followers that he not only failed to deliver on most of his promises, but that he has nearly(if not already) destroyed what was the Republican Party. The leaders of any new Republican Party need to put the truth first, and fear of losing the former president’s base at the end of their list of concerns. If they do not do so they are un-worthy of any leadership role.
The news media and the Republican Party operate largely in the same arena. The arena of public opinion. The third force in American life, that could make any future political career for the out-going president impossible, is the criminal justice system.
State prosecutors in New York certainly have the out-going president in their sights based on what we know about current investigations. Federal prosecutors, led by an attorney general appointed by President Biden, will be left to decide whether to pursue the 45th president on federal charges stemming from the Mueller investigation, or his attempts to undermine the results of the 2020 election.
The decision about whether to prosecute a former president on federal charges is highly political. There is almost no way such a prosecution could be seen as fair based on the polarized nature of the electorate and the way in which the out-going president sought to politicize the U.S. Justice Department. It is likely that any new attorney general will need to appoint a third party — seen as un-biased — to review the facts(beginning with the Mueller Report) to determine if federal prosecution is warranted.
The out-going president will continue to try to be a force in American politics. It is up to us to decide whether he is successful. But before the average citizen makes a decision for himself or herself, these three institutions of U.S. democracy; the press, the Republican Party, and the criminal justice system — all have a major role to play in determining the context of his attempted comeback.