In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, I was confronted with the same singular question from dozens of cable news hosts, print reporters, podcasters, and panel moderators — not to mention the occasional stranger in the grocery store or friend at a party:
What happens after Trump?
After four years of division, unprecedented in its intentionality, many of us wondered what life would look like after the president who broke nearly every social and political norm, who lied as a constant, whose naked corruption sparked multiple investigations and an impeachment, and who seemed to work hard daily to dismantle democracy, was finally “gone.”
Of course, “gone” was always a vague and ephemeral notion. If defeated by Joe Biden, would Trump live on through his voters or a new media conglomerate? Would his influence wane once he no longer had the White House, Twitter and regular appearances on Fox News?
Given his preternatural narcissism, it seemed unlikely that he would simply go away. But this almost magical idea of a post-Trump world seemed, especially to many Democrats and Biden voters, agonizingly within reach, waiting just around the corner. Biden would usher in a new era, simply by changing his address to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., one in which COVID was contained, the economy corrected, Americans came back together and Congress solved problems again.
So unconvinced of this fantasy was I that, before the election, I launched a series for CNN.com called “What Comes Next?” to tackle some of the very real problems that I knew would far outlast Trump’s presidency.
In the months after the election, the fantasy quickly evaporated.
Jan. 6, 2021 proved that even though Biden defeated Trump, we were far from a post-Trump world. Multiple states took up his phony election audits and “rigged” election lawsuits. The vast majority of Republicans in Congress still supported and defended Trump. Only 10 in the House voted to impeach him for his role in the insurrection. Just two now sit on the committee investigating the incident, both of whom have been ostracized by their party.
In more bad news, Trump’s most enduring legacy — undermining U.S. elections— has been even more successful than he probably intended. Republican candidates all over the country are running on a belief in his Big Lie and promises to thwart election results they don’t like.
And, with Trump out of office, COVID did not vanish. Congress did not suddenly reach consensus and start solving problems. In some ways, the economy worsened. Americans, by many metrics, are more divided than ever.
According to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS, “the summer of 2022 is a season of deepening and widespread discontent,” with voters’ outlook on the state of the union the worst since 2009.
And we’re less confident in most major U.S. institutions — from the Supreme Court to the police to the media — than we were a year ago, according to Gallup.
Clearly, this isn’t the post-Trump utopia many were envisioning.
But, even as much of Trumpism lingers, there are some signs that a post-Trump America is possible, and not just a mirage.
Start with Trump voters: A New York Times/Siena College poll shows that nearly half of Republican primary voters want someone else for president in 2024, and a significant number are promising to abandon Trump if he wins the nomination.
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The rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a number of important polls shows there’s an appetite to move past Trump, even if DeSantis would carry on much of his legacy. Fox News, usually a pro-Trump outlet, recently posted a three-minute video to its website showing Trump supporters in Arizona talking openly about throwing their support behind DeSantis.
That video and other recent divergences prompted MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to say that it’s “pretty obvious” that “Fox News has left the Trump train.”
Then there’s Trump’s former veep, Mike Pence, who’s broken with him several times recently, including in some key endorsements. Pence, who is backing Karrin Taylor Robson for Arizona governor, will face off against Trump, who’s backing Kari Lake, in somewhat stunning dueling campaign events this weekend.
Joe Rogan, the prolific podcaster and MAGA fan favorite who helped spread some of Trump’s conspiracy theories, is now mocking the former president as “a man baby” who was on Adderall during his presidency.
Of course, a real post-Trump America would mean that the Republican Party he co-opted finally disavows him, or becomes so dominated by the fringe extremists Trump courted as to be irrelevant. With Republicans poised to dominate in the midterm elections, we’re not there yet — not even close.
A post-Trump America was never going to be delivered by Democrats or Never-Trumpers, as much as they yearned for it. It will require his base to abandon him. While still a far-off promise, that’s not an impossible one any longer.