It's not too soon to be talking about the 2020 election – I mean, the campaign started on Inauguration Day the same way it always does. Let's accept that (with weary resignation) as a given. But the 2016 election provided an exceptional number of “lessons learned” for both parties – or let's say it provided an exceptional number of lessons that might be learned, or lessons that will be ignored, or non-lessons that are mistaken for lessons.
I'll say it again – the 2016 campaign provided a rare juxtaposition of two varieties of populism, the traditional Bernie Sanders version (which was successfully quashed by the Democratic establishment, none of whom appreciated the irony of it all) and the Donald Trump version (piggybacking on the Tea Party), and the latter actually won against all odds, which shows that populism is not always doomed to defeat despite its track record of usually being snuffed out by the ruling elite. (Note that the last bona fide populist to run on a major party ticket was William Jennings Bryan, who managed to get nominated by the Democrats three times, and lost each time.)
So it could be claimed that the Democrats have, basically, given up on populism, except for buzzwords and “optics”. The blandishments of power – of being part of the establishment and of the ruling elite – have proven way too seductive. The Republicans, on the other hand, have more recently discovered populism, starting with Nixon's “Southern strategy” and extending through Reagan to Trump (skipping over Ford, Bush I, and Bush II, all of whom were too obviously products of the ruling class).
The problem is whereas populism used to come naturally to the Democrats, it still makes the Republican establishment uneasy; they don't trust the unwashed masses – “the people”, with all of their strife, demands, and impulsiveness. Much better to settle back into the comfortable country-club mode and hope that they can attract enough of the middle class to gain victory – said middle class being motivated primarily by fear of the lower class. (When Obama threatened those corporate moguls with visions of peasants with pitchforks, he was engaging in a bit of temporary nostalgia – referring to those golden times when “the people” put FDR in office in order to put the ruling class in its place, which, of course, he spectacularly failed to do, even though he was a master of what we now call “optics”.)
Trump, of course, is not a theorist, or an ideologue – and he never will be a politician, which is the ultimate offense. He simply refuses to play that game, and for people for whom that is the only game in town – nay, the only game in life – he represents an alien life form. And sure enough, the people in both parties who play that game, and their facilitators in the wider culture, are as eager to eliminate this thing in their midst as white blood cells are to eliminate bacteria.
So the battle that is raging right now is likely to go on until Inauguration Day 2021, or until Trump is driven from office – whichever comes first. And any arguments that Trump's election benefited the Republican Party fall on deaf ears; recall that, during the campaign, many members of the Republican establishment came right out and said that they would rather lose the election than see Donald Trump in the White House. Try reminding them that they won because he won, and they will erupt with indignation: “win” on his terms? That can hardly be called winning. And this is one reason, other than sheer habit, why they are as limp as wet noodles when dealing with the hard-core believers in the Democratic Party. “Turn the reins of government over to the likes of Schumer, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Franken, we don't care. We're in despair! We're taking our dolls and going home!” And yet this is the party that is dreaming of some kind of comeback in 2020? If the Trump administration crashes and burns like the Hindenburg (oh, the humanity, etc.) they will feel fully vindicated. But if Trump manages to pull it off, they won't be any happier. They will be campaigning for hope and change every bit as fervently as the Democrats. (The term “loyal opposition” only applies where there is a monarch on the throne, like in England. Over here it's an unknown concept.)
So let's entertain a few possible scenarios, shall we? Number one, Trump continues to be thwarted, blocked, frustrated, and filibustered at every turn, but remains in office, his administration fated to be judged a dismal failure, even when compared to that of Jimmy Carter, the very definition and exemplar thereof. This will obviously be a signal to the Republicans to go back to the tried and true, and nominate another bland nobody – a face in a suit – in 2020. Oh, you say that a party hardly ever fails to nominate a sitting president for a second term? I don't think that quaint custom is going to impress anybody next time around. But wait – what if Trump has as many supporters then as he had in 2016, or even more? That's the point at which the proverbial smoke-filled room will be resurrected from the dead. They will figure out some way to keep Trump from running for re-election, or from being nominated if he does run, popular support or no. For all I know, they'll take a page from the DNC play book and pull the same tricks on Trump that the Democrats played on poor old Bernie.
Number two, Trump leaves office for whatever reason, and Pence winds up as placeholder the way Ford did after Nixon was run out of town. He could wind up being nominated, just as Ford was, and wind up losing just as Ford did. But at least that way things would return to normal. (And by the way, I would be willing to bet that a good many of these pajama-clad “snowflakes” who wander around college campuses bleeding from every orifice because they feel “attacked” by Donald Trump think that if he were successfully impeached, Hillary would automatically become president. Um.... that's not how it works, kiddies. But hey, don't they all agree with Henry Ford who supposedly said “history is bunk”?)
Number three, Trump actually succeeds – not just by his own lights, but by general consensus of his supporters and some grudging acceptance by his opponents, who are legion, and are at the present time united in their hostility and resistance. About the only way this ever happens, historically, is if a major conflict starts and the U.S. is perceived as winning, or at least not losing. It has happened before. The problem is that once someone becomes a “war president” their fate is, from that point on, linked to that war; just ask LBJ. It's all about timing, basically. Men may make history when it comes to starting wars, but history turns around and unmakes men when it comes to ending them.
So, to sum up – and again, I ask your indulgence and that you ignore my previous hilarious mistakes when it comes to political prognostication. The Democrats will toy, once again, with populism but nominate, once again, a solidly establishment type, thus frustrating the populist remnant within the party – you know, those naïve folks who still believe the Democrats are the party of “the people”. The Republicans will nominate a face in a suit – who knows, maybe one of the countless 2016 contenders, and they will have about as much appeal to what remains of the Trump base, or of the Tea Party, as Hillary had to those who “felt the Bern”. And the republic will be, no matter who wins, back in the hands of the establishment – the ruling class – the globalist elite – and things will slouch on as before, as if the Trump era was nothing but a bad dream... an interregnum. The sane (allegedly) adults will be in charge again, and somewhere Dick Cheney will be laughing.