Donald Trump, C-PAC, Goes to Die
Former President Donald J. Trump speaks during CPAC Conference 2024 at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, DC, on February 24, 2024. Photo credit: © Lev Radin/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire

A defeated Trump has literally nothing to lose.

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This will be short and anything but sweet.

There’s already been quite a bit of journalistic agita about what America may have in store at the far end of 2024. Most of that concern has centered on Donald Trump’s surprisingly rosy prospects for winning election in November, as well as on his openly laid plans for what he will do with his second term as president.

There has also already been some attention paid to how Trump — and his MAGA supporters in government, the media, and the streets — would handle electoral defeat, should that be his lot. There seems to be little doubt that any individual or overall results that are close will be met with denial, challenges, screams of fraud, and the rest of the Stop the Steal upheaval. The prevailing view is that Stop the Steal 2.0 would be Stop the Steal on steroids.

What “close” means is something of an open question, likely to be in the eye of the beholder — i.e., Trump. But the impression I get is that only a massive Biden landslide would dampen the Stop the Steal flame; and even such a blowout victory, which is of course not in the cards, would offer no guarantee.

To understand why, we need only look at the post-election game from Trump’s perspective. It’s actually not very complicated. 

If he loses this election, it’s odds-on that Donald Trump will spend much if not all of the remainder of his life in prison. 

The state and/or federal cases that he succeeds in delaying until after the election would then, with Trump as private citizen, proceed to their conclusions: trials, verdicts, sentences. In all, Trump faces close to seven centuries in stir if convicted of all 91 felony counts and handed maximum sentences. That’s more than enough heel-cooling to make a profound impression on a 77-year-old golfer used to telling his cook exactly how he likes his steak (or hamburger) done.

While hard time measured in centuries is not likely, for all practical purposes, barring pardons or commutations, there are enough solid criminal charges to pretty much throw away the key, as the saying goes. Only an electoral victory, which would allow him to nix or further suspend all his trials, can save him. As I have pointed out before, that weight of consequence alone makes this an election like no other — existential and Wagnerian for Trump, and therefore for the country.

And what it entails, most concretely, is that a defeated Trump has almost literally nothing to lose.  

Meaning that there is just about nothing he could pull to save himself — including leading a full-on insurrection for real this time — that would land him, pragmatically speaking, in any greater trouble than he already faces if he loses and goes gentle. 

So there will be no deterrence

This may come off as alarmist, even paranoid, but it’s a long way from being fantasy or delusion: All the ingredients are in the pot. 

Quite apart from the mortal blow to his ego and psyche, if Trump were to accept defeat he would do so staring down years, if not life, in prison. Raise your hand if you can picture him embracing life as a locked up loser. Not when, in the wake of any remotely competitive loss and maybe even an unlikely blowout, there will be tens of millions of enraged MAGAs already primed to believe, with religious certainty, that it was stolen. 

How much will it take from Trump to send them marauding, not just in DC but across the nation?

And why would Trump have the slightest hesitation, given what a loss would mean for the rest of his life? (A colleague suggested to me that a soundly defeated Trump might choose to “play nice” and concede, calculating that being a model citizen might bring him judicial leniency, perhaps nothing worse than a few years of gilded house arrest at Mar a Lago. A consummation devoutly to be wished, were it not impossible to imagine any behavior more out of character.)

So buckle up. Anything but a Trump win will bring, as night follows day, a barrage of “preliminary” schemes and stunts: The kinds of legal challenges, state legislative interventions, and congressional machinations that culminated in January 6, 2021, would precede January 6, 2025. 

Hard lessons having been learned in the 2020-21 dress rehearsal, preparations are already being made in MAGA World for a more successful Stop the Steal putsch this time around.

The bottom line? Given who Trump has proven himself to be, and the personal stakes for him, Election 2024 will have to be protected like no other. 

And post-Election 2024 will have to be prepared for like no other. The magnitude of Trump’s existing legal jeopardy means that he cannot be deterred by the prospect of further legal jeopardy.

Let this chilling reality sink in: He cannot be deterred; he will have to be stopped.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.

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