Will Trump’s ardent supporters keep fighting if he loses?
Donald Trump has whipped up a political movement like none other in modern politics, but there’s a surprising ambivalence from his army of supporters — and even the candidate himself — over what to do next.
Beyond the bombast of picking up arms to storm the White House should Hillary Clinton become president, ardent Trump voters are beginning to think seriously about their post-election role in American politics.
Will they organize as a new political force, spark a revolution inside the GOP or, as some supporters at Trump rallies recently hinted, retreat into the background after an exhausting and divisive campaign?
Kathy Smith and her neighbor were waiting eagerly last month for Trump to speak at a rally in Golden, Colo., wearing matching “Deplorable American” T-shirts.
But Smith acknowledged that political fatigue has set in — along with the frustration of polls showing Trump was unlikely to win her state.
“I want my life to be back,” the hairstylist said. Smith has been active locally in politics, but said she is ready to hunker down if Trump loses to “take care of my birds, my dogs, my family. I figure, I give him my best shot.”
On the other hand, Eddie Creech, a tobacco, corn and bean farmer who lives near Kinston, N.C., said he’s ready leave his “little slice of heaven” at a moment’s notice and go protest in Washington, D.C., if Clinton is elected and Trump’s supporters call for help. “We will kick her out,” he said.
Win or lose, Trump is in a prime position to either lead a remaking of the party he has upended or launch a new one.
But if Trump does not win the White House, it’s not clear whether the Republican nominee will stay as actively engaged in politics as he has been in the many months of the campaign.
He has offered mixed messages as he jets across the country making closing arguments before election day.
“I will never let you be the forgotten people again,” he told a packed crowd at the St. Augustine amphitheater in battleground Florida. “I will never let you down. I promise.”
But at the same rally, Trump’s comments raised questions about his long-term commitment, saying if his supporters don’t get to the polls to elect him, “we will have wasted a hell of a lot of time, energy and — in my case — a lot of money.”
What happens next to Trump’s movement is one of the big unanswered questions of the 2016 election and one that will shape the GOP’s future.
Will the party of Abraham Lincoln morph into the party of Trump, or will the movement that catapulted the celebrity businessman to the top of the ticket fade as quickly as it rose?
It’s unlikely the election will sweep away the anger and frustration felt by the mostly white, working-class Americans who now proudly call themselves “deplorables” — embracing Clinton’s derisive label. Trump built his unlikely ascent by reviving many of their long-simmering fears and resentments over race, class and the Washington elite.
But it remains to be seen whether those passions will be sustained without the pageantry of campaign season as Trump supporters return to jobs and families without the luxury of post-election navel-gazing.
Justin Smith, 31, a hog farmer who attended a Trump rally in Kinston, N.C., with his daughter, Ella Lynn, predicted that the businessman’s followers will keep alive the ideas and philosophy that drove the campaign, but likely will take a less active role in politics.
“It’s going to be a movement,’’ he said, “but we’re going to give up on the government.”
Other disruptive political forces, including the tea party, sputtered partly because they lacked a central leader, despite their robust presence online and ability to organize nationally through social media.
While Trump can inspire voters like few others, transforming rally-goers into a formidable political force takes a kind of nuts-and-bolts savvy that has been missing from Trump’s insular campaign operation.
Trump’s ability to amass a mammoth-sized list of backers — and the credit card numbers of small-dollar donors — will be the envy of any traditional campaign apparatus in laying the groundwork for future organizing.
But Trump has said little in public about his next moves. One recent report mentioned his desire for some much-needed time off.
Also, Trump’s team may prefer to monetize the movement as a new business venture rather than a purely political one.
The “Trump TV” enterprise that once seemed a logical next step after he brought in Fox’s Roger Ailes and Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon has failed to impress with its initial launch of a nightly Facebook news show, an unpolished program that has struck some as a political version of “Wayne’s World.”
For a man who has a tendency to flit from one trending topic to the next, politics may not provide a lasting relationship. He may choose to move on to other opportunities.
Many of Trump’s supporters — some inspired to get involved in politics for the first time — say they imagine Trump will simply return to the life of a wealthy New York businessman because, as he often reminds them on the campaign trail, he “didn’t have to do this.”
“We’re praying for him every day,” said Kim Carney, with her husband, Dave, and their granddaughter at a Trump event in Charlotte.
“I think he’ll find another [way] to make things better — whether it’s a behind-the-scenes effort or on the front lines,” her husband said.
Others predict the movement will go on, with or without Trump.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” said Shauna Godwin, wrapped in an American flag-styled sweater as Trump alighted from his plane in Kinston, N.C. “There’s too many people.”
Some refused to even entertain such questions because they fully expect that Trump will beat Clinton and become president.
“I just can’t believe he’s as far behind as they say because of things like this,” said Stephanie Moore, a retired government budget officer, looking over the thousands of people filling a livestock arena for Trump in Springfield, Ohio. “I’m a little scared as to what might happen. People are so hyped up about it, and I don’t want to see any rebellion.”
In the closing days of the campaign, Trump has done little to lower expectations, boasting of his movement’s shock to the system.
Alongside “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!” supporters have added a new regular chant at rallies.
Trump starts a sentence, “If we win … ”
“When!” the crowd dutifully shouts back.
“When we win,” he said, “your voice will boom through the halls of Washington and will be heard across the world.”
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