Will a second-term Trump be radical, restrained or routed by the resistance?

The media are filled with chatter, prognostication and speculation about what another Trump term would look like.

This is in part because he has a good shot at winning–something the press didn’t believe a few short months ago–and because we basically know what a second Biden term would look like. That’s the lot of an incumbent president – Biden can say he wants to “finish the job” and stop his dangerous opponent, but the liberal direction of the administration is clear.

What makes another four years of Donald Trump less clear is that at times he’s said different things to different people.

In a speech in Waco last year, Trump said: “I am your warrior, I am your justice. For those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”


But he has since softened that rhetoric. In our Mar-a-Lago interview, the former president said “my greatest retribution, or as you would also say, revenge, like my revenge will be success for our country.” He added: “People say you’re conservative, I say, but really, what I am is a person with common sense.”

That depicts him as liberated from Republican orthodoxy on such issues as abortion and Social Security. Or had he already sent the retribution message he wanted to rile up to his base?

Trump and his allies have suggested, and I asked about this as well, that he will not be constrained as he was in his first term by such establishment figures as Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Bill Barr, John Brennan, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, most of whom have since turned against him. Instead, he’ll populate a new administration with such hard-line figures as Stephen Miller and others from right-wing think tanks.

(Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

National Review, in its new cover story, explores three basic options that boil down to this: Which Trump will we get, and what will he be able to accomplish?

Behind Door No. 1: A Return of the Limited Trump

Congress and the courts placed “strong limits” on the Trump presidency. The former president was also limited by “a lack of follow-through,” often listening to the last person he spoke to. Cohn is reported to have stolen documents from the president’s desk to prevent him from seeing them.

Trump was also constrained by his relative unpopularity and the country’s massive debt, which has hardly vanished.

But the common-sense Trump could also pass a version of Marco Rubio’s child tax credit–he’s expected to get a Cabinet post if he’s not picked for VP–or “even Mitt Romney’s child-benefit proposal.”


Behind Door No. 2: The Full Trump

While groups such as the Heritage Foundation would provide an influx of younger wonks, such senators as Tom Cotton now back Trump’s foreign policy agenda, and J.D. Vance would “relish the chance to push a full-throated MAGA agenda.”

Trump could build a border wall, ride the wave against “woke” ideology, and further push the judiciary, including SCOTUS, to the right. 

But author Michael Brendan Dougherty sees this as fairly unlikely, saying “it is far-fetched that the progressive citadels of power in American political life would allow him to mollify and charm the public for long.” 

Behind Door No. 3: A Four-Year Siege 

Donald Trump giving a speech.

Former President Donald Trump in Windham, N.H. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images)

“We might see a ‘Resistance’ whose legal, moral, and political brinkmanship presents as many threats to American institutions as, or even more than, Trump himself.

“A Democratic House will find every chance to investigate Trump a worthwhile one. They could try to pick up where other criminal investigations have failed — returning to the events of January 6 or to Trump’s mishandling of classified documents in the first term…

“Symbolic point-scoring would count for a great deal. At a minimum, we might see a Democratic House refuse to invite Trump to deliver a State of the Union address.”

This scenario concludes by saying “most unfortunately, it would take as a given that Trump authentically represents America, and that the entire American tradition is a tree that produces bad fruit…he has already given his opponents a playbook to undermine him again.”


My money (if I were a betting man) is on the Limited Trump, not because of constraints but because he learned a good deal about navigating the powers of the presidency in his first four years. 

In his sitdown with me, Trump was quite disciplined, knowing he was playing to a more independent “Media Buzz” audience. He also deflected questions he didn’t want to answer. When I asked about his threat to knock NBC and CNN off the air because they refused to run his Iowa victory speech, he focused on the unfairness of that move after these outlets covered the primaries intensively, but never circled back to the question of retaliation.

By last weekend, of course, Trump was reposting someone’s image of Joe Biden hog-tied in the back of a car. And that’s the thing. The former president always slides back into over-the-top or offensive language or imagery that stirs up his base. It’s how he dominates one news cycle after another. 

But if it doesn’t translate into policy, you could say his bark is worse than his bite. Not that Trump won’t aggressively change policies on the border, tartiffs toward China, toughness toward Iran, and perhaps more tax cuts.

Donald Trump pointing right index finger

(Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But my sense is that he’s learned not to spend political capital on battles he can’t win. Here’s the perfect example: Trump spent his presidency trying to repeal Obamacare, failing three times and particularly expressing outrage when John McCain cast the deciding vote against the last attempt.

But when the Biden team, which is touting the law’s growing popularity, accused Trump of still wanting to abolish it, the former president said that was wrong and he just wants to improve it – a significant shift that didn’t get much attention. That’s a BFD.

The Full Trump seems less likely to me. While a Cabinet stocked with such heavyweights as Rubio and Cotton could drive fundamental change, Trump is always the star of any venture, from “The Apprentice” to the White House.  

He’s likely to reclaim the spotlight if his appointees get too much credit, and there’s a reason he describes himself as more common sense than conservative.


The Four-Year Siege is the least likely of all. If Trump completes the most remarkable comeback in American history, he will have a mandate. And while the Democrats and the media may score points, clicks and ratings by beating up on him, they will have to accept that more voters chose him over Joe Biden. They may even need some therapy.

At this point, of course, it’s subject to debate, which means everyone has an opinion.


Leave a Comment