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I might have gotten a little ahead of myself when a recent post speculated (optimistically) about the future of Trump-ism without Donald Trump. It’s not that I was wrong that nationalist populism will continue dominating the Republican Party instead of its decades-long belief in globalism, minimal government, and minimal taxes as economic cure-alls in particular. At least not yet.

Instead, reportedly, anyway, there’s a real chance that President Trump won’t pass from the scene if he does lose the White House. There’s even chatter that he might even run again in 2024! Given Mr. Trump’s personality, it’s clear I shouldn’t have overlooked his love of the spotlight. But as a recent column by The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat reminded me, there are solid reasons for viewing the President’s leadership as crucial to the future of the distinctive approach to foreign and domestic policy that he’s spearheaded.

I had written that TrumpWorld shouldn’t find it overly difficult to find a nationally competitive candidate (or candidates) who strongly supports the essentials of Trumpism yet possess the personal discipline to avoid the wild excesses that clearly wounded the President – perhaps mortally – throughout his term in office.

But Douthat noted how central Mr. Trump’s bluster and bombast have been to both creating his base and, just as important in electoral terms, turning them out. And lest we forget amid all the uncertainties about who will take the Oath of Office in January, the Trump vote this month was bigger in absolute terms than in 2016.

It’s still reasonable to argue that, given the advantages of incumbency, Mr. Trump’s style cost him more backing than it maintained or reenforced. But it’s just as reasonable to contend that the President was done in by a literal bolt from the blue — the CCP Virus. Or was a critical mass of voters ultimately convinced that, however much they liked or tolerated Trump-ian excesses during normal times, he was the wrong leader for a pandemic – and for similar future emergencies that couldn’t be ruled out?

If the President stays in the political arena, the big question facing him, supporters and sympathizers, and the nation, will be what, if any, lessons he learns from these last election results. So far, his claims that he actually won reelection indicate that the answer so far is “None.” And in terms of actual results, if he winds up triumphant, or if he loses and his successor’s term isn’t overall a major success, he could be proven right.

But to me, the safest bet for the time being is that the President’s election challenges will fail, that the reasons for his defeat will remain murky, and that the Biden administration’s first term record will fall in the middle ground between unalloyed triumph and unmitigated disaster.

As a result, the best strategy for Trumpers going forward would seem to be to try creating the best of all possible worlds – to find a leader, or leaders, able to thread the needle between Trumpian boisterousness and satisfactory levels of self-control.

The less successful the Biden administration is, the more of the former will be acceptable, and vice versa. But even so, looking at the landscape, it’s tough to identify prominent Republican politicians who can play to in-person and electronic crowds like the President. Conservative populists like Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio seem to check the main issues and the Responsible Adult boxes. So does Vice President Mike Pence. (Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton checks some of these boxes, but his approach to foreign policy has been highly interventionist, and he’s said little of note about using government more to help struggling families or nurture vital but still early-stage industries and technologies.)

But even though Pence was a long-time radio talk show host, I’ve seen no evidence that any of these figures can light up an audience like the President. Optimists can note that Hawley et al aren’t exactly household names, and therefore still have opportunities to create national brands. Pessimists can note that, although they’re all veterans of national politics (except relative newcomer Hawley)…they’re not exactly household names. Maybe that means that they simply lack the “Happy Warrior” gene to begin with?

So leaving aside the Biden factor, the ability of conservative populists to win nationally without Mr. Trump could indeed well hinge in part on whether and to what extent any conservative populists can replicate charisma comparable to the President’s. In particular, can they create or summon up an inner Regular Guy, or project some other persona that’s similarly effective and engaging?

Alternatively, the President could buck the odds and display some kind of a learning curve. The wide gap separating his performances during the first and last presidential debates this fall indicates that’s not out of the question. Much more certain – all parties concerned could benefit from some vigorous competition.