Fascists have a long track record of not acknowledging the legitimacy of elections they lose, so this is not an arcane hypothetical. Consider that Trump is calling for the Florida recounts to stop, because of imaginary cases of “voter fraud:”
President Donald Trump demanded on Monday that Florida shut down its recount of last week’s election results, which is mandated under state law, and suggested that the final tally shouldn’t be trusted unless his preferred candidates are declared the winners.
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
I find this question fascinating in a slow-motion car crash kind of way. Part of the reason is because, like Aimai, I once thought it was possible that Trump wouldn’t run for re-election, or even resign before the next election in a fit of pique. After all, he’s a remarkably lazy and childish man, who hates doing actual work of any kind, including even the easiest parts of the job, as illustrated by how he blew off his ceremonial duties this weekend in France. I don’t think he ever really wanted to be president: the whole thing was always a Producers-style grift that went further than expected.
But now that he’s been president for two years, his stupid narcissistic pride is overwhelming all other considerations (also, as Aimai notes, that pardon power could come in real handy). He hates the job, but he hates “losing” more.
(1) He loses a close election, like 2016 except the other way. If that happens, I think there’s a good chance that he won’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the result, and he’ll do everything he can, legally and extra-legally, to stay in office.
(2) He loses, or is obviously going to lose, by a big margin. In this scenario, I can see things getting really crazy in the weeks running up to November 2020. I can imagine him trying to call the whole thing off, on the grounds of some spurious national emergency, or announcing ahead of time that the election results were going to be illegitimate because of “massive voter fraud” (i.e., similar to his reaction to losing a close election, except anticipating the result and trying to delegitimize it ahead of time).
(3) Something basically unimaginable right now (I don’t trust the show runners at all at this point).
Ultimately I don’t think Trump is going to go gentle into that good night. And it’s probably a good idea to start anticipating that possibility.