Donald Trump knows that sequels are supposed to echo the original. He announced his first run for president in June 2015 from a gilt lobby in Trump Tower, so it stands to reason that a Mar-a-Lago ballroom would be the setting for his 2024 announcement. But sequels often distort the resonances of the past, too. In 2015, Ivanka Trump introduced her father at his campaign launch; in November 2022, she was conspicuously absent and has said that she would not participate in this campaign. Trump’s 2016 run went from what first seemed a quixotic celebrity candidacy to a generational political wipeout to a Tuesday-night triumph, as all the haters and losers finally got their comeuppance. His 2024 campaign starts on a very different note: a former president, he is seen by many pundits as a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, if not the favorite to win—though this time, a formidable challenger looms.
The shadow of last week’s midterms hung over Trump’s announcement. The GOP’s almost-secured, narrow House majority, and what may be a net loss of Senate seats (depending on how the Georgia run-off goes), were deeply disappointing to many Republicans, and a major departure from the traditional midterm trend of the opposition party picking up many congressional seats. These results reveal some problems for Trump’s 2024 campaign, as well as deeper tensions and possibilities for Republicans.
Many saw in Trump’s first run the chance to expand the Republican coalition—to harness discontent from working-class and alienated voters in order to build a broader majority. By this account, a pivot away from the current iteration of globalization (especially regarding trade and immigration) combined with pro-worker policies could help create a new paradigm of American (and Republican) politics. When Tucker Carlson called Trump “vulgar, shocking, and right,” the shocking part included Trump’s break with beltway orthodoxies as well as conventional norms of political decency.
American politics has shifted since then. Republicans and a growing number of Democrats now speak on behalf of a more nationally oriented politics. The coronavirus pandemic has convinced both parties of the importance of domestic supply chains, and there may be bipartisan momentum in the direction of state capacity. Working-class voters of varied backgrounds seem more open to Republican candidates.
Some of those changes may also pose obstacles to Trump 2024. In 2016, Americans were receptive to outsider politicians. Bernie Sanders made a strong run for the Democratic nomination, and Trump of course clinched the GOP nomination and the White House (though he lost the popular vote). It’s not clear that the same appetite for outsiders exists now. The pandemic, significant political turmoil, and intensifying geopolitical conflict may instead have created a greater yearning for stability. Heavily favoring incumbents, the midterm results may reflect that desire.
In politics, the greatest wounds are often self-inflicted. Had Trump conceded defeat in 2020, he could have set up 2024 as his “told ya so” comeback. Instead, he exerted maximum pressure to overturn the 2020 election—asking state governments to nullify the presidential results, appealing to the courts, demanding that Congress intervene, and even urging his vice president to throw out duly cast electoral votes. He followed January 6, 2021, with a sustained campaign to elevate Republican candidates who would challenge election results and embrace conspiracy theories. He attempted to use the midterms to brand the GOP as his party—but in state after state, gubernatorial and secretary of state candidates too closely tied to Trump went down to defeat, sometimes dragging GOP Senate candidates with them.
Both exit polls and the actual election results suggest that being identified with political disruption generally, and efforts to overturn elections specifically, carry political costs. Republicans struggled with independent voters who disapproved of Joe Biden. Those voters should have been eminently winnable, but the GOP could not convince them that the party represented a better alternative.
Judging by his announcement speech, Trump may try to distance himself from some of these problems. By Trump standards, it was relatively restrained, and he didn’t dwell on the 2020 election. But voters—including the suburbanites and independents Republicans need to win elections—haven’t forgotten the tumult of Trump’s term, and it seems doubtful that a sober speech or two will erase memories of the chaotic closing months of his presidency.
The midterms illuminated a fundamental irony of Trump’s attempted realignment of American politics: he tried to expand the GOP coalition by backing off from conventional messaging (on entitlements and the social safety net) that alienated some voters but then imposed his own litmus tests that drove away others. Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are majority-maker swing states. Trump-identified statewide candidates failed almost across the board in these states last week. Georgia is the only state among them in which a Republican won the gubernatorial race, and that Republican, Brian Kemp, notably refused to indulge Trump’s efforts regarding the 2020 election. Trump opposed him in the primary.
Kemp’s success, and especially the romping victories of Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio in Florida, may hold additional lessons for Republicans. These victories indicate how candidates can build winning coalitions by demonstrating competence in governing and the ability to fuse populist and conservative themes. The prospect of a working-class realignment for the GOP remains real, but it would take policy seriousness as well as political discipline to accomplish it.
Trump’s 2016 success signaled an unraveling paradigm in American politics, but much has changed six years later. Post-midterm polls show growing interest in DeSantis’s candidacy among Republican primary voters. That may be a sign of the GOP grassroots seeking a different standard-bearer for 2024. They might see such a leadership change not as a repudiation of the past but as the next step in reforming the GOP to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
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