When Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator from the heights of Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his run for president, the press, political pundits, the consultant class and pretty much everyone else viewed it as a high-profile publicity stunt. It was a means for Trump to do what he does best: draw attention to himself. The consensus was that he’d make a splash before fading, making way for Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.
Despite losing reelection and likely taking down the Senate GOP with him, Trump still remains very popular in the Republican party — particularly among a small but hardcore percentage of the base that chooses presidential nominees during the primary season. Six years after the famous escalator ride, the question is no longer whether Trump can win the GOP nomination in 2024 — the only question is: will he run?
This was never asked of other one-term presidents. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both lost their reelection efforts. They did what former presidents typically do — worked on getting their libraries built, hit the lecture circuit, took time with friends and family. Neither man wanted to lose. Still, each exited the stage and moved on.
That’s not sufficient for Trump. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ Trump craves the spotlight. During his days as a real estate developer in New York City, he was often the source for stories about himself that appeared in the Page Six gossip section of the New York Post. In the 1980s, he created an alter ego, a fictitious spokesman called John Barron, to seed publicity (and to deflect it when the spotlight got too hot). In the late Eighties and early Nineties, his exploits and his rise as an Atlantic City casino magnate turned him into a pop culture reference. He appeared as a plutocratic role model in dozens of hip-hop songs and merited mention in television shows and movies such as Law & Order, Lethal Weapon 2 and The Paper.
His financial struggles in the Nineties removed some of the gloss from Trump’s reputation, and he strategically decided to license his name as a brand instead of building and purchasing assets. Despite his supposed loathing of reality television — he reportedly told friends it was for the ‘bottom feeders of society’ — he signed on at The Apprentice when Survivor producer Mark Burnett pitched the idea. That was in 2004; it was all that was needed to take Trump from pop culture reference to household name. In August 2015, while the press and pundits were still laughing at the notion of a Trump candidacy, he drew a crowd of 30,000 to a rally in Mobile, Alabama.
Trump’s popularity and influence remain intact, despite his 2020 reelection defeat and Republicans’ loss of Congress. He’s holding rallies, including one in Iowa, home to the caucuses that kick off the nomination process. Trump is also inserting himself into campaigns, endorsing primary candidates and offering support for incumbents. Nowhere is the pining for Trump’s endorsement more evident than in Ohio. Former state treasurer Josh Mandel, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and former state GOP chairperson Jane Timken are all vying for the nomination for Sen. Rob Portman’s soon-to-be-vacant seat. And all have boasted of their allegiance to Trump and his way of governing.
Outside of raising money, one of the more challenging aspects of a presidential campaign is building a nationwide infrastructure of donors, volunteers and staff. Trump already has all that in place in addition to state party support. Despite losing the election and access to all social media platforms, the former president’s fundraising prowess endures: records show he raised $82 million between January and June.
And he remains popular among Republicans. According to a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 76 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former president, and 47 percent say he should have ‘a lot’ of influence within the party. Trump’s constant bellowing about the ‘rigged’ and ‘stolen’ election continues to resonate as well, with 62 percent of Republicans favoring continued investigations despite scant evidence to substantiate Trump’s claims.
Trump continues to tease about a possible 2024 run but he won’t answer definitively at this point. He’s likely waiting to see the results of the 2022 midterm elections and whether his legal woes, particularly with the court in the Southern District of New York and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, present roadblocks. However, the indictments brought by Manhattan’s DA Cy Vance against the Trump Organization and its CFO Allen Weisselberg for tax fraud and grand larceny come off almost as if Vance doesn’t really have the goods on Trump himself, forcing Vance into leading with a weak hand.
A typical candidate will survey the political landscape before determining whether to take the plunge. It likely won’t matter with Trump. Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and a noted Trump critic, says the former president wouldn’t rely on conventional political benchmarks when making a decision: ‘He doesn’t orbit around the sun as others do. He’s his own solar system.’
David M. Drucker, author of the forthcoming In Trump’s Shadow: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP, echoes that sentiment: ‘Conventional metrics like political atmospherics and the outcome of the midterm election matter little to Trump. He craves the political spotlight and loves the adulation he receives from being in the arena, and whether he wages a third White House bid is likely to come down to how sated his ego is in the trappings of the ex-presidency, versus what he thinks he would gain by becoming president again.’
Luke Thompson, a New York-based political consultant, tells me that Trump’s decision would be more personal: ‘Whether or not we see a third Trump campaign will hinge on non-political factors like interest, health, family, business, or other considerations known only to the president and his inner circle.’
Despite Trump’s popularity among a considerable percentage of base voters and other elected GOP elected officials, the question of whether a third campaign is the best way to go is something his circle must consider. Some pundits and party insiders have floated the idea of ‘Trumpism without Trump’ — taking the appealing parts of Trump’s populism and ‘America First’ agenda and deploying them with a candidate more likely to appeal to a broader swath of voters, and less likely to cause offense.
That raises the question about what ‘Trumpism’ is, exactly. Legislatively, Trump’s two signature achievements were a tax cut package and the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill. His other boasting point was his judicial appointments, including three Supreme Court justices. Elsewhere, Trump used ‘emergency’ powers to implement tariffs against trading partners. Thus far, Joe Biden hasn’t rescinded any of the tariffs: the Democratic party and labor unions largely favor them.
Trump also wanted to regulate social media, but so do the Democrats, for different reasons. Much of what ‘Trumpism’ represents is a shoot-from-the-hip style of politicking, getting into spats with the press corps, puerile insults, stoking resentment and intraparty squabbling. No one within the current GOP framework can replicate what so many love about the former president.
Still, the GOP is undergoing a sea change, at least for the moment: it’s trying out appeals to middle-class voters; newfound advocacy for achieving political ends through government means; an increasingly isolationist foreign policy. Whether all this translates into a path for someone other than Trump remains to be seen.
‘Republican voters may show interest in fresh blood or outright decide they want a new standard-bearer in 2024,’ says Drucker. ‘But they are highly unlikely to nominate a candidate who does not both embrace the former president’s agenda of conservative populism and exhibit at least some of his instincts for political pugilism.’
And who would tell Trump to step aside? ‘He didn’t listen in 2016, and he won’t listen to anyone in 2024,’ Scarborough says. ‘The Republican party as an apparatus is so weak, who could possibly tell him to stand down with any authority or effect?’ asks Sarah Isgur, who was deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential run. ‘Mitch McConnell? Ronna McDaniel? Matt Gaetz? I don’t think so.’
Luke Thompson notes that even if the Republican party tries to elevate someone else — Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, perhaps, or Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — Trump still has a structural advantage. ‘He can take his time. His fundraising and popularity together mean he’ll be competitive in the early states the moment he announces, meaning that he’s also free to survey the primary landscape and make a decision as late as registration deadlines will permit.’
The bottom line, as Scarborough puts it, is that the nomination ‘is his for the taking’. Whatever happens, it’s impossible to predict now whether Trump will run. He loves attention, and his flirting with a third run is a consummate way to keep everyone talking about him. Moreover, Trump loves chaos, and there’s nothing more chaotic than keeping Republicans who have their eye on a presidential run guessing until the very last moment. The strange thing is that, no matter what Trump decides and when, somehow it won’t come as a surprise to anyone.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2021 World edition.