The 45th president returned to Iowa this weekend, leaving more questions asked than answered about a repeat bid.
WELLINGTON, OHIO – JUNE 26: Former US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on June 26, 2021 in Wellington, Ohio. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
It was a classic conflation of prescription with description.
“Insiders: Trump has peaked,” Politico blared in July 2015. “I think we are past peak Trump,” William Kristol of the Weekly Standard told Morning Joe the same month. “Donald Trump has already peaked,” my then-boss Philip Klein added in Washington Examiner. “I’ll admit I was a bit early in my #PeakTrump call,” Kristol corrected months later, in November. “@realDonaldTrump actually peaked in [Real Clear Politics] averages on Sep. 19, 2015.”
By now, this is a familiar tale, and there’s little use of rehashing the history further. Suffice to say, the Republican establishment, and its neoconservative intellectual elite, got punked in 2015 and 2016, in a parable against wishful thinking. And there is little use of rehashing it further—unless to learn from the experience, that is.
Today, what the establishment believes—to say nothing of the prevailing wisdom—is the opposite view. “I’m pretty sure he will win the nomination,” Trump antagonist Mitt Romney said in February.
Like one-time GOP presidential front-runner Jeb Bush, Trump is raking in the money and leading in early polls. Provocative, non-neoconservative thinkers like Richard Hanania are betting on Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024 and the elements of his rise exposed as nothing more than an empty racket. As one senior Republican media figure told me, “The NeverTrumpers were right about Trump’s character.”
A bet on a repeat triumph for Trump in the coming years, then, would be a vindication, not of establishment beliefs on policy, but neoconservative critics of Trump’s vulgarity and cheap celebrity as the whole essence of his appeal. In this rendering, the stuff about rejecting needless foreign wars, crafting a trade policy that gives working class Americans a chance, and building a low immigration but multiracial society was the embarrassing piffle of heterodox conservative intellectuals.
But what if that’s wrong, and the figures who made boastful predictions about the American social landscape were just as they were before?
Granted, a de facto 2021 Republican messaging campaign anchored in unproved voter fraud claims and basically luddite vaccine skepticism has not been a promising start for this view of a higher “new nationalism.” But in 2013, the corollary to 2021 during the last Democratic White House, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio graced the cover of Time magazine as the Republican saviors. Both are noticeably rebranding now, but back then, these were figures of GOP business as usual. The next year, 2014, BuzzFeed gave us its reportage on Trump: “On the plane and by the pool with the man who will not be king.”
So, what would Trump not being the next Republican nominee even look like? There are only two options.
The first option, perhaps the most likely scenario, is that Trump will not run. After triumphing over both the New York and Washington wheeler dealer scenes in his day, the conventional wisdom is the man is basically immune to the consequences of rickety finances and legal exposure. Still, like getting shot in the head or hitting it big in business: These things only have to happen once.
Each day brings fresh news of sharks swimming around Mar-A-Lago. People who have pointed this out have been laughably wrong before. But just this week, a House committee contended the Washington, D.C., hotel that bears his name bled tens of millions and that Trump was shielded from the immediate consequences of those losses by undisclosed foreign financing (Deutsche Bank).
The sheer, open interest of Trump’s ex-cabinet members in still running in 2024—his former vice president Mike Pence, his former secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his former national security advisor Robert C. O’Brien and his former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, to say nothing of his own home state governor, Florida’s Ron DeSantis—indicates a little trouble in paradise. The truth is there is an atmosphere of friendly distrust between such figures. One aspirant 2024er told me Trump calls any time he gets word of a touchdown of rival in an early primary state. But the former president, rather noticeably, doesn’t tell his ex-employees he’s definitely running either. Why?
The second scenario is Trump runs and is beat. The most plausible figure for this role is, ironically, Christie, clearly intent on running again in 2024. The former New Jersey’s faded political cache makes a direct matchup with Trump both his only option and his best shot.
Unlike any of the other heavies, there will be no encore for Christie in Trumpworld if he is re-elected. Christie is no real Republican reformer in the nationalist mold, but his track record—including a stunning, recent electoral triumph in deep blue New Jersey in 2013—shows he isn’t exactly out of touch with the people, either. Trump has never been confronted about his wildly uneven years in power, especially by a fellow Tri-stater as brash and self-confident as he is.
And the truth is, Trump’s own enemies are licking their chops for his return. Trump sells.
His latest apostate, former press secretary Stephanie Grisham, says in a new book that Trump will run again in 2024 and be out for “revenge,” and install a government in “the Jan. 6 mold.” Hopefully those headlines saved a few of my fellow reporters their jobs.
But Trump’s address in Iowa on Saturday night—replete with red meat about that great national concern, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and opposing an infrastructure plan that he himself promised but never proposed in office… It all sounded high on partisanship, and low on (say what you will) new ideas. Trump, the man who mercifully defeated the Bush clan, has become more like them.
Sure, there was the American carnival. A man told the Des Moines Register ahead of the rally that he changed his last name to Trump. But a man once followed around the former CEO of Bain Capital to nearly every rally of his in the country in a pickup truck. Strange happens in the United States. It’s no real predictor of presidents.
So, as 2021 marches to a close, here is a thought against the consensus makers that once laughed at not only Donald Trump but also Joe Biden’s bids for power: Perhaps things are less certain, and less dire, than they’re deemed.