The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading?
Could former President Trump be — finally — beginning to fade toward the margins of American political life?
The question may seem strange given how completely Trump has dominated the political arena since he began his quest for the presidency in 2015. The news media, and many of his political rivals, have been consumed by his every move since then.
Even after he lost the presidency in November, Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, his incendiary rhetoric and, ultimately, his second impeachment ensured that his shadow loomed large over his successor.
But now there are signs — beyond the simple fact that he is out of office — that suggest Trump is beginning to lose his salience to the political world.
For a start, he has been banned from Twitter, apparently for good. This deprives the former president of his favorite megaphone and makes it much harder for him to insert himself into the controversy of the day.
Trump can, of course, still issue statements from his post-presidential office, as he has done on occasion since leaving the presidency. But those emails don’t typically get the same traction as the furious tweets of old. Like karaoke versions of hit songs, they just aren’t quite the same thing.
There are also some warning signs even among the Republican base, though the picture is admittedly mixed.
When the former president made his most high-profile public appearance since leaving office last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he won its coveted straw poll overwhelmingly.
Yet the share of attendees who wanted him to run again clocked in at 68 percent. That’s a reasonable share, but it also means that roughly one-third of the people who attended a conservative conference at which Trump was the star attraction believe it is time to turn the page.
The media spotlight does not shine so intently on Trump as it once did, either. His CPAC speech was carried live by Fox News, but not by CNN and MSNBC. CNN, in particular, has faced retrospective criticism for devoting as much airtime as it did to Trump when he first sought the presidency.
John “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime Republican operative and a Trump critic based in Florida, said that he had to be careful of lapsing into “wishful thinking” about the former president’s declining relevance.
But, he added, “His appeal was so personal and was so omnipresent that his absence, it strikes me, has created something of a vacuum. No matter how much he is literally worshipped by some, I think there is an awareness that he was at the helm when Republicans lost the House, lost the Senate and lost the presidential election. He was a loser across the board.”
In his column last month in The Wall Street Journal, GOP strategist Karl Rove made similar arguments: “Despite possessing all the powers of incumbency and leading a united GOP, Mr. Trump lost the presidency. If he returned for another White House contest, leading a divided party at war with itself and out of power, he’d be wiped out.”
Trump loyalists push back hard against the notion that there has been any significant dimming of his fortunes, beyond the shift that can be expected after any president leaves office. And some maintain Trump can repeat the history of President Grover Cleveland, the only commander in chief who served two nonconsecutive terms.
They point to his extremely high approval ratings among Republican voters, as well as the degree to which he has shifted the GOP in his direction since he came to power.
His hold on the party does not appear to have loosened greatly, even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other significant players such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) have broken from him.
The potential fury of the Trump base has seen a number of major figures who expressed some dissent move swiftly back into line, notably former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and her fellow South Carolinian Sen. Lindsey Graham (R).
Several possible 2024 GOP hopefuls, such as Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), are plainly trying to stick as close to Trump as possible.
Critics like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have admitted that they believe Trump would win the Republican nomination if he were to run again.
“Let me tell you this — Donald Trump ain’t going anywhere,” Cruz said during his own CPAC speech. At the same event, Josh Mandel, a GOP Senate candidate in Ohio, asserted, “We have a party led by Donald J. Trump.”
Trump may not ultimately run in 2024. He could be content to continue as a media figure and one who periodically seeks to exact retribution on foes — by, for example, backing insurgent primary candidates against the kind of establishment-friendly incumbents McConnell would prefer.
But if he really wants to maintain a more elevated level of prominence, he will have to once again defy historical precedent. No president in roughly a century has lost his reelection race and come back as a serious candidate for a future nomination.
The kind of political “rock star” status that Trump has enjoyed among his supporters can sometimes be more fleeting than might be expected.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was the object of adulation from a good portion of the GOP base even after her losing race as then-Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vice presidential candidate in 2008. Yet, Palin’s attempt to build a TV career sputtered, and she has drifted to the margins of the political scene.
Trump, of course, was a far bigger figure than Palin ever became.
But that could also mean there is simply a greater height from which to slide.
“I’m not saying Trump will not be a major figure. But by the time we get into the 2024 election cycle, he will not dominate Republican politics,” Stipanovich predicted.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.