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Shelve the Golden Oldie
As Donald Trump prepares for another presidential run, Republicans actually interested in taking back the White House have some things to consider.
Donald Trump will announce that he’s running for president again by the end of this month. That’s the inside scoop according to Axios, the Wall Street Journal, and a few other sources.
I’m not terribly surprised, but I am suddenly reminded of all those right-wing pundits, as well as lots of regular commenters on this site, who insisted, on January 6 and the days following, that those of us calling for Trump’s impeachment and conviction were overreacting. After all, the guy was “about to leave office anyway,” and the events of that day had effectively “ended his political career.” “So, what would be the point? Just be glad he’s gone.”
(Yes, those are actual quotes from people who responded to me).
Well, the point was accountability for an extraordinary, unprecedented abuse of executive power at the top level of government. And because that accountability never came in any meaningful way, and because cowardly politicians and self-serving media figures spent the next several months rehabilitating a guy who tried to overturn U.S. democracy (the efforts of which were even more egregious than we originally thought), the third act of the clown show will soon begin.
Of course, a non-trivial number of Americans are actually looking forward to this — namely the roughly 50% of Republican voters who’ve been telling every pollster asking the question that they once again want Trump as their presidential nominee. They watched a four-year reality show — that began with an apocalyptic speech about “American carnage,” was hallmarked by routine dishonesty, combativeness, and buffoonery, and ended with the leader of the free world causing a deadly insurrection at the Capitol — and said to themselves, “Hey, we can’t do any better than that guy in 2024!”
But Republicans absolutely can do better — a lot better, and that should be obvious. Even if you shrug off the atrocities Trump committed during his last two months in office (as most in his party sadly have), it’s far past time to admit that his key political victories — for which he is still hailed by his supporters as the greatest of all-time — were actually pretty baseline deliveries for a Republican president.
As the Washington Examiner’s Kimberly Ross wrote recently:
“Trump's achievements as president are the kind that could have been accomplished by any Republican president. Treating them as singular to him is just another product of politician worship. The negative aspects of his presidency, including words, behavior, dismissal of norms, and rejection of the truth, are his personal brand.”
This is a point I’ve been making for a long time. Trump’s greatest achievements as president (which most MAGA-types seem to agree on) were nominating conservative Supreme Court justices (made possible by Mitch McConnell, and aggregated by the conservative establishment), and signing into law Paul Ryan’s tax reform legislation (which was starkly different than what Trump ran on).
To be clear, I’m not downplaying the significance of these achievements. They were consequential and largely positive for America. I was onboard for both, along with other Trump policies. But they were also, by no means, a product of anything unique to Trump. In fact, they were about as “Republican establishment” as they come.
Any Republican president occupying the White House from January 2017 to January 2021 would have chalked up these wins. They would have simply been expected with the congressional majorities enjoyed by Republicans at the time. They were, after all, traditional GOP initiatives.
A third big Trump achievement, which the former president rarely talks about (because much of his base latched onto one more crazy-train conspiracy theory than he did), is Operation Warp Speed — the rapid creation, testing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. This was a big historical win for the country (and frankly humanity), but again, any Republican (or Democratic) president would have signed off on the project. There was no downside (politically or otherwise), and the science was fortunately already so close that it only took mere weeks before drug companies had moved to the vaccine-testing phase.
“But he fights!” many are fond of saying. “That’s what makes him different!”
True enough, he does a heck of a lot of fighting… with anyone and everyone. Republicans, Democrats, news-media figures, celebrities, world leaders (more often our allies than our rivals), grieving widows, Gold Star families — you name it! The man can always be counted on to bring a rhetorical gun to a knife-fight (or even just a tense picnic).
But to what end?
Being a “fighter” definitely helped him stand out enough to win the GOP nomination in 2016 (as it could very well in the 2024 primary), but what good has it ever been beyond that? If his big achievements in office were Republican lay-ups (which they were), what was the point of continuing to wave the broken neck of a beer-bottle at all comers for four long years? What did it achieve for America beyond more polarization?
“But he can win!” That’s the other big argument Trump enthusiasts have long insisted makes their guy a unique, indispensable force within the GOP. Only, that narrative too is fatally flawed.
Yes, Trump beat an absolutely horrific general-election opponent in 2016 — a terminally unlikable, transparently corrupt figure whose approval-ratings registered lower than just about every candidate from either party who ran that year. And yet, she still managed to get three million more votes than he did.
Of course, with our electoral college system, that didn’t matter. Neither did nearly every other Republican on the 2016 ballot outperforming Trump, who — by the way — earned a smaller percentage of overall votes than Mitt Romney did four years earlier.
What’s far more significant is that, while in office, Trump handed the GOP its biggest electoral defeats in almost 70 years, losing his party the House, Senate, and — despite enjoying the astronomical advantage of incumbency — the presidency itself. And he lost it to one of the most unimpressive Democratic nominees in my lifetime.
Heck, in his second presidential run, Trump still couldn’t even top Romney’s 2012 share, despite that now decade-old defeat remaining many Republicans’ ultimate definition of failure.
As Charlie Sheen used to say, “Winning!”
Now, two years later, fresh off Trump leading the primary-season purge of a number of Republican incumbents from office (for insufficient loyalty to him), he’s spending the final days of the midterms firing shots at GOP Governor Ron DeSantis and GOP Senate nominee Joe O'Dea (both locked in important races to be decided tomorrow), while polls show a number of Trump-selected Senate candidates (who he’s been withholding funds from) sharply under-performing other Republicans on their respective ballots.
The unnecessary midterm nail-biting Trump has caused may not conclusively matter in this “red wave” year (thanks to the Democrats), but the broader point is that no one paying attention to the electoral history of the last last six years can make a coherent case that Trump is better (or even equally) positioned to “win” than any fill-in-the-blank, adequately-adjusted human-being with an ‘R’ next to his or her name.
And with a fill-in-the-blank, adequately-adjusted human-being in leadership, you get some added advantages, including basic competency and decency, a tendency to value expert advice over that of throne-sniffing sycophants, and not even the slightest inclination to try and overturn U.S. democracy. Plus, such individuals typically don’t do over-the-top zany stuff like stealing top-secret government documents to apparently show off to their friends.
So, this once again begs the question… What exactly is the argument for another Trump anointment, beyond what Ross describes as “politician worship”?
Entertainment value? A belief that at 76 years old (he’ll be 78 in 2024), Trump has grown wiser, sharper, and more endearing with age?
As we head into the next presidential election-cycle, Republicans will have a real opportunity to pursue the types of changes they’ve been demanding since Joe Biden took office. And there’ll likely be a number of GOP alternatives who will not only fit the bill, but respect our country and Constitution, and won’t require national amnesia and a Democratic opponent as flawed as Hillary Clinton in order to win.
There are lots of options out there for worship and entertainment that have nothing to do with who leads a political party or the country. It’s time to get back to acting like it.