For nearly seven years, Donald Trump has dwelt on a plan so beyond political norms that it is almost impossible to analyze it through traditional frames of reference. But if we can put aside the sheer otherworldliness of his conduct – John Kelly, his former chief of staff, called him “the most flawed individual I have ever met” – there is an eye-opening aspect of Trump’s candidacy. Trump is the first ex-president in over 130 years to seek revenge against his victorious rival.
There are many nations where fighters clash again and again. In France, Emmanuel Macron and Marine LePen were electoral opponents last year, five years after they first met, with similar results; such rematches are commonplace in parliamentary systems. But here?
Populist great William Jennings Bryan faced President William McKinley in 1896 and 1900 and lost both times; the next rematch was Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson; Ike was victorious in 1952 and 1956. Ever since Grover Cleveland took over the White House from Benjamin Harrison in 1892, a defeated president has not sought to oust the president who ousted him. (When Theodore Roosevelt ran against William Howard Taft in 1912, it was an intra-party battle between former allies. In 1940, Herbert Hoover attempted to mount a comeback against FDR which met with less than enthusiastic among Republicans and he did not win the nomination). The prospect of an ex-president actively campaigning for the White House is something no one alive today has ever seen.
What makes this even more unprecedented is how Republicans view the 45th president. In modern times, before the 2020 election, all but one defeated incumbent (Gerald Ford) have lost the White House decisively. Taft in 1912 finished third behind Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, winning a grand total of eight electoral votes. Hoover in 1932 won only six states, losing by 18 points in the popular vote. Jimmy Carter lost the electoral vote 489-89, winning just six states. With these results, the defeated presidents would have had to face a steep climb trying to convince their party to give them another chance. They were, as Trump might say, losers.
Trump’s position with Republicans is very different. Sure, Trump lost the 2020 popular vote by seven million votes, but Republicans can look at the wafer-thin margins in the (also decisive) Electoral College tally; a change of 44,000 votes in three states – Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona – would have meant a 269-269 tie, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where a majority of delegations would likely have given Trump the presidency .
This is only part of the picture; by a nearly two-to-one margin, Republicans believe the election was stolen — that Trump is in fact the rightful president. Even though his approval rating falls below 30 percent among all voters, his approval rating among Republicans remains at or near 80 percent.
In a sense, then, the Republican base sees Trump less as a presidential candidate than as the real president, deprived of office by fraud. And this despite the obvious lack of evidence of election fraud, a fact that even many Fox commentators privately acknowledged despite what they told their viewers, as the Dominion lawsuit made clear.
Moreover, history shows that political parties simply do not abandon their presidents, even when their prospects of victory are slim. The last time the country’s chief executive was denied re-nomination was Chester Arthur in 1884 (Ronald Reagan nearly overthrew Ford in 1976; Ford, like Arthur, was an unelected president). Given the Trump-era Bizarro World quality, it seems almost fitting for Republicans to stand behind their “president,” whom they see as the candidate who really won last time around.
That said, is it really necessary to note that this isn’t a prediction for who will win the GOP nomination? It’s entirely possible that one or two or three indictments — on more serious issues than silencing money from a porn star — could change Republican minds. So might a widespread campaign among GOP officials that a Trump nomination would doom the party to defeat in November (although that would require Trump’s haters to have the courage to mention his name when they plead this case).
For now, however, many Republicans seem to view Donald Trump not just as their voice or their champion, but also as their president.