No American presidents of our time — perhaps no American presidents ever, with the possible exceptions of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt — have affected the environment of their successors as dramatically as Donald J. Trump has shaped the political world of Joe Biden.
Both President Washington, whose retirement established a two-term limit to the office that survived for a century and a half, and Roosevelt, whose shadow over William Howard Taft was an enduring presence, decided not to run for additional successive presidential terms. Trump is a persistent presence in the Biden years by hectoring his successor and laying the groundwork for a third presidential campaign. Just a few days ago, he declared in Orlando, “We won the first time, and the second time we won by even more. And it looks like we might have to think about very strongly a third time.”
No one — maybe not even Trump — knows whether the 45th president is going to try to become the 47th president, becoming the only chief executive besides Grover Cleveland to serve nonconsecutive terms, the only president since TR to enter presidential politics after leaving the White House, and joining Andrew Jackson, Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon as winners of three presidential nominations. No one said Trump was a conventional figure.
But then again, he has changed the nature of his party as much as Jackson, both Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan. Here’s proof: A generation ago, conservatives believed Reagan had given shape to the GOP for decades. Today, hardly anyone identifies as a Reagan conservative; the Republican Party is a Trump party. And another particle of proof: A Pew Research Center poll this autumn found that two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they want Trump to remain a major political figure, with more than two in five saying they want him to run again in 2024.
“That may change depending on whether he is facing criminal charges and what comes out of the investigation of Jan. 6,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the past several days, it became clear that many top Fox News commentators begged the Trump White House to intervene to halt the rampage at the Capitol.
Trump may be the same man who has been a fixture in American tabloids, reality television and penthouse-Manhattan social circles for decades, but one element of his profile has changed. The Edison Research Election Day 2016 exit poll of 24,557 Americans found that only 8% of voters thought Trump had “the right experience” to be president. That no longer would be the case if he runs in 2024. His experience in the White House is now his greatest calling card, at least for his followers. It also has the obverse effect for his detractors; they are determined to make sure he does not return to the White House. Trump unites both Democrats and Republicans.
If a third run at the White House is his hope, Trump is following a comeback path forged by Nixon, who lost the 1960 election by a small margin, was defeated in the 1962 California gubernatorial race and then — state by state, political contest by political contest — laid the groundwork in 1966 for his successful 1968 presidential candidacy. He appeared on behalf of 86 GOP candidates, building a fresh “New Nixon” political brand even as he worked for Republican unity. Trump’s involvement in 2022 elections on the local, state and national levels — including 10 gubernatorial races and several congressional contests — is designed to consolidate his support even as he creates divisions among Republicans.
“It was critical to Nixon winning the nomination and the 1968 election,” said Dwight Chapin, then a 25-year-old Nixon advance man, later his personal aide and finally deputy assistant to the president in the Watergate period. “It was central to removing the ‘loser’ label he acquired in 1960 and 1962.”
On Election Night, Nixon called dozens of victorious candidates, reminding them how cranked up the crowds were when he visited their campaigns. Trump claimed credit for Glenn Youngkin’s election as governor of Virginia even though he did not campaign in person for him.
Trump has a will to power unmatched in recent American political life, with the exception of Nixon. And while Nixon prevailed against Hubert Humphrey, who was a popular figure in 1960s America, Trump may be running against Biden, whose policies may be popular (63%, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll) but who himself is not (43% approval rating, according to the latest Wall Street Journal Poll, which puts a 2024 rematch between Trump and Biden at a dead heat).
“Nixon had political jobs that allowed him to say he had the right training for the presidency,” David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian and author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” said in an interview. “Trump didn’t have any of that. How the economy performed when he was president had nothing to do with experience in his casinos and hotels. What he does have is a certain will. Though he sometimes succeeded in an ugly or reckless way, he did succeed.”
He has succeeded in another fashion. The Wall Street Journal Poll shows that the public approves of the job Trump did as president between 2017 and 2021 by 7 percentage points more than they approve of the job Biden is doing now.
That doesn’t mean he won’t encounter resistance to renomination. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this year created the Champion American Values PAC to “protect American values and to help Republicans take back majorities” in Congress and build support in state legislatures. He is turning up in front of GOP audiences across the country. The recent book published by former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey suggests he may try another presidential campaign in 2024.
And a disastrous performance by Trump-endorsed candidates in next year’s midterm congressional elections may erode his power among Republicans. But today Trump’s profile in exile and Biden’s lagging poll numbers have created a political landscape that mirrors that of the twin early political states of Iowa and New Hampshire. It is frozen in place.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.