The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy

A supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin displays a flag showing Presidents Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln at a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va., on Nov. 1. (Cliff Owen/AP)
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Donald Trump has long been obsessed with his legacy in the business world. He complained that Forbes undervalued his wealth. He wrote books establishing himself as the ultimate dealmaker. He hoisted his name in giant letters atop buildings here and abroad. He installed his children in leadership roles to create a lasting dynasty.

Trump undoubtedly frets about his political legacy, too. Right now, he’ll be reviled for his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, leading to an assault on the U.S. Capitol. But over time, the success or failure of the political movement he spawned could significantly alter how history remembers Trump.

Trump always seemed envious of the man regarded as the greatest modern Republican, Ronald Reagan. Trump was never a Reagan acolyte. Politico noted in 2015 that Trump — back when Reagan was still president — “took out full-page ads in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post blasting Reagan and his team.”

Years later, seeking the presidency as a Republican, Trump often compared his campaign with Reagan’s, insisting his followers were more devoted. Trump allies Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie quoted Trump, as president, saying that “if my name weren’t Trump, if it were John Smith,” his critics within the GOP “would say I’m the greatest president in history and I blow Ronald Reagan away.”

On one front, Trump has bested Reagan, at least in the short term. This year, an Economist-YouGov poll showed Republicans choosing Trump over Reagan by a wide margin as the best president in history, a dramatic turnaround from just three years earlier. But will Trumpism last, as Reaganism lasted?

Reagan’s economic and social conservativism became woven into America’s fabric, with a significant impact on both Republicans and Democrats. A 2019 analysis in The Post by Ryan Grim noted, “Democratic leaders like [Nancy] Pelosi, Joe Biden, Steny Hoyer and Chuck Schumer were shaped by their traumatic political coming-of-age during the breakup of the New Deal coalition and the rise of Ronald Reagan — and the backlash that swept Democrats so thoroughly from power nearly 40 years ago.”

From Reagan through his ideological heirs George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Reagan-style Republicans held the White House for 20 out of 28 years. Even Democrat Bill Clinton’s two-term interruption saw a GOP takeover in Congress and the adoption of Reagan-style welfare reform, accompanied by Clinton’s declaration of surrender: “The era of big government is over.” And as many pundits observed at the time, even Democrat Barack Obama patterned much of his presidency on Reagan’s blueprint.

But consecutive losses to Obama by John McCain and Mitt Romney — campaigning as traditional Reagan Republicans — indicated that Reaganism was running out of steam. Nevertheless, the GOP lineup for 2016 looked much the same — with one glaring exception. “Donald Trump,” his Republican critics screamed ad nauseam, “is not a Reagan conservative!”

They were right. Unlike most Reagan Republicans, Trump pledged to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He blasted trade agreements that had been overwhelmingly passed with Republican support in Congress. He expressed an openness to same-sex relationships that was rare among Republican leaders, and when a controversy arose in North Carolina over a bathroom issue, Trump said that transgender people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.” His boastfulness and bombastic style were in stark contrast to Reagan’s humility and grace.

And GOP primary voters embraced him — conclusive evidence that Reaganism had lost its supremacy among grass-roots Republicans. In its place was Trumpism, a populist movement with an emphasis on middle American sensibilities, an “America First” foreign policy, the untethered consumption of U.S. fossil fuels to achieve energy independence, a dedication to ending illegal immigration, a pugilistic attitude toward a media establishment largely hostile to the GOP and outspoken opposition to cancel-culture wokeness and oppressive political correctness. Critics summed it up as racism.

Trumpism has already demonstrated an appeal beyond Trump. In the recent Virginia governor’s race, Republican Glenn Youngkin was smeared as a Trump clone, and the effort worked — although not as intended. Polling conducted for The Post and other media organizations presented two interesting findings: Trump remained personally unpopular, and 70 percent of voters agreed that “Youngkin’s ideas and policies were similar to Trump’s.”

Youngkin was victorious. Lesson: Trumpism, without Trump, is a winner.

If he runs again in 2024, Trump will almost certainly capture the GOP nomination. But he risks losing in November, permanently derailing his movement and cementing a legacy of disgrace. Others — who can win — are eager to pick up the banner of Trumpism and blaze a victorious trail. How Trump is remembered by history hinges on his willingness to clear the way.