The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump had his chance and blew it. His supporters deserve better.

President Donald Trump dances with first lady Melania Trump at the Liberty Ball in Washington after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Each passing day brings the country closer to the midterm elections and, even more significantly, Donald Trump’s almost certain declaration of his candidacy for presidency in 2024. Let’s hope he decides otherwise.

When Trump finally jumped into presidential politics with both feet in 2015 after a couple of earlier half-hearted stabs, I was intrigued. In a column for the local paper in southern Ohio where I was publisher and editor, I questioned Trump’s staying power, but noted, “It’s always fun to watch someone enter the political fray who doesn’t have the typical political background, doesn’t play by the rules, seems to march to his own drummer and rattles the old guard and many in the media.”

But by January 2016, I had recognized Trump’s inevitability as the Republican nominee, writing about a conversation with a friend who, like other old-school conservatives locally and nationally, “could not fathom a GOP presidential ticket led by Donald J. Trump.” My suggestion: “They should start fathoming.”

Nine months later, my newspaper became one of only six in the country to endorse Trump, leading to a rather shocking level of scrutiny for a small newspaper’s two-sentence endorsement. Trump’s world-shaking victory that November was exciting. After years of working in both journalism and politics, I was fascinated by someone breaking all the standard rules and succeeding. I was optimistic about the new kind of president Trump could become.

Think about it. As strange as it might sound now, Trump in 2017 enjoyed a rare chance to usher in a new era of bipartisanship. After all, he had little reason to feel beholden to a GOP establishment that had, in the worst cases, completely repudiated him, and in the best cases only grudgingly supported him. And his background featured close ties to the Democratic Party, ranging from being a registered Democrat to making numerous donations to various Democratic candidates and even having Bill and Hillary Clinton on hand at his 2005 wedding. As The Post summed it up in 2015, “In many ways, he’s been to the left of [Hillary] Clinton and even Bernie Sanders on some issues.”

Seldom had a president-elect been so well positioned to bring a fresh approach. Americans gave Trump a chance despite his drawbacks for one reason — they wanted change. Just a few months before the election, a CBS News-YouGov poll found that in Florida, for example, a majority of respondents said Clinton was better prepared for the presidency, but 65 percent said Trump would bring change, while only 33 percent said the same of Clinton — a sentiment reflected across battleground states.

Despite much media criticism of his positions, Trump’s main issues were important. Finally tackling illegal immigration is a goal supported by most Americans, who welcome migrants but agree they should be vetted. Bolstering U.S. energy independence and reworking trade deals were reasonable goals. Defending the traditional beliefs of Middle America without belittling movements reflective of changing times was a balance Trump seemed poised to achieve. I envisioned Trump first trying to work with GOP leaders in Congress but, failing that, moving effortlessly across the aisle to partner with Democrats to achieve his goals.

What happened? Choose your theory. The groundwork for impeachment was laid by his enemies even before he took office. Trump was hamstrung by endless investigations; almost daily conniptions over his politically incorrect, plain-spoken utterances and tweets; an impeachment over a phone call with the Ukrainian president that should have brought a censure resolution at most; and a final year dominated by a novel coronavirus that was politicized as a weapon against him.

Both parties are so beholden to the extremes of their base that any hint of working with the other side risks fierce retribution. Don’t let President Barack Obama succeed. Don’t let Trump succeed. Don’t let President Biden succeed. It never ends. But instead of ignoring the pettiness and focusing on his agenda, Trump wallowed in self-pity. Instead of trying to expand his base, Trump chose to alienate even more Americans. And worst of all, when most Americans finally decided that Trump was never going to rise to the occasion and rejected him at the ballot box in 2020, he refused to accept the verdict, incited a riot at the Capitol and encouraged endless election challenges in state after state.

I don’t regret giving Trump a chance. I regret that he squandered the golden opportunity he was handed to be a transformative president. Trump is likely on the verge of declaring another White House run, but the millions of Americans who believed in him deserve someone more effective in fighting for the issues he highlighted. Trump had his chance, and he blew it. He should move on, as should his supporters.