The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The looming chaos of Trump 2024

Former president Donald Trump addresses supporters during a “Save America” rally Aug. 21 in Cullman, Ala. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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There is nothing substantively different about what Donald Trump is now than what he was in 2015.

He is as indifferent to the expectations of elected leadership as he ever was, choosing to recognize the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a (presumably paid) gig providing commentary for a boxing match while the other living U.S. presidents visit memorials to those killed on that day. Trump’s political messaging is also the same, centered almost exclusively on a combination of Democrats are doing it wrong and I would do it perfectly, a rhetorical pairing left undamaged by the realities of his presidency. There was never any articulated policy platform from Trump (or his party) in 2020, and there isn’t one now. He wants to be president again, it seems, for the same reason that he did six years ago: because it’s a mark of success and a conduit of power.

But there have been significant changes that surround Trump, changes that overlap with one another. The first is that his voice has lost volume, thanks to his ouster from social media, pushed to interviews with right-wing media outlets and frequent tweet-like statements that his aides hope to present as serious political commentary. The other is that Trump now also has a much larger, much more energetic base of support relative to 2016, one large enough that thousands of people showed up on Jan. 6 to applaud his false claims about why he lost the 2020 election and one large enough that hundreds of them then tried to forcibly prevent Trump from losing the power that the electoral college had handed him in 2016.

So what happens if and when he announces that he's going to seek the Republican nomination in 2024?

To be clear, this is not as certain as it might seem. We all should have learned in 2015 that predicting Trump won’t run is a fool’s game, but it does seem like Trump enjoys campaigning far more than he did actually having to be president. He liked Space Force and “Hail to the Chief” and pardoning his allies and being the guy who got to give the thumbs down to international terrorists, yes, but there was never any indication that he enjoyed having to be responsible for a pandemic or a hurricane in Puerto Rico. To the extent that he had desired policy outcomes, they were mostly derivations of “undercut the ways that government inconveniences Donald Trump personally.” Is the fun of running worth the downside of possibly winning?

For months, I assumed that the presence of the word “possibly” in that sentence would disincline Trump from running. Does he want to be the Buffalo Bills of the presidential popular vote? With President Biden's recent downturn in the polls, though, Trump may be feeling more chuffed about his odds. I thought it possible he'd flirt with running for the next few years, ultimately settling on being the kingmaker in the primaries. But there are valid motivations for him to declare sooner rather than later that may set him on a trajectory from which he doesn't ultimately swerve.

One reason Trump might want to run is that it challenges the media to shift away from covering him as tangential to the political debate. If he runs, he's front-runner and the most likely opponent Biden would face in 2024. His statements are not just complaints from the former president but attacks from the likely Republican nominee. It would also begin to force those who are both frustrated with Biden and wary of Trump to pick sides.

Want to know how mainstream conservative media might treat a Trump candidacy? Consider a column from the Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins Jr. Jenkins has long been an enemy-of-my-enemy defender of Trump. (“Having the right enemies made him president in the first place,” Jenkins wrote on Jan. 5.) On Tuesday, Jenkins argued that Biden’s failures had positioned Trump well for a told-you-so tour — though Jenkins’s presentation of Biden’s failures is intentionally generous.

Lines like this, though, show the willingness of some to forgive even Trump's most flagrant and dangerous dishonesty:

“America doesn’t feel noticeably less chaotic with him out of the picture. A cynic might also notice that, for all his bluster, Mr. Trump generally refrained from letting himself be pinned down on any specific allegation of voter fraud. It was always ‘people tell me’ or ‘what I hear.’ So Mr. Trump perhaps did not completely throw away the possibility of digging out from under his post-election behavior, with some typically brazen piece of Trump revisionism.”

This is delusional. Trump has repeatedly made concrete claims about fraud that have been debunked. He made specific claims in his speech before the rioters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. He made specific claims when pressing authorities in Georgia to subvert the election results. He's made specific claims in the speeches he's given since he lost, over and over again, none of them proven. Trump can't pivot away from his fraud claims no matter how much Jenkins wishes he would. He couldn't even if he wanted to.

But he clearly doesn’t want to. He was out there making new claims about fraud just this week, part of his effort to convince his supporters and himself that he didn’t actually lose in 2020 at all. If Trump runs for president in 2024, he’s running as the guy who tried to steal the election from Biden as he claimed that Biden had stolen it from him. He’s running not as he did in 2015, as an outsider to the politics game. He’s running, instead, as a representation of an anti-democratic undercurrent in right-wing politics with the support of people who’ve triggered repeated warnings from law enforcement about their willingness to use violence in defense of Trump’s claims.

Remember what happened when Trump ran in 2015 and 2016? He repeatedly encouraged his supporters both tacitly and explicitly to physically attack the demonstrators who showed up at his rallies. One study found a link between his rallies and reported assaults.

That was when he was a candidate on his way to losing the popular vote by a bigger margin than any elected president in history. In 2020, he received more votes than any prior incumbent president, as he will be the first to mention. This is in part a function of population growth, but it's also a function of his building more energetic support during his time in office. It's a base that's comfortable with Trump's dishonesty and conspiracy theories in a way it wasn't in 2015. It's a base whose energy manifests in large rallies at which attendees berate the media. It manifested on Jan. 6 at his rally at the White House and at the Capitol. It manifests in the response to the arrests that followed the Capitol riot and in the emerging argument that those who were arrested are the equivalent of political prisoners. Law enforcement is warning about the danger of an upcoming D.C. rally centered on those arrests.

Trump has always been as much a follower of the fringe right’s obsessions as a driver of them. He won in 2016 in part because he reflected the complaints of the far-right back at them, unbound by the political propriety of doing so. He is championed by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys in part because they see him as a vehicle for their desired outcomes, not because he inspires the outcomes they seek. His 2016 election helped the illiberal far-right establish a beachhead in traditional politics, and he spent four years expanding that. The aftermath of his loss has not seen the Republican establishment retake that terrain but, instead, a further expansion of his claims and territorial disputes over what he commanded.

When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the coverage evolved from treating him as a novelty to treating him as a surprising contender to folding him into traditional coverage patterns, usually undeservedly. If he announces his 2024 candidacy shortly, how will he be covered? As another presidential contender? As a guy who tried his hardest, however shambolically, to steal the 2020 election? As someone who isn’t Biden, so: good enough?

America had never seen a candidate like Trump in 2016. If he runs in 2024, even without his approach to politics changing, he’ll again be a candidate unlike any who has come before. And again he’ll catch much of the country unprepared.