Donald Trump’s announcement of his third run for the White House comes when he is arguably in a weaker position than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the attack by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6th last year.
Polls suggest Trump is still the most popular figure in his Republican Party. But in the days following the midterm elections several leading Republicans contended it was time for the party to move on from the former president.
Some directly blamed him for the disappointing – to say the least – results in the elections that Republicans had expected to win handsomely. Many of Trump’s hand-picked candidates – who had expressed fealty to the former president and his assertions about a stolen election in 2020 – sank to defeat.
However, it should be remembered that Trump weathered the storm after January 6th. Within weeks senior figures such as Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, had travelled to Florida to make peace. Trump subsequently adopted a kingmaker role in trying to shape who would run for the party for key positions in the elections last week.
A recent book, This Will Not Pass, by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, quotes Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell as believing at the time that January 6th would lead to the end of Trump in the party.
“He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
A few weeks later McConnell voted not to convict Trump after he was impeached by the House of Representatives. A conviction by the Senate would more than likely have led to a second vote to bar Trump from holding federal office again.
At the time Republican leaders decided they needed Trump, his supporters and his fundraising engine. But there was no obvious alternative to Trump as the de facto party leader. That may no longer be the case.
For as Trump’s star has appeared to dim following the defeat of many of his promoted candidates in the midterms, the profile of potentially his biggest rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has soared.
DeSantis crushed his Democrat opponent in the election while a redrawing of constituencies, which he oversaw, contributed to the Republicans gaining a number of additional seats in the House of Representatives.
Trump in the aftermath of the election has been painted by some Republicans as being an anchor on the prospects of the party.
Outgoing Republican governor of Maryland Larry Hogan said at the weekend: “It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like, you know – three strikes, you’re out,”
Wyoming senator Cynthia Loomis told reporters on Monday: “Ron DeSantis is the leader of the Republican Party, whether he wants to be or not.”
Republican senator Mitt Romney drew parallels between Trump and a fading sports star, beyond his prime.
With his “big announcement” on Tuesday night, Trump is seeking again to reassert his dominance in Republican politics.
His aim in announcing his candidacy for the presidency so early would seem to be to dominate his party’s primary process before anyone else can get their campaign going.
He may be hoping it can also deflect or stave off some of the potentially serious legal difficulties he is facing regarding the January 6th attack and allegations that he sought to meddle in the Georgia elections in 2020 in order to “find” additional votes to allow him to win.
In reality Trump has been out campaigning for months without confirming his intentions.
The former president remains, as Hogan put it this week, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Would-be rivals know full well he will come after them, criticising them personally and sometimes their families.
He has already hinted at having damaging information about DeSantis that he could reveal.
The Florida governor is only 44 and could decide to hold off until 2028. However, his moment may be now and in six years there could very well be someone else in the limelight.
There may be others also planning to run for the 2024 Republican nomination.
Former vice-president Mike Pence on Monday revealed that he was having “prayerful consideration” about a bid for the White House. Others such as former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and former US secretary of state and CIA chief Mike Pompeo have also been mentioned as potential candidates.
If rivals consider Trump weakened, they may opt to run against him.
There are suggestions he may not have the bully pulpit he had the first time around in 2016. He remains banned – for the present, anyway – from Twitter and there have been indications the Murdoch media empire is coming to the end of the road with Trump.
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post last week mocked the former president as Trumpty Dumpty “who had a great fall”.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday said the party and the country would be better if Trump left the field to a new generation. It said if he threw his hat in the ring, the party would have to decide if it wanted to nominate a man most likely to lose and hand over control to the progressive left. A crucial question will be how the powerful Fox News network in the US will cover the Trump campaign. Will it be more sympathetic to the former president than to DeSantis, should he opt to run?
However, a large field of contenders could be to Trump’s benefit. He is still backed by a sizeable chunk of the Republican Party. If there is a big field, the anti-Trump vote could splinter, allowing him to come through the middle. Just like in 2016.