Trump International Hotel and Tower, Chicago
What did Donald Trump read for his bedtime story on Christmas Eve? What he should have read, of course, was that wonderful Dickens tale A Christmas Carol. Not just for its redemptive message, but much more, for its stern warnings. The naughty deeds of your past have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt you; even presidents who never ever, ever, lost the election.
Not that Donald is not still the most powerful man in the Republican Party. He bestrides the party he forced into his own image and there are few who would gainsay him. Yet, like every wise leader and every ruthless dictator, Donald listens to the wind and the rustling of the grasses and the soft footsteps in the hall. And like Mr Scrooge, he must wonder what is going on that he cannot hear and cannot see.
On the face of it, the Republicans are doing well. In every electoral test so far they have outperformed the Democrats. Joe Biden, a really top-class political operator, can read the winds much better than Mr Trump, and he knows the outlook is not good; his vice president, his budget problems, and Covid are not going to go away this year (well, Vice-President Harris might, but you know what we mean). Over this winter period the President has been pacing himself, resting, and looking somewhat reenergised. He has put himself about, most notably appearing pre-Christmas at a celebration of Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell. Actually, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea; those supremely talented ladies cannot help but show their age (Midler is 76 and Mitchell 78; neither are very mobile). Maybe the idea was to make the President look sprightly but it probably just reminded the voters that he is older than they are. But he undoubtedly enjoyed the evening, scrubbed up well in black tie, and made the subliminal point that Mr Trump did not do this sort of thing.
Last week he was able to point up something his predecessor as President did do. A year ago The Donald refused to accept the election result and encouraged an invasion of Congress; cue the extraordinary scenes of a bunch of hoods running riot in the seat of government. It was the very thing his opponents said he would do if he gained office; to have not done it would have been a very smart move to prove himself a constitutionalist and a regular American. But he did it; an act of extraordinary stupidity. His grip on the GOP however remains and most Republicans (though by no means all) swear fealty to their fallen President. But increasingly there is a feeling that those loyalty oaths are being sworn with fingers crossed behind backs.
Mr Trump knows that the events of January 6th 2021 are a problem; an issue that will not go away. He can hear the whispered “buts…” when the oaths are sworn. He has two great strengths; one is money, still at his disposal in large quantities (do not under-estimate the importance of committed funding in American politics, though Bernie Saunders in 2016 showed there are other ways); and the other is the lack of a visible alternative winning candidate for 2024. But neither of these can be absolutely relied upon to give Mr Trump a clear run for the nomination in 2024.
Donald will not want to throw too much of his own money at a re-election run, especially in the primary stages. He may also be finding cash a bit tighter than it was, though that is a story that will unfold itself, if true. He certainly has a growing problem in New York, the seat of his business empire but very much a Democrat state. There are some rising district attorneys that would love to further their careers by firing a few damaging broadsides into the good ship Trump and its captain. These actions, usually alleging persistent under-payment of tax, have been rumbling away without much impact for years, but Letitia James, the New York Attorney General, has this autumn been looking at the way the Trump Organisation values its properties. Or two ways, Ms James alleges, one for the tax return (low), and another for bankers (high) to persuade them their loans are well collateralised. Writs are flying, indictments are being drafted, and trouble is on its way. Big trouble maybe; very big trouble if Mr Trump gets caught in this, as it could lead to his disqualification as a candidate for public office. His cancellation of a major speaking engagement on the anniversary of the Capitol Building invasion also suggests that The Donald is at last understanding his own potential weaknesses.
Third party funding is not that certain an asset either. It wants to back the winner, of course, and can rapidly melt away if the favourite in the race changes. In the same way, viable alternative candidates may be low-key now, but if enough power brokers start to think the same thing, they will suddenly appear. Indeed, two have appeared, tussling in a gentlemanly way although not so as to suggest they do not expect Mr Trump to run. The best known is Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, and the other his counterpart in Texas, Greg Abbott, two men from somewhat similar backgrounds running large states very successfully, both light-touch on Covid measures in defiance of Federal guidance, both liberal (i.e. minimal government Republicans). Let’s add a third Governor, the newly elected (last November) Glenn Youngkin, Governor of Virginia, who though new to the job seems competent, confident, and liberal, and has said nothing about running in 2024 but is very ambitious.
Each of these men have each managed to get Trump’s endorsement without having much to do with him. (Mr Abbott is even continuing to extend the Mexican wall, thus simultaneously supporting the Trump memory, pursuing a popular policy, and denying V-P Harris’s competence.) Somehow, they pay respect to the ex-President but don’t invite him round for supper, or, more to the point, appear by his side. And though acknowledging his Presidency, all are in practice their own men in their Governorship jobs. To keep The Donald at a distance but not incur his wrath suggests skill, but also suggests that Mr Trump is happy keeping himself to himself more than his wilder adherents – and the media – might suggest.
That might be because he thinks strategically he might need one of these high-profile successful Republicans as a Vice Presidential running mate. Or it might be that he does not want to run again, but wants to be able to endorse one to continue his legacy. There are plenty of other possible of course. Former Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo has heavily hinted that he would make a run in 2024, as has V-P Mike Pence. Chris Christy, formerly Governor of New Jersey, is another semi- declared contender, so is Nikki Haley (ex Governor of South Carolina) and a Trump ambassador, and an outside possibility still is Donald Trump. Donald Trump, junior, that is. Or indeed, Ivanka Trump, the ex-Presidents daughter. Out of these, only Mike Pence has cut himself from the ex-President entirely, though Mr Christie is heading that way. There are others out there; every serious politician of course wants the job, but those such as Senators Ted Cruz and Liz Cheyney are seen as no longer serious.
That list demonstrates perhaps that any candidate will find it difficult to win the nomination without a blessing from Mr Trump (he is still the darling of many party workers), but may find it difficult to win the Presidency if too identified with him. (A recent opinion poll does suggest that only 55% of voters thought President Biden won a fair victory in 2020, so maybe Trumpian identification will not be that damaging.) Also, do not overlook that the Trump presidency was not unsuccessful. Peace abroad and tax cuts at home are never unpopular, and the Biden legacy, on present evidence, could make the Trump governance look good, even on Covid.
But when the Democrat campaign begins in 2024 those scenes of violence in the heart of American democracy will play over and over; certainly if D Trump senior is the GOP candidate, and even if he isn’t. So any candidate will have to show that he is not a Trump stooge or acolyte, but not so as to upset Mr Trump himself. Whatever the other attributes of the successful candidate, he is certainly going to have to be a remarkably skilled political operator. Or be a Trump.