Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It looks like former President Donald Trump is going to launch another bid for the White House. On Thursday, Trump told his followers to “get ready” for his return to the presidential campaign trail – and top aides have been eyeing November 14 as a potential launch date, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump, it seems, is hoping to be the first person since President Grover Cleveland to win two non-consecutive elections.
While Trump has been hinting at another run for months, the news would certainly send shockwaves through the political world. Trump is arguably one of the most controversial and destabilizing political leader in contemporary US history. And as we have seen with recent Supreme Court decisions like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – as well as the toxic rhetoric and support for conspiracy theories within the GOP – his presidency was enormously consequential.
While there was an audible sigh of relief in many parts of the country after President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, some Democrats might feel that Trump’s reemergence is good news for the party. After all, Biden, who has said it is his “intention” to run again, seems to have the magic formula for defeating Trump. The contrast that he automatically presents – a stable, experienced and low-key political leader– is powerful. Trump’s presence on the campaign trail would likely also unite Democrats behind Biden and allow the President to raise significant campaign funds.
But Democrats should not underestimate the threat that Trump poses.
If the midterm campaigns have shown the Democrats anything, it is that the Republicans remain a strongly united party. Very little can shake that unity. After Trump left the White House, the party didn’t change in substantive ways and the “Never Trump” contingent failed to emerge as a dominant force. Indeed, officials such as Congresswoman Liz Cheney were purged from the party.
Even with unconventional and deeply flawed candidates such as Herschel Walker and Dr. Mehmet Oz running for key Senate seats, recent polls are showing that the GOP is in relatively good shape overall going into the midterm election on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Democrats are scrambling to defend several seats and even candidates in reliably blue states such as New York are at risk.
If Republicans do well next week, possibly retaking control of the House and Senate, members of the party will surely feel confident about amping up their culture wars and economic talking points going into 2024. And given the number of election-denying candidates in the midterms, a strong showing will likely create the tailwinds for the GOP to unite behind Trump. Although there has been copious speculation about the rise of other Trump-like Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, it’s likely they will look “liddle” once the former President formally reenters the political arena – as his formidable opponents learned in the 2016 Republican primaries.
A GOP midterm victory would also embolden Trump himself. At this point, he has largely escaped accountability. Despite ongoing criminal investigations and the House select committee investigating January 6, Trump is still a viable political figure.
And if Trump announces his candidacy, the Department of Justice is weighing the possibility of announcing a special counsel to oversee two sprawling federal investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his alleged mishandling of national security documents kept at Mar-a-Lago. But that’s unlikely to stop Trump; we’ve seen his relentless attacks on former special counsel Robert Mueller, who oversaw the Russia investigation. And once Trump is formally a candidate, it will make prosecuting him all the more difficult. Trump, a master of playing the victim, is sure to claim (as he has in the past) that any investigation is simply a politically motivated “witch hunt” intended to take him out of the running.
If Trump avoids prosecution, he’d surely unleash a fierce assault on the President, who could very well still be struggling with a shaky economy and divisions within his own party. And if election deniers enter positions of power after the midterms, and Trump escapes any punishment for January 6, it’s likely he will take advantage of the loyalists who have infiltrated state and local election offices to make sure that victory is his. Trump will also come to the race having been to this rodeo before, which will mean he can perfect the technique and rhetoric that put him into office in 2016. And now that Elon Musk has purchased Twitter, Trump could be reinstated – giving him a way to direct and shape the media conversation once again. (Trump, who founded Truth Social, where he has been active since he was banned from Twitter, has not publicly indicated that he will return).
Finally, it’s worth noting that a midterm win would energize Republican voters like little else. The out-party is often more motivated and prepared for political battle than the party of the incumbent, which at some level is worn down by the realities of governance.
But the 2024 election will be as much about Biden as it will be about Trump. While Biden can tout a successful legislative record that includes the Inflation Reduction Act and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, he will go into 2024 with the baggage that plagues any incumbent. The problems that he has struggled with, including inflation and the fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be part of the conversation in a way that they were not four years ago. If he runs, Biden will no longer be campaigning to be the new boss – he is the boss.
The midterms have shown that the Democrats’ focus on the radical nature of the GOP and the dangers posed to democracy are not necessarily enough to rally voters. These dangers have been outlined many times over, including in Biden’s closing speech Wednesday, but Democrats are nonetheless struggling to maintain power.
Of course, the fact that Trump poses a very serious threat in 2024 doesn’t mean he will win. Trump had turned off many independents and even some Republicans by 2020 and it remains unclear if he can win their support in crucial swing states. And as we have seen with President Barack Obama’s run against Mitt Romney in 2012, presidents who have faced tough reelection campaigns can still find a path to victory.