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Most of us have bombed an assignment, be it a spelling test we forgot to cram for back in elementary school, a college exam that we just didn’t understand, or a work project with a deadline that we blew off until it was too late. Most of us slink away, vowing to do better next time and hoping it doesn’t define us.
Not Donald Trump.
On Tuesday night, the ex-President stood at the front of what these days is his at-the-ready classroom of Mar-a-Lago and made official what he’s been teasing for months. The twice-impeached provocateur whose final days in office inspired a mob to besiege the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn his loss in 2020, will try again in 2024. And, judging from his rhetoric and tone, he’s going to run the same campaign as before—the one that rendered him a loser. After all, any change would require an admission that the race he ran in 2020 was a clunker.
Put another way: Trump is the student who demands a chance to retake a test he failed, but has zero plans to do the reading, review the study guides, or even bring a pencil. To Trump’s mind, his gut holds the answers even if the proctors with red pens—in this case, the American electorate—have a different barometer of success in mind. With signature bravado, Trump is of the mind that if he can just find a different teaching assistant who will fall for his charms, he can get across the finish line with the same answers but more selling swagger.
This strategy has a number of flaws, not the least of which is that many of the Republican Party’s leaders fault him for last Tuesday’s electoral losses in an environment that should have favored the GOP. A defiant Trump insisted on Wednesday that he had 232 wins and a relatively small 22 losses. Left unsaid? Trump’s hand-picked candidates for gigs like Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Nevada senator; Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin governor; and secretaries of state in Wisconsin and Arizona all lost marquee races. And most of the wins Trump took credit for would have happened without his endorsement. Around D.C., the ongoing joke was that Trump nominated winning dogcatchers but not actual lawmakers.
But this is classic Trump. An outcome can still be a win as long as he can convince the public the outcome was exactly as planned. And, as he stood in his Palm Beach, Fla., ballroom under chintzed chandeliers and klieg lights, the New York real estate hype man said Republicans erred in not just saying a House majority was the winning outcome all along.
“We have taken over Congress,” Trump crowed, even though the math was still out at that hour. “I told them, I said, if you just keep a little bit lower standard, you’re going to have a big victory. … If you win by two seats, be happy.”
For anyone who covered Trump since his 2015 descent via golden escalator to the lobby of Trump Tower for a visceral speech that set the tone of his entire campaign and presidency, the rhetoric Tuesday night was as expected. There were rifts on China and a border wall, “the blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities” and Democrats’ weak-on-crime posture, a volley against the “fake news” even though he insisted he wouldn’t use that slur on such an “elegant night.” It was a raft of performance art aimed at his Make America Great Again base, laden with spite for immigrant caravans carrying “savages,” contempt for educators building inclusive spaces for transgender students and those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, and drug dealers.
But plenty has changed since his first national introduction. He, his family, and his companies are all facing scores of criminal and civil investigations—including one featuring classified documents allegedly recovered from the same private club where Trump chose to begin his own comeback Tuesday night. But, true to form, Trump mocked the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago: “I’m a victim. Let me tell you,” Trump said, returning to his favorite Soviet-era tactic of whataboutism. “The raid of a very beautiful house that sits right here, the raid of Mar-a-Lago. Think of it. I said, why didn’t you raid Bush’s place? Why didn’t you raid Clinton? 32,000 emails! Why didn’t you do Obama, who took a lot of things with him?” (Hint: Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or doesn’t care that these sideshows are not true.)
Trump may be right when he said he was the only Republican who could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. But that test has long expired, and Trump has shown he simply can’t ace a quiz with Joe Biden, who is still telling his aides and reporters to expect a 2024 campaign eventually. Republicans aren’t exactly ready to bet that Trump will spend the time to learn enough for his next exam, especially since he’s barely changed his setlist from 2016 to 2020 or even 2022.
Republicans suffered losses in 2018, 2020, and now 2022 under Trump’s auspices. The lone major Republican win in 2021 came from Republican Glenn Youngkin, a figure who found the way to embrace Trumpism but keep away from Trump himself. Youngkin, of course, is considering a run of his own in 2024, as are a number of Governors—including chief Trump threat, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ask anyone who has spent time reporting on Republican rallies in this cycle, there’s an admiration for Trump in the crowds but not necessarily an appetite for a return to his baggage. Instead, the folks who wait for hours to hear candidates in states like Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin say they want to see DeSantis, a Trump-style candidate without the headaches inherent to Trump himself. You can love his moxy without having to excuse when he gets too far over his skis and snowballs down the mountain.
Still, failure isn’t in Trump’s vocabulary. Cleverness, however, is. Just as he suggested his predecessors engaged in the very crimes the FBI is investigating inside the Trump orbit, the ex-President used his own campaign launch event—one where he had absolute control over the words coming from his mouth—to suggest China had meddled to help Biden. “Many people think that because of this, China played a very active role in the 2020 election,” Trump said. “Just saying, just saying. I’m sure that didn’t happen.” This is the type of overreach that has many Republicans asking if they really have to muzzle themselves for another two or even six years.
The sharp tongue and smooth style for sure helped Trump win an improbable race in 2016 and kept him close in 2020. But Republicans haven’t seen him learn any new tricks, and heading into 2024, even an early showing to schedule his classes might not be enough if he doesn’t actually do his homework. And, judging from his all-too-familiar throwback monologue, Trump hasn’t spent any time over the last two years thinking of how he might fill in the exam booklet differently this time around.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.