Revenge of the Donald
About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
Losers don’t usually get a second chance in modern U.S. presidential politics. Back in the days of nominating conventions and party bosses, an Adlai Stevenson or a Thomas Dewey could gain two consecutive nominations. Richard Nixon actually won the presidency in 1968 after losing in 1960. But since the coming of primary contests, it’s win—or retire. Even Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000, was debarred in 2004.
Donald Trump, who upended so many previous presidential precedents, now seems likely to upend one more. Trump has to be considered the massive front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. He’s already running hard, and he’s already dominating the field. Fox News’s intense promotion of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as an alternative to Trump is not working out any better in 2024 than its similar effort on behalf of then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2016. Trump dominates in the polls. He has the lead in fundraising. Down-ballot races turn on loyalty to Trump. Potential rivals vow they will not run for president if Trump does.
It’s an amazing spectacle, because Donald Trump was no ordinary political loser. He was a huge political loser. He lost the popular vote in two consecutive presidential elections, the second time by a margin of 8 million votes. He led his party to a brutal midterm defeat in 2018 amid the strongest economy since the late 1990s. He was the first president to have been impeached twice, the second time for inciting a mob to invade and attack Congress to overturn a national election result. He now faces more criminal and civil jeopardy than Richard Nixon did ahead of his presidential pardon in 1974.
Trump is campaigning on two themes: nostalgia for the strong pre-pandemic economy, plus resentment over the outcome of the vote in 2020. It’s not much, but it’s enough—enough to force DeSantis, the would-be Trump replacement, into desperate stunts to prove himself Trumpier than Trump: handing out $5,000 rewards to cops who refuse vaccination; identifying himself with a state surgeon general who advises anti-vaxxers to trust their “intuitions.”
But nobody is Trumpier than Trump. There’s no Trumpism that’s bigger than Trump. “It’s about a movement, not a man” is a venerable cliché applied to populist politics. In this case, though, it’s about a man, not a movement. In 2016, Trump endorsed allowing transgender people to “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.” In 2017, he crammed through a huge tax cut for the rich. On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was negotiating a giveaway trade deal with China. Those are all supposed populist no-no’s. Trump followers paid no mind. If Trump does it, it’s okay. They don’t much care about the content of his politics. They care about its mood.
Anybody who follows politics even casually can see the Trump comeback emerging. Well-sourced reporters carefully detail the comeback’s mechanics. But almost nobody is prepared for the malicious destructiveness of what is to come.
In a 2011 speech, Donald Trump explained his single top rule in life: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He’s repeated the same idea over and over again in speeches, tweets, and books published under his byline. In 2024, the targets of Trump’s revenge are American law and American democracy. At a September 25 rally in Perry, Georgia, Trump excoriated state Republican officials who failed to subvert the state election for him. In Iowa two weeks later, Trump delivered more attacks on the 2020 election process, focusing this time on state Republicans who failed to steal Arizona for him.
In 2016 and through the early part of Trump’s presidency, there was often an edge of Friars Club comedy to Trump’s rally performances: not very nice comedy, a little out of style in tone and sensibility, but comedy all the same. Not in 2021. Now it’s all dark and bitter.
Here’s video from a Georgia television station of the entirety of Trump’s Perry rally. Trump’s own speech starts at 1:37:38. Watch as much as you can stand and tell me if you detect even a moment of humor, Friars Club or otherwise. The most quoted bit—Trump’s quasi-endorsement of the Democrat Stacey Abrams as a better governor for Georgia than the Republican Brian Kemp—is not any kind of joke. It’s a deliberately delivered challenge, lower jaw jutting beyond the upper teeth, eyes slitted with anger.
That’s the guy who wants to return as the 47th president.
In Trump’s first term, the country was protected to some degree by his ignorance and ineptitude. He kept trying to do bad things, but it took him a while to figure out how the controls operated, where the kill-switches were located. By the time of his attempt to extort the Ukrainian president, in 2019, Trump had achieved a higher degree of mastery. But by then it was too late. Then the pandemic struck, and Trump bumped into a new wall of failure. In a second Trump presidency, however, the burglars will arrive already knowing how to bypass the alarms and disable the locks. He’ll understand that it’s not enough to install an ally as attorney general—he must control the secondary and tertiary ranks of the Justice Department too. He won’t allow himself to be talked into another chief of staff with an independent sense of duty, such as John Kelly, who averted much harm from the middle of 2017 to the beginning of 2019. It’ll be Mark Meadows types from day one to day last. And he’ll bring with them a new generation of Republican officeholders whose top priority will be rearranging their states’ election laws so that Republicans do not lose power even if they lose the vote.
That’s the future Trump is preparing.