In announcing his candidacy Tuesday night, former President Trump returned to a familiar tactic — meeting weakness with arrogance.
“In order to make America great and glorious again, tonight I will be announcing my candidacy for president,” Trump said. “I run because I believe the world has yet to see the reality and glory of what this nation can be.”
Trump, who has been impeached twice and under investigation for trying to overturn the 2020 election, made the unprecedented announcement from his stunning Florida home to an audience of supporters. For more than an hour, he oscillated between reading the teleprompter and speaking off the cuff — mixing boasts, insults, promises, grievances, threats and plotting, including the evidence-free insinuation that China meddled in the 2020 election.
He has phrased his administration in idyll terms, shrugging off criticism about his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the dysfunction that led to his electoral defeat. He painted a bleak picture of the Biden administration, vowing to undo nearly everything his successor did.
“We were a strong nation, and most importantly, we were a free nation,” Trump said. But we are now a nation in decline. We are a failed state. For millions of Americans, the past two years under Joe Biden have been a time of pain, hardship, anxiety, and despair.”
Many lines were literally lifted from the patter he had developed over the past six years at rallies and speeches. He promised the death penalty for drug dealers, pledged to send in federal law enforcement to enforce order in American cities, denounced the critical race theory, encouraged trade tariffs, and called illegal immigration one of the nation’s most pressing problems.
“We have no idea who they are and where they come from,” he said of the immigrants. We have no idea what is happening to our country. We are poisoned.”
Trump has been here before, seen as weak by his opponents and seen as distracted by allies or worse, only to reemerge with the help of his loyal base. The question this time around is whether Republican leaders, enraged after three disappointing elections in which the GOP underperformed, will have the nerve and the ability to thwart Trump.
“It’s clearly weaker today than it was a week ago,” said Wyatt Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The real question is how weaker it is, and we just don’t know that.”
Trump’s survival in power has become a perennial problem for his party as he wields outsized influence in the Republican primaries while proving to be a handicap in the general election.
Most losing presidential candidates leave center stage, at least for a while. Former President Carter, another one-term president, dropped out of partisan politics. After his defeat in the closely contested 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore threw his energy into environmental activism. Mitt Romney, who lost the 2012 presidential election, reconfigured himself as a senator. Only one president, Grover Cleveland, has served two non-consecutive terms, in more than a century.
Trump, having inspired an angry mob to storm the Capitol after losing in 2020 to Democrat Joe Biden, has continued to lie that he won the election. He made loyalty to this lie a litmus test for candidates in the Republican primaries. However, last week voters rejected several high-profile candidates he supported in key swing states. It was a stunning series of setbacks for a party that had hoped to take advantage of a favorable electoral environment.
“With inflation [at] It’s the highest level in 40 years, crime is out of control in major cities, borders are still porous, and Biden’s approval rating is at historic lows, said Ayres, Republicans should have run away after this election.
In his speech, Trump acknowledged that the party should have done better. But he refused to take the blame, insisting that his successes, including predicting Republican control of the House, had not been appreciated.
“They say, ‘Let’s win 40 seats,'” Trump said. “If you win two seats, be happy.”
By refusing to accept his defeat in 2020 and then pressuring his vice president to overturn the result, Trump also delayed the traditional process in which losing parties assess their policy positions and tactics in hopes of regaining voter confidence. The GOP, which failed to win control of the Senate and is likely to win the House by only a narrow margin, is instead mired in internal turmoil over who is to blame and who should lead the party in each chamber.
Republicans see a golden opportunity to unseat President Biden, who turns 80 on Sunday and has been challenged by low approval ratings for most of this year. Biden said he would almost certainly run for re-election, indicating last week that he would likely make a final decision in January after meeting with family.
Trump’s advisers have publicly urged him to wait to announce his candidacy until next month’s Senate runoff in Georgia between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, a Trump aide.
Polls last week showed why: 58% of voters said Trump was a factor in their vote, an influence unheard of for a previous president. Among Georgia voters who said Trump was a factor in their vote, Warnock has 57% to 41%. Walker won 55% to 42% among people who said Trump is not a factor.
Many voters seemed to agree with Biden and other Democrats that Trump’s ideology is a threat to democracy. In a national poll on polling day, 86% of voters said the future of democracy was an important factor in their decision, with the majority of those choosing the Democratic candidates. Keen supporters of Trump’s election have lost out, including Arizona gubernatorial candidate Carrie Lake.
The Club for Growth, an influential conservative organization that has at times supported Trump, on Monday swayed the former president’s reboot, releasing a poll showing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis beating Trump in several early primary states.
“Republican primary voters understand that Trump’s insults to Republicans are hollow and counterproductive, and weigh heavily on his support,” the group’s chairman, former Republican Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, said in a statement.
Fox News, his most important media ally, has long shied away from his rhetoric, even as guests have praised him.
Domestic politics is not the only obstacle for Trump. He also faces multiple civil and criminal investigations, including federal investigations into his role in the January 6 insurrection and his refusal to turn over classified presidential records after he left the White House. Critics pointed out that Trump’s early announcement was calculated to help him avoid potential impeachment.
Trump is betting that he can defeat potential criminal charges in the political arena the way he has defeated other investigations, by portraying himself as a victim of the establishment.
“I’m a victim, I’ll tell you, I’m a victim,” Trump said, criticizing the “weaponization of the justice system, the FBI” and the Justice Department while vowing to “clean up the rot and corruption festering Washington”.
But former prosecutors say Justice Department officials are unlikely to be swayed by Trump being an official nominee.
Andrew Weissman, who was the chief attorney general in the Office of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, said there was no precedent for Trump’s stance, and that his presidential campaign could put pressure on Atti. Gen. Merrick Garland to appoint Special Adviser. However, Weizmann said, it will ultimately be up to Garland to decide whether Trump faces criminal charges.
“Don’t shield yourself from the accusations or the timing of it,” said Weissman, a law professor at New York University.
Trump’s announcement is also unlikely to affect a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General alleging Trump and his company’s involvement in large-scale financial fraud.
His ability to win the Republican nomination will largely depend on whether he retains his base. A YouGov poll conducted after last week’s election found DeSantis narrowly defeated Trump by a 41% to 39% margin among Republican voters in a hypothetical primary. But that outcome will depend on many factors, including DeSantis’ decision to run and potential field size. Trump defeated 16 opponents in 2016, taking advantage of the fractious nature of the party and his opponents’ inability to unite.
Last time around, Trump also had the advantage of surprising — and stirring up novelty.
“I’m the first to admit that South Carolina insiders really missed it,” said Matt Moore, who led the South Carolina Republican Party, which held one of the first primaries, during the 2016 election. Something amazing was happening, based on the size of the crowds and Trump’s support. But it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice. That was a difficult time.”
Times staff writer Ariet John contributed to this report.