By Michael Malaszczyk
The likelihood that former President Donald Trump will run again in 2024 seems to increase by the day. Unless the Mar-a-Lago raid turns up something that leads to a criminal indictment, it would be somewhat anticlimactic for Trump to have hyped up the imagined grand announcement, only to conclude with, “I’m not running.”
So, the question is, who would he run against?
Trump ran against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 from Day One. He capitalized on an anti-establishment sentiment that had been percolating across America in both major parties for some time. That was what allowed him to blitz through a field of respected Republican politicians like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Trump repeatedly singled out Bush — the one-time frontrunner who counts both a father and a brother as one-time occupants of the Oval Office — in a move that signified that Trump was going against the Republican Party of old.
Sen. Bernie Sanders had similar success against Clinton in 2016, albeit not quite as successful. The Democratic Party’s nomination of Clinton for president, however, played right into Trump’s campaign message: As the anti-establishment candidate, who was a better representation of the establishment — and the perfect villain — than Hillary Clinton?
Trump apparently feared the idea of Clinton even considering the Vermont senator as her running mate, calling Sanders “the only one I didn’t want her to pick” — perhaps aware of how much Sanders could have disrupted Trump’s campaign message.
But everything changed in 2020. How could Trump run against the establishment when he was now the establishment? So he tried a different approach. The entrenched elite wasn’t the boogeyman this time around; it was socialism. And as far as Trump and his supporters were concerned, “Democrat” and “socialist” were interchangeable terms.
Trump was almost gleeful when Sanders — a self-described “democratic socialist” — was winning the early primaries in 2020. Trump strategist Michael Caputo even said that “the only thing better for Trump than Bernie getting screwed out of the nomination (is) if Bernie wins the nomination.”
While there was a brief time in which it seemed that it would indeed be Trump vs. Sanders, Democrats ultimately went a different route. The anti-Bernie route. The Joe Biden route.
Outside of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Biden was the only candidate who never aligned with Sanders in any way. So, in nominating Biden, Democrats went against Trump’s wishes.
That didn’t stop the then president from trying to link Biden with socialism anyway, but no one was buying it. At least not enough to swing the general election in Trump’s favor.
Essentially, Trump was always running against “crooked” Hillary Clinton and the pre-Trump establishment — even when Clinton wasn’t in the race and the establishment was Trump’s own.
So how will Trump frame 2024? Can he recapture any of his 2016 anti-establishment magic? That’s doubtful, because he and many of his acolytes are the establishment.
Maybe this time he can get Biden-as-a-socialist to stick. Biden is hardly the poster child of anything too hard left. And even his more progressive, Sanders-esque agenda items have been torn apart in Congress — with little argument from Biden himself. The late President Lyndon Johnson is rolling in his grave at how passive-aggressive Biden is with the likes of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
How about Biden as a failed president? Inflation has skyrocketed, but so has job growth. The economy screams recession, but if it’s out there, no one has quite found it.
And Biden has been on a bit of a roll lately. Some key measures he has championed, tackling inflation and the environment, have been signed into law, and he just took out a key terrorist in the Middle East.
Biden may have led a disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan last year, but now he has finessed the war in Ukraine to make Russian dictator Vladimir Putin look like the monster he is without putting a single pair of American boots on the ground there.
Former President Trump will have to run against President Biden, and running against an incumbent president ain’t easy: Only 10 presidents in American history have lost re-election — and one of them was Trump.
But how will the former president present his message? Biden isn’t exactly a great president, but he’s not a failed one, either. If Trump gets past his legal troubles to make another run for the Oval Office, his only chance to come out on top could very well require changing his playbook completely.
Michael Malaszczyk is a Herald reporter covering Wantagh and Seaford. Comments about this column? Mmalaszczyk@liherald.com.