He appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices who shocked the nation with rulings that dramatically took away rights. He sided with the racists who used “states’ rights” to push through undemocratic policies locally. And he’s the only American president who lost a reelection bid but returned to office in the following election.
Yes, I’m thinking of former New York governor and Democrat Grover Cleveland who first won the presidency in 1884, lost his reelection bid in 1888, only to successfully regain the presidency in 1892 against then-incumbent Benjamin Harrison.
In 2024, Donald Trump hopes to repeat that history in all its ugliness by becoming the second former president to recapture the White House. And mind you, the consequences of that second Cleveland administration were devastating. Three of his Supreme Court appointees — Melville W. Fuller, Rufus W. Peckham, and Edward D. White — were part of the majority in the crucial and devastating 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that would sanction racial segregation across the nation and so solidify an American apartheid system that didn’t end legally until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
In a similar vein, it’s hard to imagine how destructive a second Trump administration would be, given his first time in office. In virtually every area of public policy, the Trump administration proved a setback for women, people of color, working-class communities, LGBTQ individuals, environmental advocates, and those fighting to expand human and democratic rights. His three hyper-conservative Supreme Court appointees helped overturn Roe v. Wade, taking away abortion rights for millions without hesitation, while there have also been significant setbacks in the areas of gun safety, religious freedom, workers’ rights, and more.
But in truth, it’s not the policymaking that Donald Trump truly longs for. Above all, he clearly misses the corruption, cruelty, and sense of power that came with his presidency. His dream of an authoritarian state in which he can punish his enemies endlessly without accountability (while enriching himself and his family) was thwarted in 2020 when voters rejected his candidacy. The bitterness of that loss still eats at his very being and drives his current presidential bid. As he himself stated, in a second term he seeks “retribution” against one and all.
For those still in the Republican Party, Trump is once again the overwhelming early favorite. While 61% of Americans don’t want him as president again — 89% of Democrats and 64% of independents — a whopping 76% of Republicans are Trumpian to the core, according to a March 2023 Marist poll. If impeachments, a slew of coming indictments, and a conviction for libel don’t deter his GOP supporters — indeed, they seem to have had the opposite effect — then it’s easy to see Trump winning the nomination in a landslide.
Yet, in a number of ways, as the Republican Party continues to move ever more to the right, MAGA has already evolved beyond him. Despite the media oxygen he continues to consume, the current moment is less about him than most of us believe. Just as Cleveland reflected the growing racial retrenchment of the white South in the late 1800s, Trump embodies the growing entrenchment of an ever more extremist wing of American politics.