The fall and rise of Trump: How the former president regained control of the Republican Party

Next week, the business tycoon is likely to be crowned the presidential candidate of the group which, three years after losing the White House, is once again dancing to his beat

Former U.S. president Donald Trump, at an event in National Harbor (Maryland), on February 24.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump, at an event in National Harbor (Maryland), on February 24.Europa Press/Contacto/Dominic Gw (Europa Press/Contacto/Dominic Gw)
Iker Seisdedos

Pam Miller is a chain-smoking Michigan woman who makes a living from the cult of Donald Trump. She follows him around the country with her white truck, which has a cap with number 45 on the roof — a reference to the fact that Trump was the 45th president of the United States. It means to Trump supporters what No. 23 means for fans of basketball legend Michael Jordan. Miller sells T-shirts, hats and flags in honor of the Republican politician wherever he gives one of his massive rallies. “It’s not bad business, as long as this thing continues,” she said, indicating to her truck, as she waited outside Trump’s rally in Rock Hill, which took place last week ahead of the primaries in South Carolina. Since Miller started her business in the 2020 election campaign, business has never been better, she said.

Miller has witnessed the fall and rise of Donald Trump since he left the White House in shame, two weeks after thousands of his followers stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. That assault led to his second impeachment trial and criticism from prominent leaders of the Republican Party, who gradually began to eat their words, as it once again became clear that underestimating the real estate mogul was a bad idea — which first became evident when the reality TV star entered the scene in 2015, descending the escalators of the New York skyscraper that bears his name.

In 2021, Trump seemed headed for the dustbin of history. Abandoned by his own people, he turned into a loud-mouthed politician with a dwindling base of followers. Three years later, he is preparing to be named the Republican candidate for the White House, which would lead to a repeat of the 2020 showdown against Joe Biden, 81. With eight months to go before the November election, some polls give Trump a lead against the U.S. president, who is facing low approval ratings and doubts over his age. The Trump, 77, will foreseeably cinch the candidacy on Super Tuesday, when 15 states hold primaries. The results are likely to convince his last remaining rival Nikki Haley — a more moderate Republican than the former president — to drop out of the race.

Trump is heading into Super Tuesday, after regaining full control of the party apparatus and its soul. Last Monday, Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), announced her resignation. Trump — who had been working to push out McDaniels for months — needs the RNC to work at full capacity for his campaign. In case there were any doubts about Trump’s intentions, the real estate magnate has endorsed his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair of the committee.

But the most symbolic blow came two days later, when Mitch McConnell, 82, announced that he will step down as the Senate Republican leader in November, a position he has held for 17 years, longer than anyone in history. The Kentucky politician, who arrived in Washington when Ronald Reagan was president, is the incarnation of the Republican Party’s old guard and since the assault on the Capitol, has been one of Trump’s favorite targets. The former president has frequently accused McConnell of being a RINO (Republican in name only), a perjorative that the tycoon did not invent, but which he effectively appropriated as part of his combative rhetoric.

Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 4, 2019.
Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 4, 2019.Yuri Gripas (REUTERS)

McConnell is also a reference point for American conservatism known as “your grandfather’s GOP” — a phrase used to highlight the difference between the legacy of Reagan and the Bushes, defined by optimism and the faith in institutions, markets and the United States’ role as the world’s police and a “shining city on the hill” (a quote from Reagan cited by McConnell in his farewell speech), and the isolationist pessimism and populist nationalism of the MAGA movement. This creed is closer to the ideals that guided the Republican Party in the dark 1920s and 1930s, when some of the group’s factions flirted with Nazism.

The great lie

“The most traditional sectors have come to the conclusion that they need him to win, that it is not possible to do much to throw him out, and that all they have to do is wait for him to disintegrate on his own,” David M. Drucker, a senior writer from the conservative media The Dispatch told EL PAÍS in a phone interview. At the end of 2021, Drucker published In Trump’s Shadow, a book in which he ventured, based on dozens of interviews, the direction of the battle to succeed the former president in the 2024 elections. “I miscalculated myself,” Drucker admitted two and a half years later. “When I started working on the book, in 2020, it was in the cards that he would lose, but no one could imagine that he would convince the majority of Republican voters that he had not actually lost and that the election was stolen from him. This has allowed him to present himself again, with the strength of an incumbent president seeking re-election, and not as a loser determined to try again. When he came on the scene nine years ago, the kind of populist Republican he represents was marginal in a party dominated by a moderate establishment. Now, the establishment is him.”

In Drucker’s defense, it must be said that many underestimated Trump. Perhaps the lowest point of the former president came in the middle of Biden’s term, with the November 2022 midterm elections, in which the Republicans, who anticipated a landslide victory, had to settle for winning a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, as they watched Democrats increase their numbers in the Senate. Back then, the analyses of the results all blamed Trump for supporting extremist candidates in decisive states, who scared away moderate voters. That outcome, together with the appearance of a rising star on the Florida horizon, Governor Ron DeSantis, led the media to begin preparing the paperwork for Trump’s political death. A little more than a year later, DeSantis turned out to be a shooting star, which extinguished last January, after the Iowa caucuses.

UC Berkeley professor Dan Schnur, who has worked as a strategist on four presidential campaigns, believes that if DeSantis hadn’t taken several months to throw his hat in the ring, he might have had a chance. “Given the results of the first few Republican primaries [who recorded Haley’s best numbers in New Hampshire, 43%, and in South Carolina, her home state, 40%], it is clear that there is a sizable minority of GOP voters who want to go back to a more traditional Reagan-style conservatism. But Haley has been unable to expand her support base, which suggests that Trump-ism will dominate the party as long as Trump is around. But after that, the Republicans’ future is up for grabs”.

Few would have predicted this when the former president launched his bid for the White House, Schnur acknowledges. He did so, in another flight forward, a few days after the setback in the midterm elections. Trump made the announcement at an angry and unpleasant event at Mar-a-Lago (Florida), his residence in Palm Beach. Afterwards, the campaign languished for months, while the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack published its devastating report, recommending the former president be prosecuted for four crimes, including insurrection.

Trump, on November 15, 2022, when he announced that he was running for the 2024 elections.JOE RAEDLE (AFP)

Trump’s luck changed one Saturday in March 2023 with a post on Truth Social, in which he warned that he would be arrested the following Tuesday in New York in an old case stemming from hush money he allegedly paid in 2016 to ensure porn actress Stormy Daniels kept quite about their extramarital relationship — allegations that he denies. In his new book about Trump, Tired of Winning, veteran Washington journalist Jonathan Karl says that the tycoon posted the message to his social network without any solid evidence. Trump only reached the conclusion after hearing a commentator say they were sure that he would be indicted in New York — comments made two days earlier, on a low-rating MSNBC program, which Trump saw the replay of.

The title of Karl’s book is an homage to one of Trump’s most famous claims: “We’re going to win so much you may even get tired of winning.” “His most visible defeat may have come in November 2020, but Donald Trump was losing long before he entered politics and he’s continued losing after he left the White House,” writes Karl. “But there is one area where Trump has been an undisputed winner. Over and over again, he has vanquished once-prominent Republicans who have tried to take him down, and in the process, he has remade the party in his own image.”

Prisoner PO1135809

With the New York indictment, Trump began to present himself as a martyr, telling his followers: “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you — and I’m just standing in their way.” With each new legal hurdle, Trump’s popularity has grown, and with his fundraising efforts and the number of items for sale in the MAGA universe. Most of the best-selling products include Trump’s mug shot as prisoner PO1135809, taken last August, when he was booked in Atlanta for the electoral subversion in Atlanta.

T-shirts and caps that use the image of Donald Trump's Atlanta mugshot, in a Los Angeles store.
T-shirts and caps that use the image of Donald Trump's Atlanta mugshot, in a Los Angeles store.MARIO ANZUONI (REUTERS)

In addition to Georgia and Stormy Daniels cases, Trump faces two other trials: in Florida, he is charged with his handling of confidential documents that he took from the White House and brought to Mar-a-Lago; and in Washington, he is accused of trying to subvert the 2020 election results, and for the events that led to the January 6 insurrection. At the moment, his lawyers’ strategy of delaying the trial is working thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to review, at the end of April, whether Trump had presidential immunity in his last months in the White House. The goal is to postpone the trial until after the November election.

“One of the most unusual things about Trump is that his supporters do not hold him responsible for any of his failures,” said Drucker. “It’s always someone else’s fault: other Republicans, the Democrats, the media... It’s never his. It is strange: they see him as a very strong and capable leader who can get a lot of things done. And yet when he proves incapable of getting things done, it’s because he somehow was powerless to do anything about it.” If he loses in November, Drucker believes that Trump may run again, perhaps with his own party, in 2028. “And if he doesn’t win then, in 2032. Unless he is dead,” he added.

Trump’s case is so exceptional in American politics that the idea of him running in 2032 even seems possible. It is another matter whether his fall and rise can be studied in schools of political leadership: his tricks seem inimitable, those of a magician, who can happily improvise amid chaos.

Nor are there many precedents in history textbooks for Trump’s bid to return to the White House four years later: “The only even remotely relevant example comes from the presidency of Grover Cleveland, who is the only president to have served nonconsecutive terms (late 1800s).  Theodore Roosevelt tried to do it and it didn’t work for him,” presidential historian Russell Riley explained in an email. The expert agrees that what is “especially unusual” about Trump is he is a “serial loser,” but is not treated that way by his party. “How he has managed to prevail in this environment will keep historians busy for a very long time”, Riley added.

Everything indicates that Trump will also continue to provide work for Miller and her old white truck.

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