Editor’s note: CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
It looks like former President Donald Trump is going to launch another bid for the White House. On Thursday, Trump told his supporters to “prepare” for his return to the presidential campaign trail — and top aides are eyeing Nov. 14 as a potential launch date, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump, it seems, hopes to be the first person since President Grover Cleveland to win two non-consecutive elections.
With Trump hinting at another race for months, the news would certainly send shockwaves through the political world. Trump is arguably one of the most controversial and destabilizing political leaders in contemporary US history. And as we’ve seen with recent Supreme Court decisions like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — as well as toxic rhetoric and support for conspiracy theories within the GOP — his presidency has been extremely consistent.
Although there was an audible sigh of relief in many parts of the country following President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, some Democrats might think Trump’s re-emergence is good news for the party. After all, Biden, who has said it was his “intention” to run again, seems to have the magic formula to defeat Trump. The contrast he automatically presents – a stable, experienced and low-key political leader – is powerful. Trump’s presence on the campaign trail would also likely unite Democrats behind Biden and allow the president to raise significant campaign funds.
But Democrats should not underestimate the threat Trump poses.
If the midterm campaigns have shown Democrats anything, it’s that Republicans remain a strongly united party. Very little can shake this unity. After Trump left the White House, the party did not change substantially and the “Never Trump” contingent failed to emerge as a dominant force. Indeed, officials such as Congresswoman Liz Cheney have been purged from the party.
Even with unconventional and deeply flawed candidates such as Herschel Walker and Dr. Mehmet Oz running for key Senate seats, recent polls show the GOP is in relatively good shape overall ahead of the mid-election. Tuesday term. Meanwhile, Democrats are scrambling to defend multiple seats and even candidates in reliable blue states like New York are in jeopardy.
If Republicans are successful next week, perhaps regaining control of the House and Senate, party members will surely feel confident about amplifying their culture wars and economic talking points through 2024. And given the number of candidates who refuse the midterm elections, a strong showing will likely create the tailwinds for the GOP to unite behind Trump. While there has been much speculation about the rise of other Trump-like Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, it’s likely they’ll look ‘insignificant’ once the former president will officially re-enter the political arena – as his formidable opponents learned in the 2016 Republican primaries.
A midterm GOP victory would also embolden Trump himself. At this point, he has largely escaped responsibility. Despite ongoing criminal investigations and the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6, Trump is still a viable political figure.
And if Trump announces his candidacy, the Justice Department is considering the possibility of announcing a special counsel to oversee two sprawling federal investigations into Trump’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election and his alleged mishandling of national security documents held at Mar-a-Lago. But that is unlikely to stop Trump; we saw his relentless attacks on former special counsel Robert Mueller, who oversaw the Russia investigation. And once Trump is officially a candidate, it will be that much harder to prosecute him. Trump, a master of playing the victim, is sure to claim (as he has in the past) that any investigation is simply a politically motivated “witch hunt” designed to knock him out of the running.
If Trump avoids prosecution, he would surely unleash a ferocious assault on the president, who may very well still be grappling with a faltering economy and divisions within his own party. And if election deniers move into positions of power after the midterms and Trump escapes any sanction for Jan. 6, he’s likely to take advantage of loyalists who have infiltrated state and local election offices to ensure that the victory is his. Trump will also come to the race having already been in that rodeo, meaning he can hone the technique and rhetoric that put him in power in 2016. And now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, Trump could be reinstated – giving him a means to lead and shape the media conversation again. (Trump, who founded Truth Social, where he has been active since being banned from Twitter, has not publicly indicated he will return.)
Finally, it should be noted that a midterm victory would energize Republican voters like nothing else. The outside party is often more motivated and prepared for the political battle than the incumbent party, which on some level is worn down by the realities of governance.
But the 2024 election will be about Biden as much as Trump. While Biden can boast a successful legislative record that includes the Cut Inflation Act and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, he will enter 2024 with the baggage that plagues any incumbent. The issues he has struggled with, including inflation and the fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be part of the conversation in a way they did not four years ago. If he runs, Biden will no longer campaign to be the new boss — he is the boss.
The midterm elections showed that Democrats’ emphasis on the radical nature of the GOP and the dangers posed to democracy isn’t necessarily enough to rally voters. These dangers have been highlighted time and time again, including in Biden’s closing speech on Wednesday, but Democrats are still struggling to hold on to power.
Of course, just because Trump poses a very serious threat in 2024 doesn’t mean he’s going to win. Trump had shut down many independents and even some Republicans by 2020 and it remains unclear if he can win their support in crucial swing states. And as we saw with President Barack Obama’s run against Mitt Romney in 2012, presidents who have faced tough re-election campaigns can still find their way to victory.