Six weeks after leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump re-emerged Sunday onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, to once again dispute the results of the last presidential election and to not-so-coyly hint he might run for another term in 2024.
"Do you miss me yet?" he asked the crowd.
The "we love you!" chants from attendees suggested that, yes, Trump's supporters still support Trump. No surprise there. But it is fair to suspect that the broader American electorate has welcomed the former president's absence. His national approval rating hit its low-point of 34 percent in the final week before he left office, after averaging just 41 percent over the four years of his term. (President Joe Biden, by comparison, currently boasts a 54 percent approval rating.) If Trump really is thinking about another election campaign, he'll need to dig himself out of a pretty deep hole.
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There is one thing he could do — but almost certainly won't — to broaden his appeal: He could just lay low for a little while. He could actually try to let us miss him.
After all, even wildly divisive presidents tend to become more popular after leaving office. Like Trump, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were turned out of office by voters after a single term — but the public eventually came to embrace them in their dotage: According to Gallup, Carter had a 55 percent "retrospective" approval rating in 2018, while Bush clocked in at 64 percent. Of American presidents elected since 1960, only Watergate-disgraced Richard Nixon remained broadly unpopular in the poll, with just 28 percent of respondents giving him a thumbs-up. Even Lyndon Johnson, who slunk out of office after presiding over the darkest days of the Vietnam War, mustered 48 percent support, while just 33 percent of those polled disapproved of his administration. Americans, it seems, are generally a forgiving lot.
This general approval for former commanders-in-chief isn't an accident. Ex-presidents achieve their post-White House prestige by stepping out of the limelight, distancing themselves from the political battles that defined their careers.
"It happens because they're not making controversial decisions," Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor of political science at Gettysburg College, said in 2012. "The first few years out of office very little changes, but four or five years afterwards they've built a presidential library, raised foundation money, and start doing philanthropic activities."
Nostalgia can have big political ramifications. George W. Bush was the establishment choice for the GOP nomination in 2000 — and then, almost accidentally, to the presidency itself — in large part because he had the good fortune to share a name with his father. If reporting is correct, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump both might have ambitions to duplicate the Bush family's feat.
But their father isn't one to cede the spotlight: Trump's CPAC speech, coming so soon after he left office, was an unprecedented act for a former president in the modern era — a flat declaration that he plans to continue to dominate Republican politics rather than attempt to become a semi-retired statesman. That means it will be much more difficult for him to achieve the post-presidential popularity bump of his predecessors, and for his children to take advantage.
Believe it or not, popularity still matters in politics. Yes, Trump won a presidential term without a popular vote majority — and given the growing threat of voter suppression, it's possible he could do so again — but that is really hard to do. It is a lot easier to win the presidency if most Americans actually like you. In his comments on Sunday, Trump gave no indication of rethinking his longtime strategy of appealing to conservatives and only to conservatives, of reaching out beyond his base supporters to persuadable voters. He is sticking with the true believers.
Their faith may be slipping. At CPAC's straw poll this weekend, 95 percent of attendees said they wanted to continue Trump's policies and agenda — but a much smaller share, 68 percent, said they want Trump to run for president again in 2024. Even among conservatives, it seems there is some room for doubt about the former president's future political prospects.
It may be that, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the second impeachment, Donald Trump is too toxic to voters beyond his base to ever again mount a serious challenge for the presidency. And Trump may not actually want to run — he could be using the threat just to keep his influence and status as the de facto head of the Republican Party. But if Trump wanted to rebuild his popularity, he could just withdraw from public activity for awhile and let America's collective memory start to fog over a bit. How can we miss him if he never leaves?
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