Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?
That, as many readers will know, was a slogan used by the Republican Party in 1884 in support of James G. Blaine
(a.k.a. the continental liar from the state of Maine). He was running against Grover Cleveland, who may or may not have
fathered a child out of wedlock.
Grover Cleveland is having a bit of a moment right now, thanks to Donald Trump's announcement that he's running for
president again. You see, Cleveland won, lost, and won and now Trump is trying to win, lose, and win.
So, Trump is practically a latter-day Cleveland, right?
Or maybe not. Since there are a lot of articles out there on this subject right now, most of them written by people
who are not U.S. historians, we thought we'd run down the five presidents who tried to regain the White House after
leaving office, with an eye to identifying any parallels for Trump 2024. Here they are, in chronological order:
- Martin Van Buren (1844, 1848): The Little Magician, as he was known, was very upset to be
kicked out of the White House after one term, especially since every other Democrat/Democratic-Republican to that point
had served two terms. So, he tried very hard to get his job back. He contested his party's nomination in both 1844 and
1848, and when it became clear that the Democrats had moved on, he ran as a third-party candidate, choosing the leftiest
party of his day, namely the Free Soilers. Undoubtedly, Democrats and Republicans alike are hoping that Trump doesn't
pull a Van Buren and run again and again and again. But he could!
- Millard Fillmore (1856): After the Whigs said "no thank you!" to renominating Fillmore,
possibly because he wasn't really a Whig (he was chosen to "balance" the Taylor/Fillmore ticket), he went home and
licked his wounds. Then, 4 years later, he ran as the candidate of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. A lot of
people didn't like immigrants back then, and so he got nearly a million popular votes and 8 EVs (courtesy of Maryland).
One could certainly imagine Trump striking out as a third-party, anti-immigrant candidate, since anti-immigrant rhetoric
is the lion's share of his political program. However, there is currently no anti-immigrant third party for the former
president to latch on to. So, he'd either have to create one or else latch on as a Libertarian (or some other existing
third party) and then declare that party to be henceforward the anti-immigrant party.
- Ulysses S. Grant (1880): Grant was wildly popular, and so easily won the White House twice.
It did not hurt that the Democratic Party basically did not exist as a national entity during the times of his two runs.
After leaving office, he took a world tour, and then decided he might like to be president again. At the 1880 Republican
National Convention, Grant led in the early balloting, but couldn't get over the hump. Part of the opposition came from
the liberal wing of the Party. Part of the opposition came from folks who believed no president should serve three
terms. The General was the leader through a staggering 35 ballots, and then the opposition decided that they would
unify to give the nomination to a non-Grant compromise candidate. That ended up being James A. Garfield, for whom the
presidency was a real shot in the arm. Well, a shot in the gut.
Of all the presidents on this list, it is hard to imagine one whose life and whose presidential circumstances are
further from Trump's. (Z) was once asked to write a pithy message explaining the differences between the two men.
Here is that message:
One of these men took a strong stand against the KKK, and the other is Trump.
In short, anyone who points to Grant as a template for Trump to follow is smoking something much stronger
than the cigars that gave the General throat cancer.
One of these men was personally honest, and the other is Trump.
One of these men served in the military when his country called, and the other is Trump.
One of these men actually wrote the bestselling book that bears his name, and the other is Trump.
One of these men won election on their own merits, without outside interference, and the other is Trump.
One of these men was beloved by a large majority of his fellow Americans, and the other is Trump.
- Grover Cleveland (1892): Here he is, the one everyone's writing articles about. Often silly articles like
that focus on superficial similarities like "They both married younger women" and "They both relied on the South."
The truth is that Cleveland doesn't have much more in common with Trump than Grant does. Although the Gilded Age
was not a great time for Democratic candidates in general on the national level, Cleveland was very popular.
He locked down the conservative wing of his party, and also managed to get a fair number of votes from liberal
Democrats and conservative Republicans. Consequently, he won the popular vote all three times he ran. And when
he tried (successfully) to reclaim the White House after a term spent on the outside looking in, he had every
reason to believe he would win against the unpopular incumbent Benjamin Harrison.
- Theodore Roosevelt: Of the five, this is the real parallel worth paying attention
to. TR and DT don't have that much in common, personality wise, but they do/did both have the most massive egos
in the country. When Roosevelt decided, after four years in the wilderness (literally; he went on safari) that
he'd like to be president again, he eventually figured out that his successor and former protégé
William Howard Taft was in firm control of the GOP machinery. So, TR struck out and formed his own third party,
the Bull Moose (a.k.a. Progressive) Party. The Rough Rider didn't expect to win; he just wanted to stick it to
This strikes us as a very plausible path for Trump to follow. He could decide that the Republican Party isn't
going to nominate him and could form his own organization. The MAGA Party, presumably, although Know-Nothing
is not currently in use and would be apropos on multiple levels. In any event, he could raise his grifty funds,
and hold his rallies, and stick it to Ron DeSantis (or whoever the Republican nominee is), and declare a win
when the Republican nominee did poorly. That is probably the only win available to Trump in 2024.
The one problem is that, unlike in TR's time, it's not easy to get a third-party on the ballot. And most states don't allow write-ins.
One conceivable option is to run as the candidate of the
which is on the ballot in a few states and for which he is actually a very good ideological fit. Doing this
would be easier than starting a new party, but still a longshot.
So, Trump would have to decide very soon if he's going to strike out on his own.
We shall see if The Donald tries to channel his inner Roosevelt. After all, you can't spell T-R-U-M-P without T-R.
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