“America’s comeback starts right now,” declared former and possibly future president Donald J. Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club and private residence on Tuesday evening.
Speaking for over an hour in uncharacteristically measured tones, Trump sounded downright businesslike, laying out the achievements of his first term, his aspirations for a possible future term, and the demerits of his once and likely future opponent Joe Biden.
“President Trump’s tone,” Bryan Leib, a former Pennsylvania congressional candidate and executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, messaged me from the floor, was “calm, confident, and unifying.” About 18 minutes in, Trump matter-of-factly pronounced what everyone was waiting to hear: that he is a candidate for president in 2024. Shortly before he appeared, the official paperwork was filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The scene around Mar-a-Lago was a circus. Trump spoke in the estate’s grand ballroom crowded with supporters who resisted sitting down until the speech was well underway. They greeted him with chants of “U-S-A” and “Trump-Trump-Trump.” Dozens more supporters mobbed the bridge that spans Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway just south of the property, waving all manner of flags and banners to signal their support. Living, as I do, on the same oceanfront thoroughfare as the former president, traffic was already a nightmare hours before his speech began. Boats with Trump paraphernalia drew close in a reminder of the “Trumptillas” that had sailed almost weekly in election years past.
Not everyone in Palm Beach — which voted about two thirds for Trump in 2016 and 2020 — was pleased. Planes that afternoon had circled Mar-a-Lago towing banners that declared, “You lost again, Donald! #DeSantis2024” and “3X Loser. Bigly.” An odd truck was seen driving around town featuring oversized images of Trump addressing one his recent rallies with a large caption: “Americans Reject the MAGA Agenda.”
Top Republican donors, including a few Palm Beach billionaires, are said to be gathering not here but in Miami to discuss what they hope will be their party’s post-Trumpian future. Snap polls taken in the days after this year’s underwhelming midterm elections showed Trump trailing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in several critical states in a hypothetical race between the two. DeSantis’s 2024 intentions, which Trump did not mention at the rally, remain a matter of speculation.
Yet none of this seemed to matter as Trump built a momentum all his own. As he began his speech, several news sources called the final congressional race necessary to give the Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. In the hours before, Kevin McCarthy, Trump’s endorsed candidate for House speaker, won that nomination from the GOP’s House caucus, but with a deficit of votes that may be sufficient to allow an even more authentically MAGA candidate to emerge.
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who endorsed Trump’s bid before he even announced, was elected chairwoman of the Republican House Conference. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott, who has elaborated on a Trump-influenced agenda, announced he would challenge Senator Mitch McConnell, a major Trump antagonist, for the GOP Senate leadership. Republican congressional leadership politics are not exactly known for their excitement, but it’s hard to remember them ever having had a more active and energetic day.
The media firing squad that initially put Trump up against the wall for what many characterize as last week’s “defeat” has also started to break ranks from the dominant “it’s Trump’s fault” narrative. Much of the right-wing commentariat has weaned itself off the “Trump is responsible” mantra to find fault with existing Republican congressional leadership, its meager fundraising efforts, self-dealing fund allocations, the flawed electoral procedures that it failed to challenge in key states, and the outsize role of the abortion issue among blue electorates filled with suburban white women.
The smarter pundits had begun to wrestle with the plain fact that in any objective analysis, the GOP — including its dominant MAGA core — actually won substantial victories. If the results were more victory than defeat, and if Trump was responsible for that, would that not make him a winner? As he crowed in his announcement speech, of his 232 endorsements so far decided in the midterms, his candidates won all but 22 races. Some of those losses were admittedly jarring and perhaps even avoidable, but many were close and barely any seem to have happened simply because Trump’s fingerprints were on it. The Republicans received some five million more votes than the Democrats nationwide.
Ever the populist, Trump’s rhetoric showed another remarkable shift. This time he barely mentioned the 2020 election, which he has volubly and consistently declared stolen. Indeed, he talked far less about himself than in any speech since he left office. The movement to save America, he told his audience and the world with uncharacteristic self-effacement, transcends any one person. Defeating the power and corruption of the uniparty establishment will depend on them, and ultimately on all of us. Let us see if anyone can offer a better message as 2024 draws near.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute