I was struck last night watching Donald Trump’s victory speech in Iowa just how relaxed, even mildly blissful, he seemed. He reminded me of Muhammad Ali after a fight in the 1970s. In the runup to a bout, Ali would taunt and insult and rage at his opponent, stirring himself up into a frenzy and the media into a frenzy and creating who knows what kind of intimidating effect on his rival. Then he’d win. Then all the hopped-up anger would seem to evanesce from Ali’s body—and as he stood triumphant in the ring, he’d talk about what a gentleman the other fighter was and what a nice family he had.
Trump took the stage with a huge smile that never really went away. He praised “Ron and Nikki” and said nice thinks about “Vivek” going from 0 to 8 percent just 24 hours after raging and ranting about Ramaswamy on Truth Social. He went into a tribute to his mother-in-law, who just passed away, about what an amazing person she was and how her husband is now very lonely—and how Barron grew to such a height from his grandmother’s food. He paid tribute to the Iowa politician who was the first person to endorse him for president before he was running in 2015, and brought the guy on stage to say a few words.
My friend Tim Miller, the Never-Trumper par excellence, tweeted that it was the most “low-energy” speech he’d seen. Sorry, but no. That was the announcement speech in 2022. This wasn’t low energy. It was calm satisfaction. And more than that. Trump just seemed so…happy.
Granted, Trump had every right to be happy last night. He got 51 percent of the vote and, let’s face it, effectively ended the nominating contest. He won 98 out of 99 counties and, as of last count, only lost the 99th by…one vote to Haley. The logic of Haley’s candidacy going forward now after finishing third is hard to discern, because the only scenario that made any sense was her overperforming in Iowa last night—meaning beating DeSantis meaningfully and putting up numbers in the 20s that would have suggested she personally was breaking through to voters more generally. That would then have given her position in New Hampshire’s primary next week a big boost, which might have slingshotted her into a victory there.
Even then it’s not clear what would have happened to keep her momentum going, but at least there was some chance. It might have been Jim Carrey’s chance—you know, in Dumb and Dumber, when he says to Lauren Holly, what are the odds we’ll ever be together and she says one in a million and he smiles excitedly and says “so there’s a chance.” But it was a chance. When Ron DeSantis began to fade significantly last summer it was never quite evident what his theory of the race was and his camp dissolved five different ways because of that.
So Trump is happy. When was the last time you saw Trump looking happy? When was the last time you saw Joe Biden looking happy? Have we ever seen DeSantis look happy, or Nikki Haley? It’s not just the result, by the way. It’s that it’s clear and been clear since June 2015 that running for president is, for him, the best thing ever. Especially since he does it in his own fashion and has never submitted to the iron discipline rules that other national candidates have subjected themselves to. He doesn’t have donor meetings and never really did. He doesn’t sit for interviews he doesn’t want to do. He goes to rallies and rants on social media and trashes people with a kind of malevolent glee you know he enjoys.
Even when he was president he was basically just running for office. He declared his reelection campaign practically the day of his inauguration. What he loved about being president was the same stuff. Rallying, getting pugilistic with reporters, targeting and dispatching enemies. Actually governing? Bleh. Having a steady hand on the tiller? What fun is that?
And this is Trump’s secret sauce. There are many reasons he might lose in 2024. I don’t need to restate them here. But he loves the running-for-president game in a way no one ever really has before, and loves that he sets his own rules. That can be infectious, and given that he’s running against a man who at times seems like a reanimated corpse, that could really be a factor this year. He may talk about retribution and the like, but he’s having fun out there, and it seems like it takes Miracle Max inflating Biden’s lungs with a bellows just to get some words out of him.
And Trump? Though he sounded last night as though he has some problem retaining a sufficient amount of oxygen in his lungs, he is very much his own bellows.