For months, political observers have marveled over the Republican Party’s enduring affection for Trump. It makes no sense. Here’s a figure who presided over the decimation of his party, and he has explicitly threatened to do it again. He is anathema to a critical mass of voters, so Republicans probably can’t win with him at the party’s helm. Why would any political vehicle with national ambitions tether itself to this lead weight?
Not that Democrats mind. As the increasingly desperate sounds emanating from Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for the governorship of Virginia suggest, Democrats, too, wouldn’t be displeased by Donald Trump’s reemergence as a relevant political force.
At a Tuesday night rally for McAuliffe in Virginia, Democrats exposed the extent of their apprehension by laying into Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin with unbridled vitriol. The Republican was accused of seeking to make abortion illegal—an outcome that would mean “women will die.” He was deemed a cultural revanchist who wants to draft children into cultural combat and who would ban the books of black authors to satisfy his own racial animus against African Americans. And yet, when Joe Biden took the stage, he inadvertently exposed Democratic uncertainty about whether these threadbare attacks will have the desired effect.
It wasn’t Youngkin but Biden who was focused on Trump. “Remember this: I ran against Donald Trump,” Biden reminded the audience. “And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.” Youngkin, Biden insisted, embodied the same “extremism” and undying fealty to Trump that animated the January 6 rioters. In closing, Biden all but begged Donald Trump to descend on the state and shake Democratic voters out of their complacency.
“What’s really interesting to me: He won’t stand next to Trump now that the campaign’s on,” Biden said of the GOP candidate. “He won’t allow Donald Trump to campaign for him in this state.”
“Is there a problem with Trump being here?” Biden asked, goading the easily goaded former president to get off the sidelines. “Is he embarrassed?”
The president’s guileless attempt to summon the specter of Trump from his political grave almost worked. The following day, the former president’s office issued a short, typically unintelligible statement announcing his imminent intention to make Democratic dreams come true. “Chanting, ‘We love Trump,’ in Arlington, Va.,” the statement read. “Thank you, Arlington, see you soon.”
The McAuliffe campaign couldn’t disguise its enthusiasm. “Donald Trump is coming to Virginia to campaign for his handpicked guy Glenn Youngkin,” the delighted Democrat exclaimed. “Enough of this MAGA nonsense. We will defeat Trump once again this November!” The Virginia Democratic Party shot out a text message warning voters that Trump was on his way. “It’s time for our most powerful response yet,” the message read, “this is our opportunity to reject Trumpism & Youngkin in VA.”
It was not to be. Perhaps Trump never intended on appearing in Virginia or someone talked him out of it. Either way, sources in the 45th president’s orbit confirmed he would steer clear of the state ahead of Election Day. Democrats were sorely disappointed, but not nearly as much as the pro-Trump right that has made a secular religion out of their veneration for the former president.
Shortly after the 2020 elections, a Monmouth University poll found that more Americans were happy that Trump lost his reelection bid than that Joe Biden had won. The election was not a wholesale rejection of the GOP, nor did it provide Biden and his progressive allies with the mandate that they have so terribly misread. It was a repudiation of Trump.
Today, Republicans are leaderless. The former president is the only figure in the party’s firmament who can command the support of their base voters. They think they need him. Now, with Biden floundering and Democrats mired in factionalism, their best course of action may be to séance Trump back into relevance. They think they need him, too.
They might get their wish.