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The Trump We Love and Hate Is Back With His Rallies, but to What End?

APTOPIX Trump
AP Photo/Tony Dejak

It really doesn’t matter for now whether Donald Trump runs for president again in 2024.

Just the possibility 41 months out of his mesmerizing political show returning to the nation’s political scene is tantalizing to his stubbornly loyal political base, as well as the grumbling media that loves to hate him.

It also doesn’t exactly bother the former president’s ample ego either to be back at the rallies where he’s the center of adoring attention and has now energized crowds in Ohio and Sarasota with more rallies to come. In Florida, on the eve of July 4th, thousands of excited loyalists waited for hours in a heavy rain for the sounds and sight of their hero, still donned in his trademark blue suit and red tie.

The theme: Make America Great Again, Again.

“Free speech is under assault like never before,” Trump told them in an hour-long show. “Religious liberty is being crushed…nobody took care of religious liberty like we did. Dissenters are being persecuted, our streets are being overtaken by vicious thugs and bloodthirsty criminals — Democrat cities. Our border is being erased before our very eyes. It was never stronger than the border we created, just a few months ago.”

The 78-year-old White House incumbent is making only brief sheltered forays into the country relatively close at hand these days, then retreating to his Delaware basement each weekend. He’s dispatching VP partner Kamala Harris to farther reaches to talk on infrastructure, but then unidentified Democrats grumble at her underwhelming performances.

An annoyed Biden is declining to answer reporters’ questions. Asked about the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban closing in on Kabul, the commander in chief declined. “I only want to talk about happy things,” he said.

Apparently, Biden does not grasp that happy talk is not in a president’s job description, except perhaps for pardoning turkeys around Thanksgiving.

By his own hidden design, however, Trump is taking advantage of Biden’s short workdays and naps to get back on-stage these days. And although he’s still frozen out of standard social media, Trump pretty much has the media stage to himself during what are usually the slow-news days of summer when Congress is on yet another well-paid recess.

Last week, Trump joined Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the Mexico border to bemoan the unfinished wall and hail his own successes at controlling illegal immigration. So far in his return, that’s been the most prominent theme on Trump’s mind.

At a small spontaneous rally of conservative supporters near McAllen, Texas, Trump said:

All Biden had to do is go to the beach. If he would have just done nothing, we would have now the strongest border we’ve ever had. It was even getting better and better and better, because it was all kicking in.

As often seems to happen when Trump travels, a Sean Hannity town hall broke out nearby and Melania’s husband showed up to audience cheers and rousing applause. From their regular private conversations, Hannity knows Trump would not answer The Big Question about 2024.

So, Hannity asked an oblique teaser: Has the 45th president decided yet on a run to become POTUS No. 47 in 2024?

“Yes.”

Dramatic pause.

Hannity commented that was a big hint that yes, he will. It was also a predictable reply. Had Trump implied he would not run, much of the air and attention would have gone out of his appeal instantly for the next several years. What current Republican candidate for anything would care anymore about getting Trump’s highly-coveted political endorsement if he’d taken himself out of the running?

Now, let’s be candid here. Like Trump’s former cabinet members and former close political allies, you’ve probably noticed that Donald Trump has a habit of often changing his mind when convenient. As long as it’s not a campaign promise, like erasing the ISIS caliphate or cutting taxes and regulations or rebuilding the military or ensuring energy independence.

Ask about Trump’s changing mind on Jeff Sessions, the first heavyweight Republican to endorse Trump’s first campaign, who became Trump’s attorney general, who fell out of favor, who tried to win back his Alabama Senate seat and lost over Trump’s enduring enmity.

Ask Mitch McConnell, the wily GOP Senate leader who refused to confirm Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court pick, then shepherded scores of conservative judicial nominees through confirmation, including Trump’s three Supreme Court picks, but now is bitterly denounced by the presidential beneficiary of all that.

Federal politics is not beanbag. And those two could again become convenient allies if it served their individual purposes.

While no one who watched Trump campaign last fall should ever doubt his work ethic, Biden knocked off for the day by 10 or 11 a.m. Meanwhile, Trump did long, animated rally speeches in four or five different states.

Reality, though, is in the not too distant future Donald Trump could decide to play kingmaker and say truthfully, You know, we changed American politics, we got a lot done, I’m going to help elect candidates in my image now.

The fact is Trump’s possible, hinted, but not promised effort to repeat President Grover Cleveland’s trick of returning to office four years after defeat has, in effect, frozen public efforts by possible GOP candidates to become the 2024 nominee. That could spare us a lot of empty blather.

These maybe-wannabes may be quietly hiring senior staff, designing policies in private, whispering with potential donors. But despite Trump’s potential legal troubles in New York, no one wants to be seen challenging the party’s billionaire elephant just yet. There may come a time down the road if Trump’s vendettas and whining about the stolen election become too dated, when a fresh face may emerge.

One possibility is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who rode Trump’s endorsement to victory two years ago. They’ve both said good things about the other ever since. But DeSantis was not at the GOP’s Sarasota rally with Trump.

The credible cover story was his needed presence 225 miles away at the collapsed condo near Miami. But strangely, Trump did not mention his ally during the hour-long remarks.

Presidential elections historically have been about moving forward. A lot can happen in the 1,220 days between now and the 2024 election:

For Democrats, with an already confused incumbent nominee who’d be 81 by then, if he makes it that far, or with an incumbent VP who failed to get a single primary vote in 2020 and has yet to impress.

Or with an economy that was booming under Trump, stricken by Covid’s lockdowns and has shown ominous signs under Biden’s staggering spending plans of inflation and inconsistent job growth with unemployment creeping upwards. Trump’s current meme “Biden is destroying our country” could reverberate in 18 months.

And for Republicans, whose latest standard-bearer would be 78 then and shows no signs yet of willingly relinquishing his controversial hold on the Grand Old Party’s base.

Trump got 74 million votes last fall, more than any other Republican in history. Both Trump and Biden carried 25 states. But Trump’s support was not as precisely placed as 2016. So, he came up 38 Electoral Votes short.

Trump’s political persona does not seem likely to voluntarily walk away without vindication. So, the real question could well be, will that loyal base of his relinquish its devotion to a man who won’t or can’t let go of last November’s results to focus three Novembers ahead on their future instead of his past?