Tthe 2024 presidential election is already over. The Democrats won. Or rather they will. Just ask New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, who benefited from his opposition’s inability to agree on a single candidate in 1912. More precisely, and for the purposes of this example only, ask the Donald Trump of his age: Theodore Roosevelt. A former president from New York with inherited wealth, a loyal base of supporters and an insatiable need to be at the center of every story, Roosevelt’s refusal to step down, even for a once-loyal successor who promised much the same agenda, broke the GOP’s lock on the electoral college.
History is gearing up for a repeat of this fateful election. For forty-four of the fifty-two years preceding Wilson’s term, and for another twelve after, the presidency belonged to the Grand Old Party. Roosevelt himself won the 1904 election in a landslide before handing the standard of his party four years later to his personal and ideological friend William Howard Taft. TR left office as the youngest former president in history—a distinction he still holds today—but he couldn’t stay retired. More precisely, he could not stay out of the spotlight and ran against Taft just four years later for the Republican nomination.
This is where the story gets particularly interesting for understanding 2024. Indeed, this is where it starts to sound familiar. Taft won the nomination, but Roosevelt refused to concede defeat, claiming that the entire nomination process had been fixed from the beginning. “There has never been anything more scandalous” in American political history, TR countered with a sense of hyperbole all too familiar to those of us who lived through the Trump era. “They’re stealing the primaries from us.” If his supporters, indeed the American people, wanted the country they deserved, the time for talk was over. Instead, it was time to fight. “We stand at Armageddon,” declared Roosevelt, before abandoning the Republicans to form his own party, “and we fight for the master.”
Ego clearly drove Roosevelt. His own daughter joked that he was only happy if the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Yet his continued candidacy also channels genuine public anxiety about a rapidly changing nation. The industrial, transportation, and communications revolutions of the late 19th century hit the 20th like a locomotive, spawning labor movements that demanded more, waves of immigrants who arrived in search of something better, and native Americans’ fears that the future can leave them behind. Roosevelt spent his years in office at the vanguard of the progressive movement, whose unofficial mantra was “change a little now so we don’t have to change everything later.”
However, the change did not happen quickly enough voters. Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft also claimed the progressive mantle in an election that many saw as a referendum on America’s soul, while the fourth major candidate of 1912, Eugene Debs, cast his lot with the growing strength of the Socialist Party. Roosevelt’s supporters broke away first, fueling and nurturing a candidate whose own sense of restraint and desire for incremental change died the day he was denied his party’s nomination to run again. The system was rigged when powerful and largely invisible forces could deprive true Americans of their champion, Roosevelt charged on the campaign trail. Voters needed a leader willing to overcome any barrier necessary to ensure they got the “fair deal” promised as their birthright. Warned that staying in the race would destroy not only Republican control of the Electoral College but the foundation of the entire political system, whose fringes were already calling for revolution, Roosevelt accepted the deal. “If this is a revolution,” he declared, “make the most of it.”
Which brings us back to 2024. Trump runs away Perhaps President Joe Biden too, setting up a repeat of their 2020 contest. Just as each candidate in Theodore Roosevelt’s last election vied for the progressive label, last time both Biden and Trump promised to bring change to the sclerotic political system and economy. which seem to have left too many Americans behind. Trump wanted to “make America great again,” and Biden offered the biggest change to American society since the New Deal of the 1930s. Potential alternatives to their party are likely to promise the same, especially given the widespread expectation that economic headwinds for the typical American household will only increase between now and 2024.
Then as now, however, the math will matter more than mere words, and the simple math is this: just as in 1912, no party can afford to split its votes. Roosevelt drained some Democrats in 1912, but further split the Republicans, while Debs won six percent of the popular vote (impress your friends with this fact, as it was the largest socialist vote in American history). All of this contributed to a Democratic victory, something unthinkable except in the one scenario where Republicans couldn’t make up their minds. Indeed, it took something as significant as World War I to ensure Wilson’s re-election in the razor-thin campaign of 1916. In any “normal” contest between major party candidates, devoid of global cataclysm or party ticket, Republicans otherwise case they would retain control of the White House all the way until the Great Depression finally ended their steady hold on the Electoral College.
We’re hardly as locked into one-party dominance of the Electoral College as Americans were in 1912, which is why, although historians are generally reluctant to predict the future, the evidence pointing to a Democratic victory in 2024 is impossible to ignored. One of two things will happen. The less likely option is that Trump, despite his immeasurable political baggage and mounting legal troubles, wins the Republican nomination but ultimately fails to win the White House. More than 50% of American voters have a negative opinion of the former president, and a majority, if not a majority, of Republicans who still think favorably of him would prefer a different candidate with the same policies. These are not auspicious numbers to start your presidential bid with. Just ask Hillary Clinton, whose total disapproval number exceeds the number of Americans who accepted her as a candidate in 2016.
So if Trump wins in August, the Republicans will lose in November. In the more likely event that he loses the nomination, he will run as a spoiler, or at least tell his supporters to stay away from clearly rigged elections. With a small seat to spare in a country so evening divided between red and blue, a Democrat, indeed any Democrat, will win.
How can we be so sure that Trump will rally his base to the hilt, like Roosevelt, who refused to stand behind his party’s duly elected nominee? Because for all of Donald Trump’s unpredictability, he has shown two things more clearly than anything else. First, that he, like Theodore Roosevelt before him, will end up vilifying every former supporter and friend in pursuit of his goal, and like TR, he does not take defeat well. Imagine this scenario: Trump runs for the Republican nomination—and anyone who thinks his current legal woes will derail his campaign hasn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to the man’s character or book—and loses to another America First candidate ‘ with less political baggage. Perhaps Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott of Texas wins instead, and Trump graciously takes the stage at the GOP convention to pledge his full support for the man who beat him fair and square for the right to defend his party’s flag.
You can’t imagine such a thing, and that’s the point. Trump will never admit defeat, graciously or otherwise, and he can’t imagine a successful campaign for anyone else to win the office he thinks he deserves. It also demands to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the top name on every badge or bumper sticker. Because we can’t imagine Trump not running, just as we can’t imagine him graciously conceding defeat so another Republican can possibly win, we know a Democrat will win instead. Just ask Woodrow Wilson, one of the most influential presidents our nation has seen in foreign affairs, who should never have had the opportunity to leave New Jersey. That aside, ask Debs, who is running for president from a prison cell eight years later, proving that even prison shouldn’t stop Trump from still determining the fate of our republic.
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