One year out of the White House: What has Donald Trump really been up to?

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Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Florence, Arizona, on January 15, 2022 - AFP
Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Florence, Arizona, on January 15, 2022 - AFP

On the morning of the inauguration of Joe Biden as President, on January 20 last year, as Donald Trump prepared to depart into exile in Florida he addressed a crowd of several hundred people, including supporters and staff, on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews.

To the accompaniment of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin and Hail to the Chief, Trump recited a list of his claimed successes as President – federal regulation cuts and overhauled tax laws, the creation of the Space Force – concluding his remarks with something pitched between a promise and a threat, saying that he “will be watching” and he “will be listening” from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, and vowed that “we will be back in some form”.

Quite what that form would take was anybody’s guess, but a few of the highlights of his activities over the past 12 months have been somewhat surprising – and for a former president, and possible presidential contender, somewhat deflating.

In July, for example, in one of his first public appearances since leaving office, Trump appeared via satellite link at Maga Frank, an open-air event in New Richmond, Wisconsin, organised by Mike Lindell, the pillow manufacturer who has ploughed $16 million into supporting Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election result, and featuring a collection of Right-wing media personalities and conspiracy theorists. Looming large on the Jumbotron, and singing from what would become his familiar hymn sheet, Trump talked about being cheated in Wisconsin and everywhere else in America, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and took credit for the coronavirus vaccine. Lindell had spoken of breaking the venue’s attendance record of 40,000. Observers estimated the crowd at closer to 5,000 – a portent of personal appearances to come.

Donald Trump was in attendance for the Evander Holyfield comeback - Anadolu
Donald Trump was in attendance for the Evander Holyfield comeback - Anadolu

In September, the former President was to be found providing ‘guest commentary’ at the pay-per-view live stream heavyweight boxing match between Evander Holyfield and Vitor Belfort in Florida. Noting that the date was the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre, Trump could not resist making political capital, describing 9/11 as “one the most important days,” adding “and we had a very bad week because of some very bad decisions that were made”. Later, while awaiting the judges’ results, he noted that he had seen a lot of bad boxing decisions over the years. “It’s like the elections. It could be rigged.”

In November, pursuing the sporting theme, he was awarded an honorary black belt by the South Korean president of taekwondo Lee Dong-sup at Mar-a-Lago – despite never having practised the sport – a distinction he shares with Vladimir Putin.

Then last month, he embarked on what was billed as The History Tour with the cable news host Bill O’Reilly, who was forced out of his job at Fox in 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment. Intended to go behind the scenes of Trump’s one-term presidency, and set the stage for his future intentions, the tour, which featured appearances in Houston, Dallas and Sunrise, Florida availed Trump of the opportunity to air his perpetual grievance about “the Big Steal” and claim that the storming of the Capitol building on January 6 last year was not an insurrection, but a protest against the “‘rigged” election, and to take credit for the coronavirus vaccine (again) – a claim that was met with a mixed reception at his appearance in Dallas on December 19. When O’Reilly said that both he and Trump had received booster shots of the vaccine there were boos from the crowd.

Reporters at the Texas events described the crowds as “sparse”.

Trump with O’Reilly during the final stop of The History Tour - pixel
Trump with O’Reilly during the final stop of The History Tour - pixel

Whether or not Trump himself is history remains to be seen.

Since leaving office, he has spent most of his time at his sprawling Mar-A-Lago estate, with its gold-plated ceilings and walls, hung with portraits of himself, retreating temporarily in Florida’s hurricane season to his estate at Bedminster, New Jersey.

At Mar-a-Lago, Trump and his wife Melania have been leading what Michael Wolff, the journalist and author of Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency, describes as an old-fashioned life, complete with wine tasting, croquet singles and themed food nights, while being gawked at “like zoo animals” when they dine out on the club’s patio.

Having spent 307 days – almost a full year – on golf courses during his term of presidency, Trump has had ample time to indulge his favourite pastime.

As for Melania, after leaving the White House with the worst final approval rating of any First Lady in polling history, in February she announced the opening of her own Office of Melania Trump, saying the focus of her activities would be the continuation of the Be Best campaign that she promoted as First Lady, concentrating on children’s wellness and safety –- despite the fact that it had achieved few of its stated objectives and seemingly has no specific policy or legislation goals.

In recent times, however, after months of relative silence, she has been drawing accusations of monetising her position by auctioning a sale of Melania-themed items through her website. These include the ‘Head of State’ collection, comprising the white, wide-brimmed hat she wore for the state visit of Emmanuel Macron to the White House in April 2018 (signed by Melania), and a watercolour and NFT (non fungible token) of Melania wearing the hat. The starting bid for the auction, which closes on January 25, was set at $245,000 – the final sum payable only in cryptocurrency.

A notice on her website reads ‘A portion of the proceeds derived from this auction will provide foster care children with access to computer science and technology education,’ – although exactly what portion is not specified.

Meanwhile, a separate auction of another NFT of ‘a breathtaking watercolor’ of her eyes entitled ‘Melania’s Vision’ has, sadly, closed. Melania Trump’s office did not reply to a request for a comment.

Since Trump’s defeat, and his retreat to Mar-a-Lago, pundits have strived to make comparisons with other notable exiles from history. He has been likened to Napoleon, who following France’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo was exiled to the remote island of St Helena, where he died in 1821, and, more pointedly, perhaps, to the 15th century Pope, Benedict XIII, last of the popes of Avignon who continued to insist after he was deposed, that by right and by canon law he was the true pontiff. He died in 1423, still futilely protesting his right to be Pope.

The papal allusion is apt. Stripped of the presidency he may be, but Trump’s dominance in the Republican party, as putative king or king-maker, remains unchallenged.

Much of his time over the past 12 months has been spent alternately insisting at every opportunity that the election was “rigged”, chastising Republican politicians who have dared to suggest otherwise (most recently Senator Mike Rounds, an erstwhile supporter, whom Trump dismissed as a “jerk” after Rounds repeated his belief that the election was “fair, as fair as we’ve seen”.), and receiving a stream of supplicants eager to prostrate themselves and kiss Trump’s ring in the hopes of winning his favour and his endorsement.

The House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was one of the first to make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago – dubbed the Maga capital – in January last year. McCarthy had initially vigorously defended Trump’s claim that the election was stolen, then, in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol building, changed tack, saying that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, before backtracking and saying that Trump did not initiate the resurrection.

McCarthy was followed in close order by the Georgia congresswoman and conspiracy-theorist-in-chief Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose unflagging loyalty has been rewarded with Trump endorsing her as “a very special person”, and the Texas senator Ted Cruz – magnanimously overlooking how in the the run-up to the 2016 election Trump had insulted the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and peddled a conspiracy theory linking his father, Rafael, to the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 – who in May tweeted a smiling picture of his meeting with Trump. (“Had a great dinner tonight with President Trump... He’s in great spirits!”)

“To draw Trump’s ire is to guarantee a primary that you will most likely lose,” says Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant, pollster, and pundit. “That’s the reason why Trump is so influential. People may hate him, but they’re afraid of him. And we have never had – and this goes back to Reagan – a Republican leader who is so willing to use his power and influence on the local state and national level.

“Reagan’s whole argument was telling Republicans the 11th commandment – do not attack each other. One third of the party actively agrees with him, one third of the party disagrees but is silent and afraid of him; and one third doesn’t know what to think. I see it in Primaries across the country – Republicans are more willing to trash each other than at any time in my lifetime. The gloves are off in every possible way. They will say the most insensitive, uncivil things to each other and think they’re justified because they’re following Trump’s behaviour.”

“The the most astonishing thing we’ve seen this year is this rapid rehabilitation of a man who left office in absolute disgrace, who was being roundly condemned by other Republicans, and now he remains by far the most powerful figure within the Republican party,” says Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College and the author of Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020.

“There are many Republicans who do not want to see him as the king or king-maker, but inadvertently have conspired to make him that by refusing to concert to aggressively and in unison condemn him. He remains by far the most popular figure among his voter base, and he’s been able to leverage that popularity to create the fear that any kind of opposition would be fatal to any Republican.”

Certainly Trump’s standing among Republicans remains formidably high. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in October found that he has an 86 per cent favourable rating and just a 10 per cent unfavourable rating among Republican adults; 78 per cent said they would like to see him run for president again, while only 16 per cent said they would not – an improvement in Trump’s ratings since May, when 66 per cent favoured a presidential run and 30 per cent did not. This to be set against another Quinnipiac poll published last week suggesting that Joe Biden’s approval rating has slumped to just 33 per cent, even lower than the 36 per cent approval rating for Trump at an equivalent point in his presidency.

Could Trump make another play for the presidency? - AFP
Could Trump make another play for the presidency? - AFP

“The tragedy for America,” Luntz says, “is that instead of trying to find the threads that bind us together, both sides are trying to find the knife to cut us apart. And we are seeing this every day in every possible way. We have a Covid crisis that is going to kill one million people within the next few months, and the two of them will still not appear together to tell people to get vaccinated. It’s not just a disgrace; it’s a crime against humanity.”

Trump’s popularity among his base has withstood the fact that he has been denied his most effective megaphone – and what sometimes appeared to be his main policy platform – social media.

He was permanently banned from Twitter in January 2020, following comments he made praising and appearing to encourage the assault on the Capitol; his Facebook and Instagram accounts were also suspended for two years, when “experts” will assess whether the “risk to public safety” of Trump’s pronouncements has receded and renewing his account considered. At the time of the ban, Trump’s social media presence was at an all-time high, with more than 88 million Twitter followers and 35 million on Facebook.

In May last year, in an attempt to circumvent the bans, and fight the perception of him as a spent force, Trump launched his own blog, ‘From the Desk of Donald J Trump’. A “place to speak freely and safely”, the pre-launch video trumpeted, “in a time of silence and lies”. It lasted just 29 days before closing down, with fewer than 2,000 shares to Facebook a day.

Having turned down lucrative offers to become a marquee name for the Right wing social media platforms Parler and Gettr, the so-called ‘cancel-free’ platform founded by his former aide Jason Miller, in October Trump announced the launch of his own social media platform, Truth Social, proclaiming that it would “stand up to the tyranny of big tech”. The site was projected to launch within the first three months of this year, but according to reports from those familiar with the site, it is likely to be delayed by several months, affecting Trump’s ability to influence the midterm elections.

“One might have predicted that Trump being denied these platforms would create a power vacuum within the Republican party and that those who do have access would step forward to try and take the mantle from the fallen king,” Douglas says. “But you just don’t see that. There are names out there – Ron De Santis, Chris Christie, Josh Hawley from Missouri, Ted Cruz – but no-one in the last year has stepped forward to challenge him. Basically there are no challengers.”

Among many Republicans, Trump’s insistence on dwelling on the past is seen as an impediment to the party making progress in the midterm elections this year, not least in respect of sowing the seeds of doubt in the electoral process could depress voter turnout. This is a point made by Rounds, who said: “If we simply look back and tell our people don’t vote because there’s cheating going on, then we’re going to put ourselves at a huge disadvantage.”

Taxed on the question earlier this week, in an interview with the public radio broadcaster NPR – hardly his natural constituency – Trump insisted that Rounds was “totally wrong” and continuing to question the vote was actually an advantage “because they’re going to do it again in 2022 and 24”.

Why then, he was asked, were Republicans in the Senate, like the Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Rounds’ statement, not standing behind him? “Because Mitch McConnell is a loser,” Trump replied (almost a glowing commendation compared with his description in April of McConnell as a “dumb son of a bitch”), going on to repeat his familiar refrain of voter fraud and corrupted count, before abruptly hanging up after nine minutes.

“America needed somebody like Donald Trump to wake up the country and give people a voice who had none,” Luntz says. “The rationale for the Trump campaign was legitimate and essential. But it became a cancer. There is nothing presidential about Donald Trump, there hasn’t been and there won’t be. We’ve never had a president so critical of his successor, so dismissive of the traditions of the office, but at the same time so willing to ignore criticism and speak up about the things he believes in.”

What he has not done in his first year out of office is to give any indication as to whether he intends to run in 2024.

“For a typical President, you have to get into the limelight in order to get power,” Douglas says. “For Trump it’s almost the opposite; he needs power in order to be in the limelight. He’s certainly not ideological, and he doesn’t have a political agenda as such. What he craves is the limelight.

“For Trump, everything is so intertwined with branding and money and being the source of all attention. He needs the presidency as his own vehicle of self-promotion and not really for any other person. I think it’s fair to say he will keep people guessing for as long as possible, because its a way of maintaining attention and freezing out anyone else who could possibly challenge him. So yes, I do think he will run again.”

Luntz adds: “He would win the Republican nomination, but would he win the election? Joe Biden is so unpopular and so is Kamala Harris... I never thought I would say this, because I didn’t believe it, but you cannot count Donald Trump out for 2024. That is how bad things are in America today.”

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