🔒 From the FT: Don’t discount a Trump return in 2024 – Gillian Tett

“Remember, remember the fifth of November!” The traditional British chant echoes in a 21st-century twist as America anticipates its contentious presidential election on November 5, 2024. Despite legal challenges and divided public opinion, former President Donald Trump emerges as a formidable candidate. While obstacles abound, Trump’s energetic campaign and strategic organisation signal a potential comeback. With influential think tanks shaping policies on immigration, homelessness, and more, the stakes are high. Love or loathe him, underestimating Trump’s political prowess could prove a perilous oversight in the unfolding drama of the 2024 election.

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Do not discount the chance of a Trump return

By Gillian Tett of the Financial Times

The former president’s team is running a slicker operation than in 2016

“Remember, remember the fifth of November! Gunpowder, treason and plot.” Thus goes the traditional ditty that British children (such as myself) have chanted in past Novembers, in memory of Guy Fawkes, the rebel who tried to blow up the British parliament back in 1605.

These days, however, those words carry a 21st-century twist: on November 5 2024, America will stage its next — contentious — presidential election. 

And with the countdown under way, there are two key points to understand. First: notwithstanding the drama around the administration of former president Donald Trump — and his own attempted insurrection on January 6 2021 after he lost the previous election — it would be foolish to discount the chance of his return.

National polls currently suggest that Trump is neck-and-neck with Joe Biden in voter support, and that he eclipses the president in almost all the key swing states. This latter finding matters enormously, given the nature of presidential races.

The good news (for people like me, who do not support Trump) is that US electoral history shows early polls can sometimes be wrong; Barack Obama, for instance, was also deemed to be losing before the vote; he went on to prove the polls wrong.

And Trump faces big obstacles. He is embroiled in myriad legal charges that could put him in prison; Wall Street donors are rallying around Nikki Haley, his Republican rival; and influential Democrats, such as David Axelrod, have suggested replacing Biden with a younger candidate to attract more voter support. That November 5 plotline could yet change completely.

But the bad news is that it is clear Trump currently dominates the Republican primary race — and retains his rhetorical, populist energy. In the past week alone, I have received no fewer than 67 emails from the “Donald J. Trump for President” campaign, with subject lines such as “The People versus tyranny”, “Another [legal] case dismissed!”, “Crooked Joe hates to see this” and “Victory over Soros!”

This deluge might horrify many, particularly since some of it has fascistic tones. But I suspect it is catnip for those American voters who hate the elite and/or are struggling. Equally alarming is a recent FT poll which says that just 14 per cent of voters think Biden has improved their life.

The second key point to bear in mind is that if Trump is the 2024 Republican candidate, he will be much better organised than before. This might not seem obvious to onlookers; as the journalist Jonathan Karl describes in a trenchant book, Tired of Winning, the launch of his 2024 campaign last year had few heavyweights in attendance.

And Trump’s 2016 campaign was chaotic. I remember it well: at his election night party in Manhattan, his acolytes seemed so stunned by the unexpected result that people wandered in with no security checks. When I later visited Trump in the White House in 2017, his team was still so green they did not even know how to use the visitor booking system.

But this time is different. In 2017, Trump’s group had such a thin bench that they staffed the cabinet by pulling in establishment figures such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson and HR McMaster.

Most of those are unlikely to return. (The one notable exception, I am told, is Steven Mnuchin, former Treasury secretary; he might well come back. If so, this will offer a modicum of comfort for investors, given that Trump previously delegated much of the economic and financial policymaking to Mnuchin — and he was viewed as a safe-ish pair of hands by Wall Street.)

But if he does win a second term, Trump would almost certainly turn to less mainstream figures to staff his cabinet. In stark contrast to 2016, his loyalists are already preparing for this. Most notably, two Washington-based think-tanks — Heritage and the America First Policy Institute — are each racing to develop putative transition teams and policies. Heritage, say, has published a 900-plus page plan under the “Project 2025” tag.

These two groups are both competing and collaborating, sometimes in messy ways. But their influence can be seen on Trump’s Agenda47 website, which features policy pledges such as plans to deport immigrants, create tent cities for the homeless, reshore the pharmaceutical industry to America, kick out anti-Trump bureaucrats, impose more trade tariffs, cut energy prices, and so on.

The AFPI and Heritage teams are also creating lists of would-be staffers, based not just on skills but ideological sympathies too (ie whether they are loyal to Trump on social media). The aim is to install a “pre-vetted, pro-Trump army of up to 54,000 loyalists across government”, according to Axios. Meanwhile, officials are preparing legal tools to reverse Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and expel bureaucrats they dislike from office (via a so-called Schedule F process) — to name but a few potential mechanisms. 

This could turn out to be a complete waste of their time. But the key point is this: whether you loathe or love Trump, do not underestimate him. He really could win in 2024. Until then, anyone watching, living or investing in the US should watch that Agenda47 website. Especially if it leaves you horrified — and worrying about new variants of “treason and plot”.

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