Well before President Trump faces the voters for re-election, the political conversation has turned to consider how deeply his influence will continue to be felt after he leaves the White House. At The Atlantic, McKay Coppins paints a vivid portrait of palace intrigue, with Ivanka and Don Jr. maneuvering inside and out (respectively) for control of the MAGA empire to come.
The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein mulls the potential impact of the Trump post-presidential Twitter feed on Republican campaigns. National Journal columnist Josh Kraushaar observes that after the midterms and recent retirements, the remaining GOP officeholders increasingly bear the stamp of Trump-era politics.
The potential of a Trump political dynasty, or of the man himself continuing to loom over the political landscape like Oz the Great and Terrible, is certainly worthy of consideration. America has had its Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Gores, and Clintons, to name a few. Moreover, as our politics become less and less distinguishable from entertainment, it’s easy to imagine becoming absorbed in that soapy drama (Don Jr. versus Mike Pence in 2024?). But the politics of dynasty are less easy than they seem at first glance.
Klein glosses over his key observation: “A lot of this, of course, depends on his electoral performance. Getting reelected and having a successful second term would have significantly different implications for Trump’s legacy than losing in a landslide or eking out a victory and having a disastrous second term.”
It seems obvious that success is better than failure. But the hypothetical failure scenarios are not interesting because they are likely or unlikely. Rather, the failure scenarios are worth considering because they approximate what happened to the Bush dynasty.
George H. W. Bush, himself a senator’s son, went from an astronomical approval rating in the wake of the Gulf War to a humiliating re-election loss at the hands of Bill Clinton, who might not have even become the Democratic nominee but for bigger names being scared off by Bush 41’s popularity. The reasons for this one-term presidency are many; in this discussion, what matters is that Bush 41’s big loss did not end the Bush dynasty.
Instead, after eight years of the Clintons, the GOP returned to Bushworld. And George W. Bush’s presidency looks quite a bit like Klein’s second failure scenario. Bush 43’s post-9/11 popularity, along with other factors, got him re-elected with relatively narrow victories in Ohio, Iowa, and New Mexico.
Yet his conduct of the War on Terror, his perceived incompetence in response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis in 2008 all left a bad aftertaste in voters’ mouths. And it is often said that the disenchantment with Bush 43’s administration set the stage for Jeb Bush’s fall and Donald Trump’s rise in 2016.
The lesson here is not that one type of failure is worse for a political dynasty than another. The lesson is that political coalitions are always evolving, and political parties with them. Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge of Bush 41 was unsuccessful because the populist constituency within the GOP then was simply not large or passionate enough to unseat a sitting president. During the neoliberal Clinton years, only the independent H. Ross Perot challenged the bipartisan consensus on issues like trade.
In contrast, Trump, who once dabbled in third-party politics, came to understand it would be easier to commandeer a major party. The financial crisis had only accelerated the decline of trust in institutions, including party establishments. As a result, he could be the vessel for the economic and cultural anxieties of blue-collar white voters who had been steadily migrating to the Republican Party for decades.
So long as these macro-trends hold, the case for a Trump dynasty or lingering Trump influence is stronger. But the current state of the Bush dynasty is a lesson that all politicians ultimately have to work with a changeable electorate.
The fragility of dynastic politics can even be seen when a presidency ends well. Barack Obama left office with a 57 percent job approval rating and remains highly popular within the Democratic Party. Had Michelle Obama entered the primary campaign before Joe Biden, she might be walking off with the 2020 nomination today. (She might walk off with it were she to enter the race now, although I have no expectation she will do so.)
Without Michelle in the race, Democrats—or at least the party’s elites—seem anxious to move on from the Obama era. Paradoxically, the same elites seem to believe they can move beyond Obama by relying on his coalition, which they have not been able to replicate, in part because they misunderstand it and how voters reacted to his administration.
The appeal of dynastic politics is the idea that someone has come up with a winning formula. Yet it remains true that presidents must forge their own coalitions. George W. Bush managed it; Ted Kennedy, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore, Jr. had to settle for less.
The Trump family knows as much or more than anyone about the value of branding, but Ivanka and Don Jr. would run different campaigns and likely attract different coalitions of voters. The candidate ultimately matters.