COLUMBIA, South Carolina – The second floor of the South Carolina Statehouse is a study in profound historical contradictions. A full plaque engraved with the state’s resolution to secede from the Union in 1860 faces a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune. A statue of John C. Calhoun stands steps away from where Nikki Haley announced Tim Scott would be the first black senator since Reconstruction and where, years later, she finally removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.
It’s also where Donald Trump has tried to define himself as both an incumbent and a rebel while being neither.
In the first public event since announcing his 2024 presidential campaign, the former president struggled to achieve the synthesis of the anti-establishment impulses that helped him win the presidency in 2016 or the air of total control and inevitability that led him to avoid any serious major challenge in 2020 despite colossal mid-term losses and the first of what would be two impeachments.
Introducing Trump, first term Representative Russell Fry said, “Never before in the history of the South Carolina primary has a presidential candidate received so much support so early in the day.”
More than a year before the primary, Trump unveiled support from the state governor, lieutenant governor, senior senator, and three of his six Republican congressmen. That would be an astounding endorsement lineup for a wayward candidate. When Trump was endorsed by then-Lt. Governor Henry McMaster in 2016, which single-handedly made national headlines. But Trump is no longer a political outsider: he is a former president. If he went to a state before his 2020 re-election bid in which half the congressional delegation had not shown, he would be considered weak.
The question is how to interpret the former president’s political strength at the moment. No defeated former president has launched a return bid since Grover Cleveland, who has been controversial for his support for lower tariffs than, say, the inspiration for an attack on the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election. Other Republicans, of course, see Trump as vulnerable. He’s been pointed out as he’s appeared in a space with such political significance for potential rivals like Nikki Haley or Tim Scott and while other potential rivals like Ron DeSantis are sniffing around.
Joe Wilson, a longtime Republican congressman in the state, told Vox that Trump was “much stronger” than he was in 2016, when he faced his last competitive primary election in Palmetto state. Wilson, who supported Trump, thought the former president had “a real edge” based on his record in the White House and cited what he “did for our country for jobs, for economic development, for security national, for the army, to the courts”.
The challenge is whether Trump can recapture the magic that helped propel his unprecedented 2016 presidential campaign this time around. His speech was a familiar mix of bellicose rhetoric from a hunchback and a series of Trumpian riffs in which he briefed attendees on topics such as the Taliban’s treatment of dogs and the fact that he, a millionaire real estate developer, is not much of a cook.
He also exposed the contradictions of his campaign. He began with a denunciation of “RINOs” while standing next to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a comparative moderate in the modern Republican Party—the kind of Republican Trump he needs to win the nomination again. Graham was later criticized by the crowd because he did not accept Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. Trump continued to denounce electric cars alongside McMaster, who pushed for the South Carolina auto industry to become a center of production of electric vehicles.
Earlier in the day, Trump spoke at the New Hampshire state GOP convention. There, the former president sought to bolster his commitment to the race after not campaigning publicly for months, telling the crowd, “I’m angrier now and I’m busier now than I’ve ever been,” in the course of a Trump stemwinder of the kind the former president frequently delivered in 2016.
The question is how busy he will be over the nearly two years remaining in the 2024 campaign. No longer is the former president the TV personality who can freely drop bombs at everyone from elected officials to Rosie O’Donnell, based on his state soul and the promise that his much-touted real estate expertise can solve all problems.
But neither is he the almighty president of the United States with all the resources he provides. Trump is trapped somewhere in between with no yardstick to gauge how he’s doing or precedent to put it into perspective. Instead, he has to navigate a maze of contradictions where it’s hard to tell what Trump is or how he fits in, except, of course, that no one is confusing him with Grover Cleveland.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event January 28 in Columbia, South Carolina. Win McNamee/Getty Images
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