Given the scarcity of historical examples, it’s all but impossible to discern an overarching pattern. There is no single template that Trump can look to. But if history offers few clues as to the likely outcome of Trump’s comeback bid, it does lend some perspective on what motivates it. Why did ex-presidents — defeated presidents — stake their lasting reputations on what were usually longshot bids to return to power?
Whether Trump succeeds may depend on his own motivation in running. Will he do it for power? Out of boredom or regret? Or simply to spite the naysayers? The wounded presidential egos of the past might just be a window into the mind of the most polarizing politician of our time.
He Did It for Power
Martin Van Buren — a New Yorker, like Trump — bore many monikers. He was “the Little Magician,” the “Sly Fox,” the father of the American party system. Raised in upstate New York in a modest household, Van Buren honed his political skills early, working in his parent’s tavern, learning what made ordinary people tick. A quick study, he read for his law license and quickly emerged as a master of New York State’s factious state politics — a game that often hinged more on personal loyalties and patronage than on ideas or ideology.
As one of the architects of Andrew Jackson’s winning presidential campaign in 1828, Van Buren helped fashion what had been a loose and disparate coalition opposed to the outgoing administration of President John Quincy Adams into the Democratic party — the nation’s first modern political organization. Through a combination of federal jobs and patronage — the so-called “spoils system” — and a policy agenda that targeted banks and monied interests, he stitched together a lasting political coalition of farmers, urban craftsmen and laborers and a rising generation of immigrants, many of them Catholics from Germany and Ireland.
He was also a clever operator. The rest of Jackson’s cabinet snubbed War Secretary John Eaton, based on rumors that he first became romantically involved with his wife, Peggy, when she was still married to her first husband. Van Buren, then serving as Secretary of State, made a point of inviting the Eatons to several parties and appearing in public with them. John Eaton was a favorite of President Jackson, who never forgot the favor. The so-called Eaton Affair helped propel the Little Magician to the vice presidency and ensured that he would be Jackson’s hand-picked successor.
Then his luck ran out. The United States suffered a financial panic in 1837, just as Van Buren ascended to the presidency. Much like Trump, who faced a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Van Buren took office just on time for a full-fledged financial panic, which triggered a deeper recession. In 1840, Van Buren, now widely unpopular, lost his re-election bid against William Henry Harrison, a Whig.
In 1844, Van Buren attempted a political comeback, but a fiercely contested Democratic convention instead nominated James Polk of Tennessee, an ardent expansionist and proponent of slavery. Many of Van Buren’s supporters would nurse a long grudge against Southern Democrats for thwarting the Little Magician’s comeback bid.
Four years later, divisions within the party led a faction of New York Democrats — the so-called barn burners (named after the apocryphal Dutch farmer who burned his barn to the ground to rid it of rats) — to split away and back the Free Soil Party, a third-party organization founded in opposition to slavery’s expansion in the territories. They convinced a reluctant Van Buren to run as the coalition’s standard bearer.
Van Buren, who was generally indifferent about slavery, didn’t expect to win. But he did expect to strengthen the position of the New York Barnburners, of whom his son was a leader. His third-party bid was largely about reclaiming relevance and reordering power within the Democratic party.
In the end, he got just 10 percent of the vote and likely helped throw the presidential election to Zachary Taylor, a Whig. It was his last hurrah in politics.
No doubt Donald Trump intends to run and win. But like Van Buren, his candidacy, as well as the timing of his expected announcement, may have as much to do with retaining power within his own party as recapturing the White House. Several Trump-backed candidates lost in the midterms, raising questions about the longevity of his stranglehold on the GOP, and prospective 2024 rival Ron DeSantis is on the rise after winning his gubernatorial reelection by a wide margin.