Donald Trump holds a fist up as he gives a speech. The USA flag waving in the background.

Comeback Kids: Could Donald Trump make a presidential comeback?

10 December 2023

City Lit Principal Mark Malcomson CBE shares his thoughts on the four US Presidents who have attempted a comeback.

The great American author, Mark Twain, riffed on an old saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

There has never been a President like Donald Trump, but more importantly there has never been a post-presidency like Donald Trump’s, and obviously it’s still work in progress.  As we enter election year in the US and Trump’s campaign in full swing, it is worth looking to history for any ‘rhymes’ or clues from history.

I think that four Presidents who have attempted a comeback deserve a look, each in a different era and in many ways very different characters. 

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If Joe Biden is the 46th President how many people have been President?

It’s not a trick question but there have only been 45 Presidents. The man who creates this anomaly is Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th President.  He was known as the “Hangman of Buffalo,” having stepped in whilst being a sheriff to execute a man when the official executioner lost his nerve, and also “His Obstinacy” due to his refusal to compromise his principles when it would be politically expedient to do so. His mantra was “A public office is a public trust,” and he had something of a meteoric rise becoming Mayor of Buffalo in 1881, Governor of New York in 1883 and then President in 1884. In 1888 he was beaten for re-election in the Electoral College by Benjamin Harrison, despite winning the popular vote. He returned to New York and practiced law before running a rematch against Harrison in 1892, this time winning. He is the only President to have two non-consecutive terms. Having become increasingly unpopular due to the financial crisis of 1893, he decided not to seek another term and rejected overtures to run again in 1904. 

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon goes down in history as the only President to resign from office under the threat of removal, however his resilience in getting to that office cannot be overlooked.  As the surprise choice as Eisenhower’s Vice President, he survived corruption allegations during the 1952 campaign and attempts to remove him from the ticket, thwarting them by turning things around in his famous televised Checkers Speech.  Eisenhower tried to persuade him to take a Cabinet role in 1956 and come off the ticket and again he resisted, knowing that the Vice President’s heartbeat away from the presidency was reliant on Eisenhower’s heart, which had already suffered a major attack the year before.  He ran for President in 1960, being beaten by John Kennedy by a very small margin. 

He was back in 1962 with a half-hearted attempt to become Governor of California.  His dramatic loss led to a petulant election night press conference outburst saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”  His apparent exit from politics didn’t last long and he was a campaigning for Republican candidates across the country in the 1966 mid-terms in anticipation of running for President again in 1968.  He overcame a strong field including Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination and went on to narrowly beat Hubert Humphrey, finally achieving his goal of becoming President.  His re-election in 1972 was a triumph, winning 49 out of 50 states.  Then it all unravelled, and within months Watergate and its cover up destroyed his presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was yet another Governor of New York to achieve the presidency.  Incredibly dynamic, as Governor, he made powerful enemies in his own party rooting out patronage and corruption.  The novel solution they came up with was to ensure he became William McKinley’s Vice President for his second term, therefore removing him to a non-job.  This backfired spectacularly, when soon after their election, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became the youngest President in history. In a hyperactive presidency, Roosevelt redefined the role in an activist way that has never seen before, winning the election in his own right by a landslide in 1904.  Despite the fact he could have easily won re-election, he stood down in 1909, having anointed as his successor his great friend William Taft and promptly left for a safari in Africa.  He returned to find his successor had taken his own path, much to Roosevelt’s annoyance.  It wasn’t long before he challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, eventually losing at the party convention in Chicago.  Not willing to give up, he founded the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party and ran one of the most successful third-party interventions in US history, including being shot in the chest at a rally in Milwaukee but insisting on finishing his speech before going to hospital.  Despite that, he only managed to split the Republican vote and allow Woodrow Wilson to win an Electoral College landslide.  He was offered the Progressive nomination again in 1916 but refused it and eventually died in early 1919, with some people still wondering whether he would run in 1920.

President Richard Nixon
President Theodore Roosevelt

Andrew Jackson

Behind Donald Trump in many of his White House photographs is the portrait of President Andrew Jackson.  A hugely colourful character, Jackson fought the 1824 election and easily outpolled his adversaries John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Henry Clay in the popular vote.  He also topped the Electoral College vote, but not by a majority. As a result the election was thrown into the House of Representative where Clay’s supporters were encouraged to support the runner up Adams, giving him the presidency.  Jackson was furious and when Clay was appointed as Secretary of State by Adams, Jackson railed against the “Corrupt Bargain,” and almost immediately started to campaign for the next election. Adams’ presidency was underwhelming and Jackson easily won the rematch in 1828 and also a second term.  His popularity was transferred to his Vice President, Martin Van Buren, one of only two Vice Presidents to win an election straight from the VP role.

So what can we learn from history’s rhymes?

Trump will be pleased to know that comebacks do happen, although there are many examples of others who have failed.   Grievance is a huge motivating force and provides a narrative, and Trump has been laying that ground since the beginning. The grievance of a stolen election, true or not, is probably the best grievance of all.  Determination, focus and keeping front of mind is important, as it is easy to fade into the distant memory.  Al Gore and Hillary Clinton both failed to turn an election loss, after winning the popular vote, into a resurrectionist cause.  A lacklustre successor also makes it easier to create a cause. Neither William Harrison’s or John Quincy Adams’ presidencies created a powerful narrative, and it is worth asking ourselves where does Joe Biden sit in this?

For those who despair of the return of Trump, if you believe he ever went away, there is a also a lot to be hopeful for.  Trump has never won the popular vote in either of the previous elections and despite the huge support he has with the majority of Republican voters, that has never translated into reaching out beyond them.  The next two years will tell us where this story ends.

About the Author

Mark Malcomson CBE

Mark is the Principal of City Lit, having previously been the Director of Executive Education at London Business School and President of the New York Institute of Finance. He teaches American history and politics at City Lit, concentrating on the lives of Presidents, as well as how the US political system and institutions work. He has lived and worked in both New York and Chicago, is married to an American and visits regularly. Mark possesses a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh; a Diploma in Legal Practice from the University of Strathclyde; and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Kent. Mark was recognised in the 2017 Queen’s New Year’s Honours as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to adult education.