A Defiant Donald Trump Enters the Arena for Another Fight

11 minute read

Donald Trump stood alone on a long stage in the white-and-gold ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, hands gripping both sides of the lectern, head tilted to one side. An aide had slapped the freshly minted blue sign onto the stand shortly before he took the stage: TRUMP. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! 2024.

“This is an elegant night, an elegant place,” Trump reflected, face arranged in a disapproving frown. Too elegant, he hinted, for the vulgar things he might have liked to say, the things he was really thinking. “I am not going to use the word fake news,” he said. “We’re going to keep it very elegant.”

Say what you will about Donald Trump, the man is not a quitter, even when nearly everyone might wish him to be. His advisers had counseled him not to make this speech—not while his party was still licking its wounds from the last disappointing election, not while the GOP was still trying to win one last Senate runoff in Georgia. So eager was Trump to be a candidate again that he nearly pulled the trigger before last Tuesday’s midterms. The sun had long since set by the time he took the stage, palm fronds waving invisibly in the humid dark outside the Florida-rococo auditorium, to make his anticlimactic announcement: that he would seek the presidency for the third time.

Read More: How Donald Trump’s Control Over the GOP Became a Hostage Situation

He did so with an air of joyless near-resignation, jaw clenched, glaring at the teleprompters as if they’d done him some unforgivable wrong. Just two years after he’d departed the White House, the country, he said, was in terrible shape. “Under our leadership, we were a great and glorious nation—something you haven’t heard for a long period of time,” he said. At times he seemed not to be paying close attention to the words he reeled off in his singsongy prompter voice, as when he claimed that, as president, he’d gone “decades” without being involved in any wars. (Trump was president for four years, and he did not succeed in ending the war in Afghanistan.)

He did so in near-isolation: though the ballroom was filled with the usual Trumpian menagerie of sycophants and hangers on, from the “Front Row Joes” who camp out at his rallies to former senior White House officials; the only sitting member of Congress to be seen was Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who lost his primary and moved out of the Capitol months ago. Even Trump superfan Matt Gaetz, the rabble-rousing Florida congressman, decided at the last minute not to show, citing weather conditions apparent to no one else. Melania Trump came out with her husband, looking resort-chic in a polka-dot blouse, but she stood offstage while he spoke. After Trump finished his speech, his daughter Ivanka issued a statement declaring she would not be part of the new campaign.

A crowd of supporters attend as former U.S. President Donald Trump announces that he will once again run for U.S. president in the 2024 U.S. presidential election during an event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Nov.15, 2022.
A crowd of supporters attend as former U.S. President Donald Trump announces that he will once again run for U.S. president in the 2024 U.S. presidential election during an event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Nov. 15, 2022.Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

He did so a week after an election that had called his standing as god-emperor of the Republican Party into question like never before. The much-anticipated red wave failed to materialize. Democrats kept the Senate and nearly held onto the House, and many Republicans were blaming Trump, whose handpicked oddballs had been spurned by voters otherwise eager for change. From conservative media to the House and Senate, even once-sympathetic Republicans were lining up to call him a loser and openly soliciting new leadership.

Trump, as he always has, stood defiant, one man against the world. The establishment could wish all it wanted that he would disappear, but he’d never consent to that. Outside the ballroom, the world was falling apart on multiple levels. With the GOP and Twitter and crypto all imploding at once, a cosmic reshuffling seemed under way. These are the moments Trump has always seized: the every-man-for-himself times, the instances of maximum chaos and disarray, the points at which sensible people run for shelter—the moments when a leader is needed.

He came offering the same thing he always has: defiance, hostility, omnidirectional oppositionalism. Once, this was shocking and new, something no one had ever seen before. Once, America was so desperate for something different that even crazy seemed worth giving a chance. In retrospect, those were innocent, boring, indulgent times. We’re in a different mood now: “People are tired of hating each other, of fighting nonstop,” a former high-ranking Republican official told me, sounding simultaneously vexed and hopeful.

But Trump is betting there are enough people who still crave his crazed appeal. “I didn’t need this,” he mused. “I had a very nice, easy life. This is something I didn’t need. A lot of you people don’t either! But,” he said, “we love our country.”

Trump has his own explanation for what happened in the midterms: things haven’t gotten bad enough. The Biden administration is a catastrophe, but a slow-moving one that has yet to fully manifest in many people’s consciousness.

“Much criticism is being placed on the fact that the Republican Party should have done better, and frankly, much of this blame is correct,” Trump said. “But the citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through. The total effect of the suffering is just starting to take hold. They don’t quite feel it yet. They will very soon. I have no doubt that by 2024, it will sadly be much worse, and they will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country, and the voting will be much different.”

Yet the Americans who voted a week ago did not seem to be under any illusions about how well things are going. A huge majority told exit pollsters they thought the country was on the wrong track. They dislike the current president, they distrust his management of the economy and public safety, they fear for the future. They just did not see Trump’s merry band of reality-resistant nutjobs as an acceptable alternative.

Read More: How Democrats Defied History in the Midterms—And What It Means for 2024

Many otherwise Trump-tolerant Republicans cannot abide losing and are ready to move on. “He handpicked a number of candidates that proved not to be competitive, and Republicans lost a number of races that, had he not gotten involved, we probably would have won,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, pointing to Pennsylvania, Arizona, and New Hampshire as examples. “He’s trying to make a party in his own image, but politics is about coalitions. He doesn’t play well in the sandbox.”

In the hours before Trump spoke, his party was in meltdown mode on Capitol Hill. A week after Election Day, the House GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy, finally saw the majority within his grasp, and was nominated for speaker by his caucus on Tuesday afternoon. But he received only 188 votes of the 218 he will need on the floor in January, facing a burbling conservative insurgency that it’s not clear he knows how to tame. In the Senate, meanwhile, GOP leader Mitch McConnell, doomed to remain in the minority, faces a challenge from Senator Rick Scott of Florida that seems unlikely to succeed but will further divide the party’s usually cohesive ranks.

Trump, too, faces new challenges. The name on every Republican’s lips is Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose 20-point landslide last week was a rare highlight for the beleaguered GOP. The New York Post called him “DeFuture.” Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming called him “the current leader of the Republican Party.” After the election, Trump released a statement tearing into DeSantis, whom he calls “DeSanctimonious,” as “average.” And later he issued an unprovoked racist broadside against Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin for good measure. In Tuesday’s speech, Trump didn’t mention any of his potential rivals.

Trump has one obvious advantage over his opponents for the nomination: his army—the hard-core base that would follow him to the ends of the earth, that would even try to overthrow the government if he told them to do it for him. But even that may not last: several new polls show him behind DeSantis among Republican primary voters. In one, a national survey of Republican primary voters conducted after Election Day by the nonpartisan communications firm Seven Letter Insight, DeSantis was the first choice of 34%, ahead of Trump’s 26%. That same poll found that 67% of all voters, including 40% of Republicans, think Trump should not run in 2024. Too late.

Trump has something else his competitors don’t: his sheer recklessness, his willingness to do or say anything, to destroy anything or anyone in his path to get what he wants. Now he is running again, and to get into the arena, they must get into it with him. He is, once again, the axel around which everything turns.

Trump’s advisers are telling reporters that this campaign will be “lean,” a slimmed-down, back-to-basics undertaking, more like the wing-and-a-prayer effort of 2016 than the long presidential slog of 2020. As in 2016, Trump wouldn’t have to be most voters’ favorite candidate to win the party nomination. A fractured field could divide the vote and allow him to win with pluralities.

His rivals face a conundrum: if they hit back at him, they risk lowering themselves to his level; if they take the high road, they risk leaving him unscathed. His 2016 competitors made both of these mistakes, which suggests there is no right or wrong way for Republicans to beat Trump; there is no way. His former vice president, Mike Pence, who was hounded by a murderous mob egged on by Trump on Jan. 6, released a memoir Tuesday lamenting Trump’s “reckless” conduct, adding to the pile-on that also includes multiple civil and criminal investigations. “I’m a victim,” Trump stopped to observe at one point, but he managed not to go off on one of his extended conspiratorial rants.

Read More: Pence Targets a Party Exhausted by Trump

Will this really be the end for Trump, after everything else that so many thought should have been but wasn’t? “I feel like there’s enough pent-up desire for Republicans to win that they’ll say, we can’t keep doing this over and over again,” says David Kochel, an Iowa-based veteran of multiple state and national GOP campaigns. “But something about Trump just understands how to bring people back to heel. It’s his superpower, I guess.”

In his protracted announcement speech, which all the cable networks had cut away from long before the hour mark, Trump hit many of the themes of his rallies but stayed more focused than usual on policy. He did not mention the stolen election, the “Unselect” Jan. 6 Committee, or the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court he forged—the other big factor stymieing the red wave that wasn’t. He focused on trade, China, nuclear weapons, and policing. “The blood-soaked streets of our once great cities are cesspools of violent crime,” he said, calling for the swift execution of drug dealers. Trump glowered sullenly throughout. He toggled confusingly between the supposedly golden era of his presidency, the miserable times before that (Obama), the mythical Before Time when America was Great, and the wretched current state of affairs, which he termed “the pause”—the miserable interregnum that would send the American electorate rushing back into his arms.

“From now until Election Day 2024, which will come very quickly—look how time flies!” Trump said, “I will fight like no one has ever fought before, and we will defeat the radical left Democrats trying to destroy our country from within.”

He is a wounded animal—the most dangerous kind. But for now, he has the field all to himself. If anyone else wants to compete, they will have to enter his arena.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Molly Ball/Palm Beach, Fla. at molly.ball@time.com